Archive for the ‘AP-Tech/Science’ Category

Cancer Treatment

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

A New Hope

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Cancer Treatment

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

More Harm than Good?

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Why the Higgs Boson is so important?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

 
The most hyped discovery of science in the human history (I bet not even the heliocentric theory was this hyped), also known as the Higgs Boson, is still hot topic a few days later. (more…)

WISE Women in Math and Sciences

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

 

 
As a woman in the field of biotechnology, I am blessed to see the contributions of some highly intelligent and successful women. (more…)

Houston museum unveils $85 million dinosaur hall

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/MICHAEL STRAVATO

HOUSTON (AP) — Pups in her womb, a large eye visible behind the rib cage, one baby stuck in the birth canal: all fossilized evidence that this ancient marine beast, the Ichthyosaur, died in childbirth.

Jurassic Mom’s almost certainly painful death is perfectly preserved in a rare fossil skeleton, one of the many unique items that will go on display in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s $85 million dinosaur hall when it opens to the public June 2. The Associated Press got a first peek at the exhibit as the finishing touches were put in place.

Paleontologists and scientists at the museum and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, S.D. have worked tirelessly for three years to collect, clean and preserve artifacts designed to give visitors a look at how life evolved beginning 25 billion years ago.

“You’ll actually be able to touch a fossil that’s 3.5 billion years old,” Robert Bakker, the museum’s curator of paleontology, says in a conspiratorial whisper. “A microbe, simpler than bacteria, which had in its DNA the kernel that would flower later on into dinosaurs, mammals, then us. That’s the beginning of the safari.”

His long white beard and locks bobbing with all-too-obvious excitement, Bakker raises his brows below his cowboy hat as he continues to describe the journey visitors will experience when they enter “The Prehistoric Safari,” expected to be among the top six dinosaur exhibits in the United States.

Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., who acted, along with Bakker, as an adviser on the Jurassic Park movie series, agreed there will be some unique and exclusive items on display in Houston, including Triceratops skin. But he said that to him, an object’s value is determined by science and should always be peer-reviewed before being displayed.

“Anybody can have stuff,” Horner said, adding that he is curious to see the scientific findings on the items displayed in Houston. “Opinions are cheap.”

All the Buzz About the Bees

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012


 
Around 2006 there was a noticeable decline in the population of the honey bee, enough so that it began to draw international attention. And understandably, (more…)

1st private cargo run to space station delayed

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The first commercial cargo run to the International Space Station has been delayed again for more software testing.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, was aiming for a Monday liftoff of its Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule. But on Wednesday, the California-based company announced its latest postponement and said a new launch date had not been set.

The test flight already is three months late.

The earliest possible launch date would be next Thursday. Otherwise, SpaceX will need to wait until the Russians send a new crew to the space station on May 15.

It will be the first time a private entity launches a supply ship to the space station. Only government space agencies currently do that.

First of 2 papers on lab-made bird flu published

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

NEW YORK (AP) — Four months ago the U.S. government sought to block publication of two studies about how scientists created an easily spread form of bird flu. Now a revised version of one paper is seeing the light of day with the government’s blessing.

The revision appears online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It’s the near-conclusion to a drama that pit efforts to learn how to thwart a global flu epidemic against concerns about helping terrorists create bioweapons. The second paper, which is more controversial because it involves what appears to be a more dangerous virus, is expected to be published later in the journal Science.

For some experts, the affair underscores a more basic question about whether creating potentially risky versions of bird flu is a good idea.

“Clearly, research like this can be beneficial” for dealing with the bird-flu threat, said Dr. Eric Toner of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s biosecurity center.

But there’s the question of calculating risk versus benefit, he said. “If we’re taking a highly lethal virus and making it more transmissible, it’s a tough judgment… These sorts of decisions should be made in advance of the research being done, not when the papers are ready for publication.”

The bird flu that has spread among poultry in Asia for several years now can be deadly, but it rarely sickens people. And people generally catch it from chickens and ducks, not from other people. Scientists have worried that as virus strains mix in nature, they could produce a deadly bird flu that transmits easily from one person to another. That could set the stage for a flu pandemic.

The new studies come from two teams of scientists, one in a U.S. lab and another in the Netherlands. They created virus strains that spread easily among ferrets, which were used as a stand-in for people. The researchers wanted to study what genetic mutations helped the virus spread. That way scientists could identify such red flags in wild viruses and act quickly to avoid potential pandemic, as well as test vaccine and drugs.

The journals Nature and Science each planned to publish one of the studies.

But the federal government, which funded the research, asked the scientists not to publish details of their work. Officials were worried that the full papers would give bioterrorists a blueprint for creating weapons. That led to a wide-ranging debate among scientists, many of whom argued that sharing details of such work is essential in fighting the threat of dangerous viruses.

Both teams eventually submitted revised versions of their research to a U.S. biosecurity panel. That group and, later, federal health officials agreed to support publication. For one thing, the panel said, it would be difficult for others to do harm using the data provided, and for another, scientists had good reasons for publishing the results.

NASA’s Dawn craft captures new images of asteroid

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Scientists analyzing the surface of a giant asteroid are puzzling over bright spots that represent some of the purest materials seen so far by a NASA spacecraft.

NASA on Wednesday released new images of the asteroid Vesta taken by the orbiting Dawn spacecraft that show some places on the surface twice as bright as others.

NASA considering space station for Mars dry run

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Paolo Nespoli

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The International Space Station may provide the setting for a 500-day pretend trip to Mars in another few years.

NASA said Tuesday that consideration is under way to use the space station as a dry run for a simulated trip to and from Mars.

It would be patterned after Russia’s mock flight to Mars that lasted 520 days at a Moscow research center. Six men were involved in that study, which ended late last year. They were locked in a steel capsule.

NASA’s space station program manager Mike Suffredini said before astronauts can fly beyond low-Earth orbit, they’ll have to spend more than six months aloft at a time. That’s the typical stint for space station crews. Five hundred days is more than 16 months.

The human endurance record of 14 months was set by a Russian cosmonaut aboard the Mir space station in the mid-1990s. Only two others – both Russians – have spent as long as a full year in space.

No NASA astronaut has spent more than seven months in space on a single mission.

Suffredini doesn’t expect any such Mars simulation aboard the space station to occur any sooner than two to three years. Physical as well as psychological questions will have to be addressed before anything of that sort is attempted, he said.

Branson says Kutcher is space line’s 500th client

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Jason Redmond

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — British billionaire Richard Branson said Monday his venture to launch paying tourists into space has netted its 500th customer, and it’s none other than Ashton Kutcher.

Branson made the announcement on his blog, saying he gave the actor a quick call to congratulate him.

“He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself,” Branson wrote.

A representative for Kutcher did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Kutcher is among dozens of Hollywood types, international entrepreneurs, scientists, space buffs and others who have made deposits to be among the first to reach the edge of the Earth on Branson’s Virgin Galactic space line.

Branson has said the aim is to one day make traveling to space safe and affordable for the masses, not just those who can afford the current $200,000 ticket price.

Virgin Galactic is in the final stages of its test flight program. The company will launch its spacecraft from Spaceport America, a specially designed terminal and runway built in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico.

The company plans to begin commercial operations next year. Branson said he and his children plan to be on the first commercial flight.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, congratulated Virgin Galactic on Monday for selling its 500th ticket. She said she’s looking forward to “the beginning of the commercial passenger space line industry.”

Instrument on Cassini craft working again

Monday, March 19th, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — An instrument aboard the international Cassini spacecraft is making measurements again after nine months offline.

NASA said Monday the plasma spectrometer, which measures the energy of electrons and protons, is back in business after engineers spent months troubleshooting the problem.

The instrument was turned off as a precaution last June after Cassini experienced fluctuating voltage. The spacecraft used its other instruments to study Saturn and its many moons even with the spectrometer out of service.

1st commercial cargo run to space station April 30

Monday, March 19th, 2012

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The International Space Station should be getting its first commercial cargo shipment in early May.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, plans to launch its Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral on April 30. The Dragon will take a few days to get to the space station.

The launch was delayed from February for additional testing.

It will be the first time a private company launches space station supplies. It will also be the first U.S. delivery since NASA’s space shuttles stopped flying last year. Unmanned cargo ships from Russia, Europe and Japan are filling the void.

Two-thirds of China’s cities fail on air standards

Friday, March 2nd, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

BEIJING (AP) — Two-thirds of China’s cities currently fail to meet stricter air quality standards that the government wants to phase in over four years to combat notoriously smoggy skies, a senior Chinese environmental official said Friday.

