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California Coast RV Road Trip

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It’s time to make a journey and the destination this time is called Orlando, a space full of fun that attracts millions of people during the whole year due to it’s famous parks, places like Disney World, Universal Studio or the Cabo Discovery will keep you busy all day long. Start by looking for a More »

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‘Vomit Comet’ roller coaster could bring weightless thrills to Earth

An artist’s depiction of the zero-gravity roller coaster “Vomit Comet” as envisioned by the design company BRC Imagination Arts.

Think about the tallest, wildest roller coaster you’ve ever been on. If a Southern California design firm has its way, you haven’t felt anything yet.

BRC Imagination Arts is proposing a “zero gravity” roller coaster that would give thrill seekers a stomach-churning ride including at least eight seconds of microgravity.

The proposed ride takes cues from NASA’s KC-135A aircraft, which was used to train astronauts and test equipment for spaceflight. The aircraft, nicknamed “the Vomit Comet,” flew specific flight paths to mimic various states of microgravity.

The KC-135A could fly a series of large parabolic arcs, allowing passengers to experience about 25 seconds of microgravity at the top. Elsewhere along the flight, the aircraft could give the sensation of approximately two times the force of gravity on Earth. Instead of following parabolas, the BRC ride — first reported by Popular Science — would accelerate people on a flat path parallel to the ground, then shoot them straight upward. As their enclosed vehicle approached the top of a tall tower, passengers would experience a floating sensation for about eight seconds.

“The configuration would look something like the coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California called ‘Superman: Escape from Krypton,’ but BRC’s Vomit Comet will be much taller and would create a completely different experience,” Bob Rogers, BRC’s founder and chief creative officer, said in a statement provided to SPACE.com. [6 Things that Happen Strangely in Space]

While conventional roller coasters involve open-air seating, the capsule used in BRC’s Vomit Comet will be completely enclosed. This will enhance the thrill, Rogers said, since riders will not be able to gauge their own movement against fixed objects or the horizon.

“The sensation is a bit like being in an enclosed room while someone fiddles with the gravity switch, turning it back and forth, between one-g, zero-g and double gravity,” he said.

A wild ride
The system would operate similarly to other high-acceleration roller coasters, but more-sophisticated controls would ensure the proper amount of acceleration and deceleration to achieve the sensation of microgravity, BRC officials said.

Rogers did not disclose the exact speed of the Vomit Comet, but the company has said the enclosed capsule will accelerate to faster than 100 mph, then turn and race straight up along the track. When it reaches the correct speed, the capsule will slow very slightly, and passengers will feel themselves levitating away from their seats.

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It will be as if the riders had been tossed in the air and the capsule was simply flying with them, BRC officials said. As the speeds slow, the vehicle will then take the passengers down the track — only it won’t seem as if they are falling, since they won’t be able to see outside the capsule.

At the right moment in the deceleration, the riders will be pulled back into their seats as they experience the switch from microgravity to 2Gs, or double Earth’s regular gravity. [ Video: Astronaut Describes a Rocket Ride ]

BRC is aiming to give riders eight seconds of microgravity and possibly more, depending on the weight of the vehicle, the cost, and the engineering specifications. And while some may say that sounds too brief, Rogers insists the experience will be well worth it.

“I was privileged to ride the real KC-135A, and microgravity is one of the most astonishing, amazing sensations you will ever feel,” Rogers said. “Eight seconds of it will feel like forever.”

BRC estimates that it will cost $40 million to $60 million to develop the Vomit Comet, and the high price tag is largely because of how precise the ride has to be. In fact, since the weight of the passengers will vary with each ride, the capsule must be weighed and the “flight” recalculated prior to each launch.

During the ride, these calculations will be adjusted in real time to give riders the longest possible experience of microgravity, BRC officials said.

More than a theme park attraction
But it won’t be all fun and games.

While the Vomit Comet would be primarily for entertainment, Rogers can foresee scientific and research applications. Experiment time on NASA’s KC-135A, or other planned suborbital vehicles, is expensive and can sometimes involve a lengthy testing and approval process, he noted.  

“Provided your experiment is neither toxic nor explosive, you should be able to take your experiment aboard almost any evening on a couple hours’ notice,” Rogers said. “As a result, what started as a theme park ride could very quickly evolve into a very real and useful NASA research facility. Imagine this: Real microgravity is now available for grade-school science projects!”

Passengers also might be allowed to try fun, safe “zero gravity” experiments during the ride, such as seeing how microgravity affects a small rubber ball, piece of string, or even a cup of water.

“Liquids are amazing in zero gravity,” Rogers said. “When gravity is removed, surface tension becomes the most powerful influence and the water spontaneously forms balls which undulate and float like suspended water balloons – or at least they float until you go back into 2G, and then they just might splash in your face. No ordinary roller coaster can do that.”