The State Council, China’s Cabinet, on Wednesday issued new limits on pollutants to go into effect nationwide by 2016. It also said major cities must launch programs this year to regularly monitor additional kinds of pollutants for the first time, including fine particles associated with health problems.

Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Wu Xiaoqing said Friday that the government estimates that two-thirds of Chinese cities currently do not meet the new standards, saying efforts to improve urban air quality will be “very hard work.”

Japan tsunami debris spreading across Pacific

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/MC3 Dylan McCord

HONOLULU (AP) — Lumber, boats and other debris ripped from Japanese coastal towns by tsunamis last year have spread across some 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of the northern Pacific, where they could wash ashore on the U.S. west coast as early as a year from now.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the first bits of tsunami debris will make landfall soon on small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Other pieces were expected to reach the coasts of Oregon, Washington state, Alaska and Canada between March 2013 and March 2014.

NOAA’s tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, told an online news conference Tuesday that agency workers were boarding Coast Guard flights that patrol the Hawaiian archipelago. NOAA also asked scientists stationed at Midway and other atolls to look for the debris.

Debris initially collected in a thick mass in the ocean after tsunamis dragged homes, boats, cars and other parts of daily life from coastal towns out to sea. Most likely sank not far from Japan’s eastern coast.

In September, a Russian training ship spotted a refrigerator, a television set and other appliances west of Hawaii. By now, the debris has likely drifted so far apart that only one object can be seen at a time, said Nikolai Maximenko, a University of Hawaii researcher and ocean currents expert.

One to 2 million tons of debris remain in the ocean, but only 1 to 5 percent of that could reach Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington state and Canada’s British Columbia, Maximenko said. The tsunamis generated a total of 20 million to 25 million tons of debris, including what was left on land.

Obama plan for spotted owl targets rival bird

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Don Ryan

WASHINGTON (AP) — To save the imperiled spotted owl, the Obama administration is moving forward with a controversial plan to shoot barred owls, a rival bird that has shoved its smaller cousin aside.

The plan is the latest federal attempt to protect the northern spotted owl, the passive, one-pound bird that sparked an epic battle over logging in the Pacific Northwest two decades ago.

The government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect the owl, but the bird’s population continues to decline – a 40 percent slide in 25 years.

A plan announced Tuesday would designate habitat considered critical for the bird’s survival, while allowing logging to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and to create jobs. Habitat loss and competition from barred owls are the biggest threats to the spotted owl.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the draft plan “a science-based approach to forestry that restores the health of our lands and wildlife and supports jobs and revenue for local communities.”

By removing selected barred owls and better managing forests, officials can give communities, foresters and land managers in three states important tools to promote healthier and more productive forests, Salazar said.

The new plan, which replaces a 2008 Bush administration plan that was tossed out in federal court, affects millions of acres of national, state and private forest land in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The plan to kill barred owls would not be the first time the federal government has authorized killing of one species to help another. California sea lions that feast on threatened salmon in the Columbia River have been killed in recent years after efforts to chase them away or scare them failed.

The U.S. Agriculture Department kills thousands of wild animals each year – mostly predators such as coyotes – to protect livestock. Other animals, including bears, wolves and raccoons also are killed through the program.

The latest plan for spotted owls was accompanied by a presidential memorandum directing Interior to take a number of steps before the plan is finalized, including providing clear direction for how logging can be conducted within areas designated as critical habitat and conducting an economic analysis at the same time critical habitat areas are proposed.

Officials acknowledge that the plan to kill barred owls creates an ethical dilemma, but say an experiment on private land in northern California has shown promising results. Spotted owls have returned to historic territories after barred owls were removed.

Salazar and other officials stressed the new plan’s job-creation component, noting that for the first time logging would be allowed in areas designated as critical habitat for the owl. Previous plans had prohibited logging in areas designated as critical habitat.

“Appropriate timber harvests consistent with ecological forestry principles (should) be encouraged,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

Poll: US belief in warming rises with thermometer

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans’ belief in global warming is on the rise, along with temperatures and surprising weather changes, according to a new university poll.

The survey by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College says 62 percent of those asked last December think the Earth is getting warmer. That’s up from 55 percent in the spring of that year and 58 percent in December 2010. It’s the highest proportion in two years.

Nearly half the people who say they believe in global warming base that on personal observations of the weather. Climate researchers say that’s reaching the correct conclusion for reasons that aren’t quite right.

When asked an open-ended question about why they thought the Earth was warming, one-quarter of those surveyed pointed to temperatures they experience and another quarter cited other weather changes. One in 7 mentioned melting glaciers and polar sea ice, and 1 in 8 noted media coverage. Only 8 percent mentioned scientific research.

“It seems to be driven by an increased connection that the public is making between what they see in terms of weather conditions and climate change,” said Chris Borick, the director Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

The poll was conducted from Dec. 4 to Dec. 21, after the U.S. experienced a record 14 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011, including killer tornadoes, an unusual northeastern hurricane, a devastating southwestern drought and floods along major rivers.

At the same time, this poll was done before the official start of winter, so people were not yet affected by what has been a mild season for many regions.

Borick said that after the previous two winters, which were quite snowy, belief in global warming dropped dramatically. So he says the findings from a fresh poll to be done in upcoming weeks may again reflect views based on the latest weather trend.

Climate scientists say daily local weather isn’t evidence of climate change. But they also say long-term climate change is so dramatic that people recognize and experience it.

Researchers probe 200-year-old shipwreck off RI

Thursday, February 9th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/David Klepper

WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) — For two centuries it rested a mile from shore, shrouded by a treacherous reef from the pleasure boaters and beachgoers who haunt New England’s southern coast.

Now, researchers from the U.S. Navy are hoping to confirm what the men who discovered the wreck believe: that the sunken ship off the coast of Rhode Island is the USS Revenge, commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry and lost on a stormy January day in 1811.

“The Revenge was forgotten, it became a footnote,” said Charlie Buffum, a brewery owner from Stonington, Conn., who found the shipwreck while diving with friend Craig Harger. “We are very confident this is it.”

On Wednesday, Buffum and Harger braved the raw weather of Block Island Sound to accompany the researchers as they surveyed the wreck site. The Navy – along with help from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – is using high-tech sensor equipment to map the site, a first step toward retrieving possible artifacts.

If they’re successful, they will illuminate a critical episode in the life of one of the nation’s greatest naval officers. Perry is remembered as the Hero of Lake Erie for defeating the British navy in the War of 1812. He was famous for reporting simply “we have met the enemy and they are ours” after the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.

Two years earlier, the Revenge and its 25-year-old commander were en route from Newport, R.I. to New London, Conn., when the ship hit a reef in heavy fog. The area is infamous for its rocky, tide-swept reefs that lurk just beneath shallow waters.

When the Revenge struck the reef, Perry ordered the crew to dump some of the ship’s cannons to lighten the load. The mast was cut. But it wasn’t enough to free the ship.

The crew abandoned the Revenge, and not a single man died. But Perry’s career was almost scuttled along with his ship.

The South Kingstown, R.I., native was court-martialed, and though he was exonerated, his career languished. Until he was posted to the Great Lakes.

“He was a rising star,” said David Skaggs, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University who has written a book on Perry. “But then his ship runs aground. Running a ship aground is not a helpful thing for your career.”

Harger and Buffum found the shipwreck six years ago after beer-fueled bull sessions in Buffum’s brewery. Both men were experienced recreational divers. Buffum was fascinated by Perry and by shipwrecks off the Rhode Island coast.

They obtained an underwater metal detector and calculated the Revenge’s likely resting place by analyzing currents and the location of the reef.

“We knew where he was going, we knew the area,” said Harger, of Colchester, Conn. “We sat around in Charlie’s brewery talking about where it might have gone.”

Groups sue over Navy sonar use off Northwest coast

Thursday, January 26th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Anonymous

SEATTLE (AP) — Conservationists and Native American tribes are suing over the Navy’s expanded use of sonar in training exercises off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts, saying the noise can harass and kill whales and other marine life.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups filed the lawsuit Thursday against the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying it was wrong to approve the Navy’s plan for the expanded training.

They said the regulators should have considered the effects repeated sonar use can have on those species over many years and also required certain restrictions on where the Navy could conduct sonar and other loud activities to protect orcas, humpbacks and other whales, as well as seals, sea lions and dolphins.

Instead, the Navy is required to look around and see if sea mammals are present before they conduct the training.

Kristen Boyles, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice, said it’s the job of the fisheries service to balance the needs of the Navy with measures to protect marine life.

“Nobody’s saying they shouldn’t train,” she said. “But it can’t be possible that it’s no-holds-barred, that there’s no place where this can’t happen.”

In 2010, the fisheries service approved the Navy’s five-year plan for operations in the Northwest Training Range Complex, an area roughly the size of California, about 126,000 nautical square miles, that stretches from the waters off Mendocino County in California to the Canadian border. The Navy has conducted exercises in the training range for 60 years, but in recent years proposed increased weapons testing and submarine training.

The groups want the permit granted to the Navy to be invalidated. They are asking the court to order the fisheries service to study the long-term effects of sonar on marine mammals, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Russia says its spacecraft may crash into Atlantic

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/STR

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s space agency has adjusted its forecast for the crash of a failed spacecraft, saying it may shower its fragments into the south Atlantic.

Roscosmos said the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe could plummet to Earth Sunday or Monday anywhere along a broad swath between 51.4 degrees north and 51.4 degrees south.

It said Friday that the mid-point in the two-day window would have the craft crashing into the ocean about 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of the coast of Chubut province in southern Argentina. It said the precise time and place of the uncontrolled plunge can only be clarified later as the probe draws closer to Earth.

Scientists say cut soot, methane to curb warming

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Toby Talbot

WASHINGTON (AP) — An international team of scientists says it’s figured out how to slow global warming in the short run and prevent millions of deaths from dirty air: Stop focusing so much on carbon dioxide.

They say the key is to reduce emissions of two powerful and fast-acting causes of global warming – methane and soot.

Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas and the one world leaders have spent the most time talking about controlling. Scientists say carbon dioxide from fossil fuels like coal and oil is a bigger overall cause of global warming, but reducing methane and soot offers quicker fixes.

Soot also is a big health problem, so dramatically cutting it with existing technology would save between 700,000 and 4.7 million lives each year, according to the team’s research published online Thursday in the journal Science. Since soot causes rainfall patterns to shift, reducing it would cut down on droughts in southern Europe and parts of Africa and ease monsoon problems in Asia, the study says.

Two dozen scientists from around the world ran computer models of 400 different existing pollution control measures and came up with 14 methods that attack methane and soot. The idea has been around for more than a decade and the same authors worked on a United Nations report last year, but this new study is far more comprehensive.

All 14 methods – capturing methane from landfills and coal mines, cleaning up cook stoves and diesel engines, and changing agriculture techniques for rice paddies and manure collection – are being used efficiently in many places, but aren’t universally adopted, said the study’s lead author, Drew Shindell of NASA.

If adopted more widely, the scientists calculate that would reduce projected global warming by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) by the year 2050. Without the measures, global average temperature is projected to rise nearly 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) in the next four decades. But controlling methane and soot, the increase is projected to be only 1.3 degrees (0.7 degrees Celsius). It also would increase annual yield of key crops worldwide by almost 150 million tons (135 million metric tons).

Methane comes from landfills, farms, drilling for natural gas, and coal mining. Soot, called black carbon by scientists, is a byproduct of burning and is a big problem with cook stoves using wood, dung and coal in developing countries and in some diesel fuels worldwide.

Reducing methane and black carbon isn’t the very best way to attack climate change, air pollution, or hunger, but reducing those chemicals are among the better ways and work simultaneously on all three problems, Shindell said.

And shifting the pollution focus doesn’t mean ignoring carbon dioxide. Shindell said: “The science says you really have to start on carbon dioxide even now to get the benefit in the distant future.”

It all comes down to basic chemistry. There’s far more carbon dioxide pollution than methane and soot pollution, but the last two are way more potent. Carbon dioxide also lasts in the atmosphere longer.

A 2007 Stanford University study calculated that carbon dioxide was the No. 1 cause of man-made global warming, accounting for 48 percent of the problem. Soot was second with 16 percent of the warming and methane was right behind at 14 percent.

But over a 20-year period, a molecule of methane or soot causes substantially more warming then a carbon dioxide molecule.

NASA questions Apollo 13 commander’s sale of list

Friday, January 6th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo

MIAMI (AP) — NASA is questioning whether Apollo 13 commander James Lovell has the right to sell a 70-page checklist from the flight that includes his handwritten calculations that were crucial in guiding the damaged spacecraft back to Earth.

The document was sold by Heritage Auctions in November for more than $388,000, some 15 times its initial list price. The checklist gained great fame as part of a key dramatic scene in the 1995 film “Apollo 13” in which actor Tom Hanks plays Lovell making the calculations.

After the sale, NASA contacted Heritage to ask whether Lovell had title to the checklist. Greg Rohan, president of Dallas-based Heritage, said Thursday the sale has been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. The checklist, he said, is being stored for now in the company’s vault.

Rohan said Lovell provided a signed affidavit that he had clear title to the ring-bound checklist, which is standard procedure. Heritage does robust business in space memorabilia and this is the first time NASA has ever raised questions about ownership of its items, he added.

“It’s one that is near and dear to our hearts,” Rohan said of the space collectibles business. “We, like a lot of people, consider these astronauts to be national heroes.”

The latest inquiry follows a federal lawsuit NASA filed last year in Miami against Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell seeking return of a camera he brought back from his 1971 moon mission. That lawsuit was settled in October when Mitchell agreed to give the camera to NASA, which in turn is donating it to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the lawsuit and Lovell inquiry do not represent an aggressive, broad new agency effort to recover space items.

“It’s a challenge to continually monitor the growing auctions community, which is usually how these items come to light,” he said in an email. “This latest issue demonstrates a need to reach out to former astronauts and other former agency personnel who may have these kind of items.”

Lovell, 83, lives near Chicago and owns a restaurant bearing his name in Lake Forest, Ill. In an email Friday to The Associated Press, the former astronaut said he is “seeking a meeting with NASA administration to clear up this misunderstanding.” He did not elaborate.

The Apollo 13 moon mission was aborted about 200,000 miles from Earth when an oxygen tank exploded on April 13, 1970, causing another tank to fail and seriously jeopardizing the three-man crew’s ability to return home. Astronaut Jack Swigert famously said “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” after the explosion.

The crew was forced to move from the command ship into the attached lunar landing module for the return flight. Lovell’s calculations on the checklist were key in transferring navigation data from the command craft to the lunar module.

NASA has raised questions about title rights for three other space items Heritage had sold in the same November auction. Two were from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart: a lunar module identification plate that brought more than $13,000 and a hand controller that received a $22,705 bid. The space agency also targeted a fourth item, a hand glove worn by Alan Shepard during training for Apollo 14, that brought more than $19,000.

In an email to Heritage, NASA Deputy Chief Counsel Donna M. Shafer said there was no indication the agency had ever transferred ownership of any of the items to the astronauts.

Now you see it, now you don’t: Time cloak created

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Heather Deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s one thing to make an object invisible, like Harry Potter’s mythical cloak. But scientists have made an entire event impossible to see. They have invented a time masker.

Think of it as an art heist that takes place before your eyes and surveillance cameras. You don’t see the thief strolling into the museum, taking the painting down or walking away, but he did. It’s not just that the thief is invisible – his whole activity is.

What scientists at Cornell University did was on a much smaller scale, both in terms of events and time. It happened so quickly that it’s not even a blink of an eye. Their time cloak lasts an incredibly tiny fraction of a fraction of a second. They hid an event for 40 trillionths of a second, according to a study appearing in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

We see events happening as light from them reaches our eyes. Usually it’s a continuous flow of light. In the new research, however, scientists were able to interrupt that flow for just an instant.

Other newly created invisibility cloaks fashioned by scientists move the light beams away in the traditional three dimensions. The Cornell team alters not where the light flows but how fast it moves, changing in the dimension of time, not space.

They tinkered with the speed of beams of light in a way that would make it appear to surveillance cameras or laser security beams that an event, such as an art heist, isn’t happening.

Another way to think of it is as if scientists edited or erased a split second of history. It’s as if you are watching a movie with a scene inserted that you don’t see or notice. It’s there in the movie, but it’s not something you saw, said study co-author Moti Fridman, a physics researcher at Cornell.

The scientists created a lens of not just light, but time. Their method splits light, speeding up one part of light and slowing down another. It creates a gap and that gap is where an event is masked.

“You kind of create a hole in time where an event takes place,” said study co-author Alexander Gaeta, director of Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics. “You just don’t know that anything ever happened.”