BRC stresses that safety will be paramount in the design of the Vomit Comet.

Passengers will enter the capsule much as they enter an airplane, and the design of the seats is  expected to be similar to an airliner’s. 

So is “Vomit Comet” just a playful nickname, or will the ride be as stomach-flipping as it sounds? Either way, Rogers and BRC are going to be prepared.

“All the angle changes would only be variations of one axis: pitch,” Rogers said. “These are sensations that normally cause air sickness or sea sickness. Perhaps someone might become nauseous due to nervousness or excitement, but for that, each seat is equipped with what the astronauts call an ’emesis management system.'”

Said another way, each seat will conveniently have a white paper bag. Just in case, right?

You can follow SPACE.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter@denisechow. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Price for hiking in US forests is under review

For years, hikers across the country have had to pay a fee to park at U.S. Forest Service sites and trail heads. A federal court last month called into question parts of the fee structure, but the service on Thursday emphasized that while the program has been under review the fees remain in place — at least for now.

“Visitors to national forests should continue expect to pay the established recreation fees that are currently in place,” the Forest Service said in a statement. “The U.S. Forest Service has charged user fees since 1965 and, since the mid-1990s, more than 90 percent of those fees have been used for improvements to the areas where the fees have been collected.”

A federal court last month concluded that parking fees in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona were improper and ordered a lower court to review its ruling. 

Live Poll

Should hikers pay fees to use Forest Service sites?

The fees are $5 for a daily vehicle pass or $30 for an annual one.

Some hikers have accepted the fees as a way to maintain trails, while others complain that the federal government should fund those services as it had in the past. The debate has gone on for years at online forums like nwhikers.net.

The Forest Service said it is reviewing the court order but that in the meantime would continue to collect fees as well as continue a review that began two years ago.

That review last January led to preliminary proposals whereby “26 national forest areas will still require visitor fees, down from the current 90 areas nationwide,” the service stated.

The Los Angeles Times reported that proposed changes include charging for use only at some busy sites that have six specific amenities that require maintenance — among them toilets, interpretive signs, trash cans and picnic tables.

Service spokesman Larry Chambers told msnbc.com that the proposals would limit fees to a “much smaller area … essentially just around the specific site where the amenities are offered.”

The service said it expects to have a final decision after this fall and that public comment will be sought during that time.

Some $60 million in fees were collected across the national forest system last year. The service says most of the revenues are kept by the forests where they are raised in order to provide maintenance and improvements.

More content from msnbc.com and NBC News


Hike a national park without leaving home

Nature Valley/McCann Erickson

A virtual view on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park.

No doubt you’re familiar with Street View, the Google Maps technology that lets you travel along city streets via your computer or smartphone screen.

Now, for those looking to get off the pavement, there’s Trail View, a new program that lets you “walk” the trails of three national parks without taking a step.

Created by granola bar company Nature Valley, a longtime parks supporter, the virtual experience covers more than 300 miles of trails in the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone national parks. Pick a trail, hit Autoplay and the surrounding scene shifts as you move down the trail. Users can also pan 360 degrees at any point by clicking and dragging the cursor.

“They were really thinking outside the box,” said Russ Hornbeck of the National Parks Conservation Association, who jokingly likened the technology to the View-Master 3-D viewers that were popular in the 1960s. (Nature Valley has partnered with NPCA on several projects and recently donated more than $400,000 to the group as part of its “Preserve the Parks” initiative, but NPCA wasn’t involved with the Trail Views project.)

“One of the ways people used to get encouraged to go to the national parks was by looking at those tremendous vistas on their viewers,” he told msnbc.com. “We think this will really resonate with people.”

Not surprisingly, creating the program required a bit more effort than synching up a pair of stereoscopic images. To get the footage, a team of 10 to 12 people spent two weeks in each park, hiking the trails and capturing the local scenery with a Dodeca 2360, a backpack-mounted camera that stitches together simultaneous feeds from 11 multi-directional lenses.

“The production team did every single mile, sometimes doubling back to get a particular point of interest,” said Leslie Sims, executive creative director at McCann Erickson, who helped haul the necessary gear — hard drives, extra batteries, five liters of water per person — at the Grand Canyon.

“We’d leave our hotel before the sun came up and log as many miles as we could before dark,” she said. “The production team was pretty hard on us — no one wanted to be the weak link.”

The result is an impressive compendium of vistas, trail details and other park information. The program can be a little glitchy — load times can be slow and image resolution during Autoplay was fuzzy — but such missteps fade when you’re “standing” in front of Rainbow Falls in the Smokies or atop Yellowstone’s Avalanche Peak.