This is all happening in beams of light that move too fast for the human eye to see. Using fiber optics, the hole in time is created as light moves along inside a fiber much thinner than a human hair. The scientists shoot the beam of light out, and then with other beams, they create a time lens that splits the light into two different speed beams that create the effect of invisibility by being too fast or too slow. The whole work is a mess of fibers on a long table and almost looks like a pile of spaghetti, Fridman said.

Bits of Russia space probe set to fall Jan. 15

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Fragments of a failed Russian space probe are now expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15, officials said Wednesday.

The unmanned Phobos-Ground probe was launched Nov. 9 on what was supposed to have been a 2 1/2-year mission to the Mars moon of Phobus to take soil samples and fly them back to Earth, but it became stuck in Earth’s orbit and attempts to send commands that could propel it toward the Mars moon were unsuccessful.

As the probe’s orbit slowly deteriorated, space officials predicted it would come crashing down between late December and late February.

A precise date was given Wednesday by a spokesman for the air and space defense troops, who said any fragments that do not burn up in the atmosphere are expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15.

The date could still be affected by external factors and Defense Ministry troops are monitoring changes in the probe’s orbit, Russian state news agencies quoted Alexei Zolotukin as saying.

Bugs may be resistant to genetically modified corn

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

One of the nation’s most widely planted crops – a genetically engineered corn plant that makes its own insecticide – may be losing its effectiveness because a major pest appears to be developing resistance more quickly than scientists expected.

The U.S. food supply is not in any immediate danger because the problem remains isolated. But scientists fear potentially risky farming practices could be blunting the hybrid’s sophisticated weaponry.

When it was introduced in 2003, so-called Bt corn seemed like the answer to farmers’ dreams: It would allow growers to bring in bountiful harvests using fewer chemicals because the corn naturally produces a toxin that poisons western corn rootworms. The hybrid was such a swift success that it and similar varieties now account for 65 percent of all U.S. corn acres – grain that ends up in thousands of everyday foods such as cereal, sweeteners and cooking oil.

But over the last few summers, rootworms have feasted on the roots of Bt corn in parts of four Midwestern states, suggesting that some of the insects are becoming resistant to the crop’s pest-fighting powers.

Scientists say the problem could be partly the result of farmers who’ve planted Bt corn year after year in the same fields.

Most farmers rotate corn with other crops in a practice long used to curb the spread of pests, but some have abandoned rotation because they need extra grain for livestock or because they have grain contracts with ethanol producers. Other farmers have eschewed the practice to cash in on high corn prices, which hit a record in June.

“Right now, quite frankly, it’s very profitable to grow corn,” said Michael Gray, a University of Illinois crop sciences professor who’s tracking Bt corn damage in that state.

A scientist recently sounded an alarm throughout the biotech industry when he published findings concluding that rootworms in a handful of Bt cornfields in Iowa had evolved an ability to survive the corn’s formidable defenses.

Similar crop damage has been seen in parts of Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, but researchers are still investigating whether rootworms capable of surviving the Bt toxin were the cause.

University of Minnesota entomologist Kenneth Ostlie said the severity of rootworm damage to Bt fields in Minnesota has eased since the problem surfaced in 2009. Yet reports of damage have become more widespread, and he fears resistance could be spreading undetected because the damage rootworms inflict often isn’t apparent.

Without strong winds, wet soil or both, plants can be damaged at the roots but remain upright, concealing the problem. He said the damage he observed in Minnesota came to light only because storms in 2009 toppled corn plants with damaged roots.

“The analogy I often use with growers is that we’re looking at an iceberg and all we see is the tip of the problem,” Ostlie said. “And it’s a little bit like looking at an iceberg through fog because the only time we know we have a problem is when we get the right weather conditions.”

Seed maker Monsanto Co. created the Bt strain by splicing a gene from a common soil organism called Bacillus thuringiensis into the plant. The natural insecticide it makes is considered harmless to people and livestock.

Scientists always expected rootworms to develop some resistance to the toxin produced by that gene. But the worrisome signs of possible resistance have emerged sooner than many expected.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently chided Monsanto, declaring in a Nov. 22 report that it wasn’t doing enough to monitor suspected resistance among rootworm populations. The report urged a tougher approach, including expanding monitoring efforts to a total of seven states, including Colorado, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The agency also wanted to ensure farmers in areas of concern begin using insecticides and other methods to combat possible resistance.

NASA probes to arrive at the moon over New Year’s

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/NASA

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The New Year’s countdown to the moon has begun.

NASA said Wednesday that its twin spacecraft were on course to arrive back-to-back at the moon after a 3 1/2-month journey.

“We’re on our way there,” said project manager David Lehman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $496 million mission.

The Grail probes – short for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory – won’t land on the lunar surface. Instead, they were poised to slip into orbit to study the uneven lunar gravity field.

Grail-A was scheduled to arrive on New Year’s Eve, followed by Grail-B on New Year’s Day.

Lehman said team members won’t celebrate until both probes are safely in orbit.

It’s been a long voyage for the near-identical Grail spacecraft, which traveled more than 2.5 million miles since launching in September. Though the moon is relatively close at about 250,000 miles away, Grail took a roundabout way to save on costs by launching on a small rocket.

Once at the moon, the probes will spend the next two months tweaking their positions before they start collecting data in March. The pair will fly in formation at an altitude of 34 miles above the surface, with an average separation of 124 miles.

The mission’s chief scientist, Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said many aspects of the moon remain a mystery despite being well studied.

Dawn spacecraft beams back new images of asteroid

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been a fervent photographer, snapping more than 10,000 pictures of the asteroid Vesta since it slipped into orbit around the giant space rock last summer.

The views were taken from a distance away – until now. On Wednesday, the space agency released new images of the hummocky surface as Dawn circled from an average altitude of 130 miles above the surface – the closest it’ll get.

From this low orbit, scientists can count numerous small impact craters and see textured grooves and outcrops in sharp detail.

“We’re totally thrilled with the data we’re getting. It seems to get better,” said mission deputy principal investigator Carol Raymond of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

By inching this close to Vesta, Dawn will use other instruments to measure the gravity field and determine its chemical makeup to better understand its origins.

Dawn will spend the next 2 1/2 months at the current altitude before moving higher to take another round of pictures. By that time, the sun will hit Vesta at a different angle and illuminate sections of the northern hemisphere that had been shrouded earlier.

Soyuz bound for space station blasts off

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

MOSCOW (AP) — A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian, an American and a Dutchman to the International Space Station blasted off flawlessly from Russia’s launch facility in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

Mission commander Oleg Kononenko and his colleagues, American Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers are to dock with the space station on Friday.

The blastoff from the snowy launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, took place without a hitch and the spacecraft reached Earth orbit about nine minutes later. Video from inside the craft showed the three crew members gripping each others’ hands in celebration as the final stage of the booster rocket separated.

The three aboard the Russian spacecraft will join three others already on the ISS, NASA’s Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin. The six are to work together on the station until March.

The launch came amid a period of trouble for Russia’s space program, which provides the only way for crew to reach the space station since the United States retired its space shuttle program in July.

The launch of an unmanned supply ship for the space station failed in August and the ship crashed in a Siberian forest. The Soyuz rocket carrying that craft was the same type used to send up Russian manned spacecraft, and the crash prompted officials to postpone the next manned launch while the rockets were examined for flaws. The delayed mission eventually took place on Nov. 14.

Just five days before that launch, Russia sent up its ambitious Phobos-Ground unmanned probe, which was to go to the Phobos moon of Mars, take soil samples and return them to Earth. But engineers lost contact with the ship and were unable to propel it out of Earth orbit and toward Mars. The craft is now expected to fall to Earth in mid-January.

2 Earth-size planets spotted around distant star

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

NEW YORK (AP) — Scientists have found two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star outside the solar system, an encouraging sign for prospects of finding life elsewhere.

The discovery shows that such planets exist and that they can be detected by the Kepler spacecraft, said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. They’re the smallest planets found so far that orbit a star resembling our sun.

Scientists are seeking Earth-sized planets as potential homes for extraterrestrial life, said Fressin, who reports the new findings in a paper published online Tuesday by the journal Nature. One planet’s diameter is only 3 percent larger than Earth’s, while the other’s diameter is about nine-tenths that of Earth. They appear to be rocky, like our planet.

But they are too hot to contain life as we know it, with calculated temperatures of about 1,400 degrees and 800 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

Any life found on another plant may not be intelligent; it could be bacteria or mold or some completely unknown form.

Since it was launched in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope has found evidence of dozens of possible Earth-sized planets. But Fressin’s report is the first to provide confirmation, said Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington. He’s a member of the Kepler science team but not an author of the paper.

The researchers ruled out a possible alternative explanation for the signals that initially indicated the planets were orbiting the star Kepler-20. The star is 950 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra.

The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are part of a five-planet system around the star, and their location challenges current understanding of how planets form, scientists said. In our own solar system, the small rocky planets are closest to the sun, while gaseous giants are on the periphery. But the five-planet system has no such dividing line; big and small planets alternate as one moves away from the star.

That’s “crazy,” and unexplained by current understanding of how planets form around stars, said study co-author and Harvard scientist David Charbonneau.

Comet defies death, brushes up to sun and lives

Friday, December 16th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — A small comet survived what astronomers figured would be a sure death when it danced uncomfortably close to the broiling sun.

Comet Lovejoy, which was only discovered a couple of weeks ago, was supposed to melt Thursday night when it came close to where temperatures hit several million degrees. Astronomers had tracked 2,000 other sun-grazing comets make the same suicidal trip. None had ever survived.

But astronomers watching live with NASA telescopes first saw the sun’s corona wiggle as Lovejoy went close to the sun. They were then shocked when a bright spot emerged on the sun’s other side. Lovejoy lived.

“I was delighted when I saw it go into the sun and I was astounded when I saw something re-emerge,” said U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams.

Lovejoy didn’t exactly come out of its hellish adventure unscathed. Only 10 percent of the comet – which was probably millions of tons – survived the encounter, said W. Dean Pesnell, project scientist for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which tracked Lovejoy’s death-defying plunge.

And the comet lost something pretty important: its tail.

“It looks like the tail broke off and is stuck” in the sun’s magnetic field, Pesnell said.

Comets circle the sun and sometimes get too close. Lovejoy came within 75,000 miles of the sun’s surface, Battams said. For a small object often described as a dirty snowball comprised of ice and dust, that brush with the sun should have been fatal.

Astronomers say it probably didn’t melt completely because the comet was larger than they thought.

The frozen comet was evaporating as it made the trip toward the sun, “just like you’re sweating on a hot day,” Pesnell said.

“It’s like an ice cube going by a barbecue grill,” he said.

Russian customs seize Iran-bound radioactive metal

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s customs agency announced Friday it has seized pieces of radioactive metal from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran from one of Moscow’s main airports.

It was not immediately clear if the substance could be any use to Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA confirmed that material had been seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger in Moscow about a month ago, but denied it was radioactive.

Russia’s Federal Customs Service said in a statement that agents found 18 pieces of metal, packed in steel pencil cases, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after a radiation alert went off. It said the gauges showed that radiation levels were 20 times higher than normal.

Spokeswoman Kseniya Grebenkina told The Associated Press the luggage was seized some time ago, but did not specify when. The Iranian wasn’t detained, she said, and it was not clear whether he was still in Russia or not. She did not give his name. The pieces contained Sodium-22, she said, a radioactive isotope of sodium that could be produced in a particle accelerator.

Kelly Classic, a health physicist at the United States’ renowned Mayo Clinic, said: “You can’t make a nuclear bomb or dirty bomb with it.”

“You’d certainly wonder where it came from and why,” Classic told The Associated Press. “It’s prudent to be a little leery considering where the person’s going.”

Classic said the isotope can be used in devices that determine the thickness of metals.

Another expert, Michael Unterweger, group leader for the radioactivity group at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, said it can be used as a calibration source for radiation instrumentation.

Unterweger said “it’s really strange” that so much Sodium 22 was in the luggage, but if he were the Russian authorities “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted an official at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow as denying that radioactive materials were seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran.

“About a month ago, a misunderstanding arose in connection with (an Iranian) student who was carrying some materials for dentistry uses. The issue was quickly resolved and apologies were offered to him,” ISNA quoted the official as saying Friday.

ISNA didn’t name the official but quoted him as blaming Western media for publishing incorrect information, although the reports first came from the Russian customs service.

“These reports seek to damage Iran-Russia relations,” the official was quoted as saying.

Grebenkina said prosecutors have launched a probe into the incident but insisted that the material seized is not highly radioactive.

It was not immediately clear why the agency chose to make the announcement on Friday. Russia, which built the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, has aimed to show the international community that its nuclear cooperation with Iran is not connected to Iran’s alleged aim of building nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and Israel have not ruled out a military option against Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Iran denies the charge, saying its program is geared toward generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.

Delhi’s air as dirty as ever despite some reforms

Friday, December 16th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Saurabh Das

NEW DELHI (AP) — A decade ago, plans for a metro and clean-fuel buses were hailed as New Delhi’s answer to pollution. But air in the Indian capital is as dirty as ever – partly because breakneck development has brought skyrocketing use of cars.

Citywide pollution sensors routinely register levels of small airborne particles at two or sometimes three times its own sanctioned level for residential areas, putting New Delhi up with Beijing, Cairo and Mexico City at the top of indexes listing the world’s most-polluted capitals.

Sunrises in India’s capital filter through near-opaque haze, scenic panoramas feature ribbons of brown air and everywhere, it seems, someone is coughing.

“My family is very worried. Earlier, the smoke and dust stayed outside, but now it comes into the house,” said 61-year-old shopkeeper Hans Raj Wadhawan, a one-time smoker now being treated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute.

“I can see the air is bad again, and I can feel it in my chest.”

New Delhi could lay some of the blame on its own success. Its recently minted middle class adds 1,200 cars a day to the 6 million on roads already snarled with incessantly honking traffic. Generous diesel subsidies promote the use of diesel-powered SUVs that belch some of the highest levels of carcinogenic particles, thanks to their reliance on one of the dirtiest-burning fuels and low Indian emissions standards.

“The city has lost nearly all of the gains it made in 2004 and 2005,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment.

New Delhi has undergone head-spinning expansion as Indian economic reforms in the 1990s ushered in two decades of record growth. Once a manageable capital of 9.4 million where cows, bicycles and bullock carts ruled the road, New Delhi today is a gridlocked metropolis and migrant mecca now home to 16 million. Authorities have scrambled to deal with everything from rocketing real estate prices to overflowing garbage dumps.

Efforts to clean the air, it seems, have only just begun.

The capital saw some success after a 1998-2003 program removing power plants from the city center and adopting compressed natural gas, CNG, for running buses and rickshaws. The buses had run on diesel, and the rickshaws on gasoline and highly polluting kerosene. Of all possible fuels, CNG releases the smallest amounts of particulate matter.

But just a few years later pollution levels are back up, with levels of airborne particles smaller than 10 micrometers – called PM10s – often near 300 per cubic meter, three times the city’s legal limit of 100 – and well above the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 20.

The tiny particulate matter, sometimes called black carbon or soot, is small enough to lodge in people’s lungs and fester over time. WHO says the stuff kills some 1.34 million people globally each year.

Studies on the Indian capital put the number of such deaths in the thousands.

It worsens in the dry winters, as winds die down and pollution pools over the Delhi plains. Vehicular smog mixes with smoke from festival-season fireworks as well as countless illegal pyres of garbage burned by homeless migrants to stay warm as temperatures near freezing. And the booming construction scene, free for a few months from monsoons, sends up clouds of dust.

“Our biggest challenge is the vehicles, but building roads is not the answer,” Roychowdhury said. “We badly need second-generation action to restrain this increasing auto dependence.”

Japan launches its 2nd spy satellite this year

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

TOKYO (AP) — Japan successfully put a spy satellite into orbit on Monday and expects to complete its network of intelligence-gathering satellites with another launch next year.

Japan’s space agency, JAXA, said the launch from the remote southern island of Tanegashima went off without a hitch and the radar-equipped satellite is functioning properly. It was the second launch of the year, following a successful liftoff in September.

Officials refused to provide details of the satellite’s capabilities.

Japanese media reports say it will augment the optical satellites Japan has already launched by providing data of what is happening on the ground at night or through cloud cover.

Japan launched its first pair of spy satellites in 2003, prompted by concerns over North Korea’s missile program. It currently has four optical information-gathering satellites in orbit, though the latest of those is not fully operational yet.

It previously launched two radar intelligence satellites, but both malfunctioned.

The satellite launched Monday is expected to begin gathering intelligence in a few months, an official with the Cabinet Satellite Information Center told The Associated Press. He requested anonymity because details of the program are classified.

UN climate talks on edge heading into final hours

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — The United States, China and India could scuttle attempts to save the only treaty governing global warming, Europe’s top negotiator said Friday hours before a 194-nation U.N. climate conference was to close.