Of course, you’re not really anywhere close to the sites themselves, but the people behind Trail Views see it as a way to introduce people to the parks, especially digitally savvy younger people who often use technology as a way to preview real-world experiences.

“It’s like what we do with iTunes,” said Scott Baldwin, associate marketing director for Nature Valley. “We buy a song digitally and then we go to the concert.”

According to Baldwin, a similar philosophy informs Trail Views, with, not surprisingly, the added impetus of supporting the parks.

“We know that when people get out in the parks, it inspires great memories and, in turn, inspires them to help preserve them,” he told msnbc.com. “If that means starting virtually, that’s great.”

Nearly 400 national parks can be found all across America, and feature breathtaking vistas, rock formations millions of years old, and more.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

Eco-tourism may be good news for sharks

Imagine swimming in crystalline ocean waters shot through with sunlight when one of Earth’s most notorious predators swims into view — a very close view.

Such pulse-quickening encounters are, in fact, the whole point for visitors to Tiger Beach, an idyllic spot in the Bahamas where eco-tourists can get up close and personal with tiger sharks — indiscriminate eaters known to devour everything from sea turtles to kegs of nails (and occasionally a few unlucky humans).

Yet it is by playing to the sharks’ voracious appetites that dive operators are able to lure them into view, courtesy of generous offerings of chum — minced fish.

However, some have argued that the free meals — and resulting close encounters between humans and sharks — could have bad consequences for both species.

Shark meal

“People are concerned that it could be causing sharks to associate people with food,” said shark researcher Neil Hammerschlag, an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Some worry that, like cartoon castaways eyeing each other hungrily in a boat, tiger sharks might, essentially, begin to see humans as giant pork chops with legs.

“Shark attacks are so very rare, so it’s really hard to draw conclusions,” Hammerschlag told OurAmazingPlanet.

Another concern, he said, and one that is easier to test, is that all the free food might disrupt the sharks’ natural wanderings, and artificially limit their movements to areas close to tourist sites. (Why go hunting out at sea when the bipeds regularly serve up snacks?)

Since sharks are apex predators — a bit like the Godfathers of the ecosystem — and keep potentially disruptive ecological usurpers in check, such a change could have negative effects.

“They help keep balance,” Hammerschlag said, “so if this really changes their behavior long term, it could have ecological consequences.”

Neither idea has been properly tested, he said. To that end, Hammerschlag, heading up a team of researchers, designed a study to investigate.

Shark testing

They used satellite tags attached to the sharks’ dorsal fins to track tiger sharks in areas where eco-tourism packages offer plenty of free food to the sharks — the Bahamas’ Tiger Beach — and an area where the practice is forbidden — Florida.

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All told, they tracked 11 Floridian tiger sharks and 10 Bahamian sharks, in near-real time, for spans of six months to almost a year. Hammerschlag said he expected the Bahamian sharks, with access to cushy meals, to travel far less than their Floridian counterparts.

“But, in fact, we found the opposite,” he said. The Florida tiger sharks traveled, at most, 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from their tagging site.

In contrast, “the tiger sharks from the Bahamas diving site moved massive distances,” Hammerschlag said. “Definitely that area was important, but they didn’t rely on it.”

Some swam as far as 2,175 miles (3,500 km) out into the middle of the Atlantic and spent seven months there. The researchers noted that the difference could be related to size: The Bahamian sharks are bigger, and bigger animals tend to travel larger distances.

Their research is published today (March 9) in the journal Functional Ecology.

Shark people

Hammerschlag said that the work indicates that eco-tourism, when done right, may not be all bad for sharks — crucial predators that are disappearing from oceans around the world, many falling victim to the lucrative and devastating shark-fin trade.

With proper policies, he suggested, people could continue to see economic benefit from sharks, but in a way that keeps the animals alive.

“In the Bahamas, they’ve encouraged shark diving because it’s good for the economy, and because of that they’re protecting sharks in their water,” he said — something that Florida policymakers might want to keep in mind.

“I would say that before we ban these things outright, we should do some research,” he said. “Rather than basing our decisions on fear, we should base them on fact.”

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.

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Yosemite: Fewer people should climb Half Dome

Yosemite National Park officials say lowering the number of permits to Half Dome is the best option for maintaining the wilderness character at the popular hiking spot.

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Officials recommended a 300-per-day limit in their draft of the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan released Tuesday, following years of study.

Last year, officials instituted a lottery system that allows 400 hikers per day to tackle the 400-foot ascent up the granite shoulder of the dome.

Before that, as many as 1,200 park visitors would attempt the popular hike each day, creating congested and dangerous conditions on the cables that provide handholds on the slick granite.

Public comment on the report will be accepted through March 15.

Other options on the table range from requiring no permits at all to removing the safety cables.

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