After two weeks of negotiations, talks went through the night Thursday with delegates struggling to keep Durban from becoming the graveyard of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

“If there is no further movement from what I have seen until 4 o’clock this morning, then I must say I don’t think that there will be a deal in Durban,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action.

Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo led dozens of activists chanting, “Climate justice now!” and singing outside the main session Friday. U.N. police blocked them from the hall as delegates lined a staircase and balcony overlooking the protest, snapping pictures with small cameras and mobile phones.

The protest was meant to “inject some urgency into the process,” Naidoo told The Associated Press, accusing governments of “playing political poker with the future of our planet.”

Greenpeace announced later that Naidoo, who had been an observer at the talks, had been barred from the conference after leading the largest protest since it opened nearly two weeks ago. Earlier this week, an American college student heckled U.S. delegate Todd Stern as he delivered a speech. She was ejected from the hall and banned from the conference. Six Canadians also had their conference credentials lifted after staging a demonstration during an address by their environment minister, Peter Kent.

On Thursday at a meeting along the sidelines of the summit attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, scuffles broke out between his supporters and environmentalists holding up posters reading, “Zuma stand with Africa, not with USA,” and “Zuma don’t let Africa fry.”

Prime Indonesian jungle to be cleared for palm oil

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Heri Juanda

ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — The man known as Indonesia’s “green governor” chases the roar of illegal chainsaws through plush jungles in his own Jeep. He goes door-to-door to tell families it’s in their interest to keep trees standing.

That’s why 5,000 villagers living the edge of a rich, biodiverse peat swamp in his tsunami-ravaged Aceh province feel so betrayed.

Their former hero recently gave a palm oil company a permit to develop land in one of the few places on earth where orangutans, tigers and bears still can be found living side-by-side – violating Indonesia’s new moratorium on concessions in primary forests and peatlands.

“Why would he agree to this?” said Ibduh, a 50-year village chief, days after filing a criminal complaint against Aceh Gov. Irwandi Yusuf.

“It’s not just about the animals,” he said, men around him nodding. “Us too. Our lives are ruined if this goes through.”

Irwandi – a former rebel whose life story is worthy of a Hollywood film – maintains the palm oil concession is by the book and that he would never do anything to harm his province.

But critics say there is little doubt he broke the law.

The charges against him illustrate the challenges facing countries like Indonesia in their efforts to fight climate change by protecting the world’s tropical jungles – which would spit more carbon when burned than planes, automobiles and factories combined.

Despite government promises, what happens on the ground is often a different story. Murky laws, graft and mismanagement in the forestry sector and shady dealings with local officials means that business often continues as usual for many companies.

Study faults partial radiation for breast cancer

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — New research casts doubt on a popular treatment for breast cancer: A week of radiation to part of the breast instead of longer treatment to all of it.

Women who were given partial radiation were twice as likely to need their breasts removed later because the cancer came back, doctors found.

The treatment uses radioactive pellets briefly placed in the breast instead of radiation beamed from a machine. At least 13 percent of older patients in the U.S. get this now, and it is popular with working women.

“Even women who aren’t working appreciate convenience,” but they may pay a price in effectiveness if too little tissue is being treated, said study leader Dr. Benjamin Smith of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Results were to be reported Wednesday at a conference in San Antonio along with a more positive development: a new test that may help show which women need only surgery for a very early type of breast cancer called DCIS. The results suggest that about three-fourths of the 45,000 women diagnosed with DCIS annually in the U.S. could skip the radiation and hormone-blocking pills usually recommended to prevent a recurrence.

About 230,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., most in an early stage. Typical treatment is surgery to remove the lump, followed by radiation every weekday for five to seven weeks. That’s tough, especially for older women and those in rural areas.

Doctors hoped that a shorter approach, called brachytherapy, would be just as good with fewer side effects. To do it, they temporarily place a thin tube into the cavity where the tumor was.

“You come in twice a day and there’s a machine that puts in a radiation seed that stays there a few minutes and then you go home,” Smith explained.

Treatment takes only five days and the total radiation dose is comparable to the longer method. But a smaller area – just around the lump – gets treated instead of the whole breast.

Although at least three companies sell equipment for brachytherapy, no big studies have tested its safety and effectiveness.

Researchers looked at Medicare records on 130,535 women who had lumps removed and radiation. Less than 1 percent chose brachytherapy in 2000 but that rose to 13 percent by 2007.

After accounting for differences in age, tumor size and other factors, researchers found that within five years, 4 percent of brachytherapy patients needed surgery to remove the breast where the original tumor had been versus only 2 percent of those given traditional radiation. Hospitalization, infections, broken ribs and breast pain also were more common with brachytherapy.

It remains experimental, and women who want it should join a more rigorous study of it going on now, said Dr. Peter Ravdin, breast cancer chief at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.

“I’m putting patients on the trial” and not recommending it otherwise, he said.

Brachytherapy costs about twice as much as standard radiation, estimated at $10,000 to $20,000.

Biologists monitor crocodiles at nuclear plant

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — An unexpected but fruitful relationship has blossomed between two potent forces in the swamps of South Florida: the American crocodile, and a nuclear power plant.

The reptile has made it off the endangered species list thanks in part to 168 miles of manmade cooling canals surrounding Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in the southeastern corner of the Florida peninsula. It turns out that Florida Power and Light was building prime croc habitat just as virtually every other developer was paving it over.

Federal wildlife officials give the state’s largest public utility part of the credit for a five-fold increase in the species’ population in Florida. There are only two other sanctuaries for the crocodiles, which are still considered threatened.

“The way the cooling canal system was designed actually turned out to be pretty good for crocodile nesting,” said John Wrublik, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It wasn’t designed for crocodiles, but they’ve done a very good job of maintaining that area.”

Hundreds of crocodiles, as long as 15 feet and as heavy as one ton, roam the swampland surrounding the power plant. They’re monitored by wildlife biologists hired by the utility, who sometimes need quick reflexes to keep all their fingers.

On one recent nighttime survey, Mario Aldecoa jumped from an airboat in total darkness and darted into the bushes to grab a 13-pound crocodile to mark it for identification.

“It’s usually just adrenaline and instinct,” he said.

The American crocodile is often confused with its plentiful cousin, the alligator. Alligators are black, have broad, rounded snouts and are found throughout the deep South. Crocodiles are grayish, have narrow tapered snouts and are so sensitive to cold that their only U.S. habitat is in South Florida.

South Florida’s rampant development eroded the crocodile’s habitat over decades of booming growth. By the 1970s, there were less than 300 in the state. The federal government had classified the species as endangered, meaning it was in danger of becoming extinct.

In 1977, Florida Power employees stumbled upon a crocodile nest in the plant’s cooling canal system. A monitoring program set up a year later was originally intended to ensure the plant did no harm to the species, but ended up recording the facility’s role in the crocodile’s rebound. Dozens of other protected species, including the manatee and loggerhead turtle, also are found on the utility’s properties across the state.

There are more than 1,500 American crocodiles in South Florida today. An opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2006 noted that the increase in has been attributed to Florida Power’s management activities in its cooling canals.

Canals and berms such as those found at the power plant site provide nesting habitat that has “to some extent compensated for the loss of habitat elsewhere,” explained Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.

The recirculating water system at Turkey Point works somewhat like the closed cooling system in a car. Eight large, powerful circulating water pumps take cooling water from canals at Turkey Point and circulate it through a condenser. The water then flows back to the closed-loop canal network, which essentially serves as a giant radiator.

Ex-UN climate chief to AP: talks are rudderless

Sunday, December 4th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — Yvo de Boer said he left his job as the U.N.’s top climate official in frustration 18 months ago, believing the process of negotiating a meaningful climate agreement was failing. His opinion hasn’t changed.

“I still have the same view of the process that led me to leave the process,” he told The Associated Press Sunday. “I’m still deeply concerned about where it’s going, or rather where it’s not going, about the lack of progress.”

For three years until 2010, the Dutch civil servant was the leading voice on global warming on the world stage. He appeared constantly in public to advocate green policies, traveled endlessly for private meetings with top leaders and labored with negotiators seeking ways to finesse snags in drafting agreements.

In the end he felt he “wasn’t really able to contribute as I should be to the process,” he said.

Today he can take a long view on his years as a Dutch negotiator in the 1990s and later as a senior U.N. official with access to the highest levels of government, business and civil society. He is able to voice criticisms he was reluctant to air when he was actively shepherding climate diplomacy.

Negotiators live “in a separate universe,” and the ongoing talks are “like a log that’s drifted away,” he said. Then, drawing another metaphor from his rich reservoir, he called the annual 194-nation conferences “a bit of a mouse wheel.”

De Boer spoke to the AP on the sidelines of the latest round of talks in this South African port city, which he is attending as a consultant for the international accounting firm KPMG.

World leaders have failed to become deeply engaged in efforts to reach an international accord to control greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, he said. In recent years, their inattention has been compounded by their preoccupation with the economic and Eurozone crises.

Negotiators have been at the job so long – since the 1992 climate convention – that they have lost touch with the real world, he said. But it wasn’t their fault.

“I completely understand that it is very difficult for a negotiator to move if you haven’t been given a political sense of direction and the political space to move,” he said, chatting on a hilltop terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Rather than act in their own national interests, many leaders look to see what others are willing – or unwilling – to concede.

“You’ve got a bunch of international leaders sitting 85 stories up on the edge of a building saying to each other, you jump first and I’ll follow. And there is understandably a reluctance to be the first one to jump,” he said.

The 2009 Copenhagen summit was a breaking point. Expectations soared that the conference would produce an accord setting firm rules for bringing down global carbon emissions. When delegates fell short, hopes remained high that President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, most of Europe’s heads of government and more than 100 other top leaders would save the day at the last minute.

De Boer said he spent the last 24 hours of the summit in “a very small and very smelly room” with about 20 prime ministers and presidents, but the time was not ripe for the hoped-for international treaty.

Federal report: Arctic much worse since 2006

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal officials say the Arctic region has changed dramatically in the past five years – for the worse.

It’s melting at a near record pace, and it’s darkening and absorbing too much of the sun’s heat.

A new report card from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rates the polar region with blazing red stop lights on three of five categories and yellow cautions for the other two. Overall, these are not good grades, but it doesn’t mean the Arctic is doomed and it still will freeze in the winter, said report co-editor Jackie Richter-Menge.

The Arctic acts as Earth’s refrigerator, cooling the planet. What’s happening, scientists said, is like someone pushing the fridge’s thermostat much too high.

“It’s not cooling as well as it used to,” Richter-Menge said.

The dramatic changes are from both man-made global warming and recent localized weather shifts, which were on top of the longer term warming trend, scientists said.

The report, written by 121 scientists from around the world, said statistics point to a shift in the Arctic health in 2006. That was right before 2007, when a mix of weather conditions and changing climate led to a record loss of sea ice, from which the region has never recovered. This summer’s sea ice melt was the second worst on record, a tad behind 2007.

“We’ve got a new normal,” said co-author Don Perovich, a geophysicist at the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Research and Engineering Lab. “Whether it’s a tipping point and we’ll never recover, who’s to say?”

Thawing permafrost vents gases to worsen warming

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Todd Paris

WASHINGTON (AP) — Massive amounts of greenhouse gases trapped below thawing permafrost will likely seep into the air over the next several decades, accelerating and amplifying global warming, scientists warn.

Those heat-trapping gases under the frozen Arctic ground may be a bigger factor in global warming than the cutting down of forests, and a scenario that climate scientists hadn’t quite accounted for, according to a group of permafrost experts. The gases won’t contribute as much as pollution from power plants, cars, trucks and planes, though.

The permafrost scientists predict that over the next three decades a total of about 45 billion metric tons of carbon from methane and carbon dioxide will seep into the atmosphere when permafrost thaws during summers. That’s about the same amount of heat-trapping gas the world spews during five years of burning coal, gas and other fossil fuels

And the picture is even more alarming for the end of the century. The scientists calculate that about than 300 billion metric tons of carbon will belch from the thawing Earth from now until 2100.

Adding in that gas means that warming would happen “20 to 30 percent faster than from fossil fuel emissions alone,” said Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “You are significantly speeding things up by releasing this carbon.”

Usually the first few to several inches of permafrost thaw in the summer, but scientists are now looking at up to 10 feet of soft unfrozen ground because of warmer temperatures, he said. The gases come from decaying plants that have been stuck below frozen ground for millennia.

Schuur and 40 other scientists in the Permafrost Carbon Research Network met this summer and jointly wrote up their findings, which were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“The survey provides an important warning that global climate warming is likely to be worse than expected,” said Jay Zwally, a NASA polar scientist who wasn’t part of the study. “Arctic permafrost has been like a wild card.”

When the Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists issued its last full report in 2007, it didn’t even factor in trapped methane and carbon dioxide from beneath the permafrost. Diplomats are meeting this week in South Africa to find ways of curbing human-made climate change.

Schuur and others said increasing amounts of greenhouse gas are seeping out of permafrost each year. Some is methane, which is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.

In a recent video, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Katey Walter Anthony, a study co-author, is shown setting leaking methane gas on fire with flames shooting far above her head.

“Places like that are all around,” Anthony said in a phone interview. “We’re tapping into old carbon that has been locked up in the ground for 30,000 to 40,000 years.”

That triggers what Anthony and other scientists call a feedback cycle. The world warms, mostly because of human-made greenhouse gases. That thaws permafrost, releasing more natural greenhouse gas, augmenting the warming.

There are lots of unknowns and a large margin of error because this is a relatively new issue with limited data available, the scientists acknowledge.

“It’s very much a seat-of-the-pants expert assessment,” said Stanford University’s Chris Field, who wasn’t involved in the new report.

UN warns 25 pct of world land highly degraded

Monday, November 28th, 2011

ROME (AP) — The United Nations has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet’s land resources, finding in a report Monday that a quarter of all land is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world’s growing population is to be fed.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s expected 9 billion-strong population. That amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of beef and other livestock.

But as it is, most available land is already being farmed, and in ways that often decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water.

That means that to meet the world’s future food needs, a major “sustainable intensification” of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, the FAO said in “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

FAO’s director-general Jacques Diouf said increased competition over land for growing biofuels, coupled with climate change and poor farming practices, had left key food-producing systems at risk of being unable to meet human needs in 2050.

“The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable,” he told reporters at FAO’s Rome headquarters. “Remedial actions need to be taken now. We simply cannot continue on a course of business as usual.”

The report was released Monday, as delegates from around the world meet in Durban, South Africa, for a two-week U.N. climate change conference aimed at breaking the deadlock on how to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The report found that climate change coupled with poor farming practices had contributed to a decrease in productivity of the world’s farmland following the boon years of the Green Revolution, when crop yields soared thanks to new technologies, pesticides and the introduction of high-yield crops.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, the world’s cropland grew by just 12 percent between 1961 and 2009, but food productivity increased by 150 percent.

But the U.N. report found that rates of growth have been slowing down in many areas and today are only half of what they were at the peak of the Green Revolution.

It found that 25 percent of the world’s land is now “highly degraded,” with soil erosion, water degradation and biodiversity loss. Another 8 percent is moderately degraded, while 36 percent is stable or slightly degraded and 10 percent is ranked as “improving.”

The rest of the Earth’s surface is either bare or covered by inland water bodies.

Restaurants plan DNA-certified premium seafood

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Restaurants around the world will soon use new DNA technology to assure patrons they are being served the genuine fish fillet or caviar they ordered, rather than inferior substitutes, an expert in genetic identification says.

In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially approved so-called DNA barcoding – a standardized fingerprint that can identify a species like a supermarket scanner reads a barcode – to prevent the mislabeling of both locally produced and imported seafood in the United States. Other national regulators around the world are also considering adopting DNA barcoding as a fast, reliable and cost-effective tool for identifying organic matter.

David Schindel, a Smithsonian Institution paleontologist and executive secretary of the Washington-based Consortium for the Barcode of Life, said he has started discussions with the restaurant industry and seafood suppliers about utilizing the technology as a means of certifying the authenticity of delicacies.

“When they sell something that’s really expensive, they want the consumer to believe that they’re getting what they’re paying for,” Schindel told The Associated Press.

“We’re going to start seeing a self-regulating movement by the high-end trade embracing barcoding as a mark of quality,” he said.

While it would never be economically viable to DNA test every fish, it would be possible to test a sample of several fish from a trawler load, he said.

Schindel is organizer of the biennial International Barcode of Life Conference, which is being held Monday in the southern Australian city of Adelaide. The fourth in the conference series brings together 450 experts in the field to discuss new and increasingly diverse applications for the science.

Applications range from discovering what Australia’s herd of 1 million feral camels feeds on in the Outback to uncovering fraud in Malaysia’s herbal drug industry.

Schindel leads a consortium of scientists from almost 50 nations in overseeing the compilation of a global reference library for the Earth’s 1.8 million known species.

Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s archaeology institute downplays theories that the ancient Mayas predicted some sort of apocalypse would occur in 2012, but on Thursday it acknowledged that a second reference to the date exists on a carved fragment found at a southern Mexico ruin site.

Most experts had cited only one surviving reference to the date in Mayan glyphs, a stone tablet from the Tortuguero site in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.

But the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement that there is in fact another apparent reference to the date at the nearby Comalcalco ruin. The inscription is on the carved or molded face of a brick. Comalcalco is unusual among Mayan temples in that it was constructed of bricks.

Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.

The “Comalcalco Brick,” as the second fragment is known, has been discussed by experts in some online forums. Many still doubt that it is a definite reference to Dec. 21, 2012 or Dec. 23, 2012, the dates cited by proponents of the theory as the possible end of the world.

“Some have proposed it as another reference to 2012, but I remain rather unconvinced,” David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a message to The Associated Press.

Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick “‘is a Calendar Round,’ a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years.”

The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.

But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.

“There’s no reason it couldn’t be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, “he/she/it arrives.”

“There’s no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical that prophetic,” Stuart wrote.

Both inscriptions – the Tortuguero tablet and the Comalcalco brick – were probably carved about 1,300 years ago and both are cryptic in some ways.

NASA launching `dream machine’ to explore Mars

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — As big as a car and as well-equipped as a laboratory, NASA’s newest Mars rover blows away its predecessors in size and skill.

Nicknamed Curiosity and scheduled for launch on Saturday, the rover has a 7-foot arm tipped with a jackhammer and a laser to break through the Martian red rock. What really makes it stand out: It can analyze rocks and soil with unprecedented accuracy.

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist.

Once on the red planet, Curiosity will be on the lookout for organic, carbon-containing compounds. While the rover can’t actually detect the presence of living organisms, scientists hope to learn from the $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered mission whether Mars has – or ever had – what it takes to nurture microbial life.

Curiosity will be “the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall at its mast, Curiosity is about twice the size of previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, weighs 1 ton and is loaded with 10 science instruments. Its formal name: Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL.

In a spacecraft first, Curiosity will be lowered to Mars’ surface via a jet pack and a tether system similar to the sky cranes used by helicopters to insert heavy equipment in inaccessible spots on Earth. No bouncing air bags like those used for the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover in 1997 and for Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – Curiosity is too heavy for that.

It is the kind of precision landing that officials said will benefit future human explorers on Mars.

The rover is scheduled to arrive at the mineral-rich Gale Crater next August, 8 1/2 months after embarking on the 354-million-mile voyage aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Russia is resigned to losing Mars moon probe

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian officials on Tuesday acknowledged that the chances of fixing a space probe bound for a moon of Mars that got stuck in Earth’s orbit are close to zero, Russian news agencies reported.

The unmanned $170 million Phobos-Ground was launched two weeks ago and reached preliminary Earth orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Russian engineers have been trying to retrieve data from the probe as it passes over their territory but haven’t established contact.

“We have to be realistic. Since we haven’t been able to get in touch with it for such a long time, chances to accomplish the mission are very slim,” Roscosmos deputy chief Vitaly Davydov said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency.

Davydov said that Russian engineers can keep trying until the end of the month to fix the probe’s engines to steer it to its path to Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons.

Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that’s difficult to fix.

The failure of the probe could see Russia change its priorities in space research. The Russian space agency will more likely focus on Moon research instead of studying Mars, Davydov said.

The failed spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.

Davydov said Tuesday that Phobos-Ground could crash to Earth some time between late December and late February. The site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance, he said.

Whales in the desert: Fossil bonanza poses mystery

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — More than 2 million years ago, scores of whales congregating off the Pacific Coast of South America mysteriously met their end.

Maybe they became disoriented and beached themselves. Maybe they were trapped in a lagoon by a landslide or a storm. Maybe they died there over a period of a few millennia. But somehow, they ended up right next to one another, many just meters (yards) apart, entombed as the shallow sea floor was driven upward by geological forces and transformed into the driest place on the planet.

Today, they have emerged again atop a desert hill more than a kilometer (half a mile) from the surf, where researchers have begun to unearth one of the world’s best-preserved graveyards of prehistoric whales.

Chilean scientists together with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution are studying how these whales, many of the them the size of buses, wound up in the same corner of the Atacama Desert.

“That’s the top question,” said Mario Suarez, director of the Paleontological Museum in the nearby town of Caldera, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) north of Santiago, the Chilean capital.

Experts say other groups of prehistoric whales have been found together in Peru and Egypt, but the Chilean fossils stand out for their staggering number and beautifully preserved bones. More than 75 whales have been discovered so far – including more than 20 perfectly intact skeletons.

They provide a snapshot of sea life at the time, and even include what might have been a family group: two adult whales with a juvenile between them.

“I think they died more or less at the same time,” said Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Pyenson and Suarez are jointly leading the research.

As for why such a great number perished in the same place, Pyenson said: “There are many ways that whales could die, and we’re still testing all those different hypotheses.”

The scientists have yet to publish their findings about the fossil bed and the extensive remains, which began to emerge in June last year during a highway-widening project that is now on hold.

So far, the fossils have been found in a roadside strip the length of two football fields – about 240 meters (260 yards) long and 20 meters (yards) wide.

Pyenson said the spot was once a “lagoon-like environment” and that the whales probably died between 2 million and 7 million years ago.

Most of the fossils are baleen whales that measured about 8 meters (25 feet) long, Pyenson said.

The researchers also discovered a sperm whale skeleton and remains of a now-extinct dolphin that had two walrus-like tusks and previously had only turned up in Peru, he said.

“We’re very excited about that,” Pyenson said in a telephone interview. “It is a very bizarre animal.”

Other unusual creatures found elsewhere in the fossil-rich Atacama Desert include an extinct aquatic sloth and a seabird with a 5-meter (17-foot) wingspan, bigger than a condor’s.

Erich Fitzgerald, a vertebrate paleontologist at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, emailed that the latest find is very significant.

“The fossils are exceptionally well preserved and quite complete – a rare combination in paleontology and one that will likely shed light on many facets of the … ecology and evolution of these extinct species,” Fitzgerald said.

He said it’s possible “these fossilized remains may have accumulated over a relatively long period of time.”

Wanted: Astronauts; Missing: US rocket to fly them

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/James Blair

WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking for a job? NASA is hiring astronauts. You can even apply online at a giant government jobs website.

There’s only one hitch: NASA doesn’t have its own spaceship anymore and is sending fewer fliers into orbit right now.

“The experience is well worth the wait,” promised NASA flight crew operations director Janet Kavandi as the space agency started a public search Tuesday for new astronauts.

There will be flights, but not many, with the space shuttle fleet retired. A handful of astronauts each year are launching on a Russian Soyuz spaceship to the International Space Station for six-month stays.

In about three to five years, NASA hopes to purchase trips for astronauts headed to the space station on American-built commercial rockets instead. And eventually, NASA hopes to fly astronauts in a government owned Orion capsule to an asteroid or even Mars, but those pioneering trips are more than a decade away.

With veteran astronauts leaving the space agency, Kavandi said NASA is afraid it will not have enough astronauts, something a National Research Council report pointed out in September.

NASA needs about 55 astronauts, and with a new class of nine graduating earlier this month, the astronaut roster is up to 58. One of those new astronauts will get to fly to the space station as early as 2013, Kavandi said.

“We’re ready to serve, we’re ready to get going,” new astronaut Serena Aunon said Tuesday at NASA headquarters.

Russia still unable to communicate with Mars probe

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian space engineers are still struggling to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth’s orbit.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. The unmanned probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

The ITAR-Tass news agency reported Sunday that efforts to communicate with the spacecraft have so far been unsuccessful. The agency said U.S. and European space engineers also were attempting to retrieve data from the probe as it passed over their territory.

Astronomers shed light on early stars in cosmos

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Daniel Ceverino

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After decades of scouring the universe, astronomers finally have found two immense clouds of gas that are pristine – free of the metals fired out into the cosmos by stars.

The findings, published in Thursday’s Science journal, provide the first solid detection of primitive, uncontaminated gas and support the long-standing theory as to how the chemical elements were formed in the early universe. It is these types of pure gas clouds that formed the first stars.

The research also suggests that stars have not succeeded at distributing metals throughout the entire cosmos; astronomers consider metals to be heavier elements like carbon, silicon, iron, even oxygen.

A separate study in the same issue of Science concludes the early stars were much smaller than thought – tens of times bigger than our sun, versus hundreds of times bigger.

“There’s kind of been this missing link in this picture of how elements form. We haven’t been able to detect what we expect to be out there, which is otherwise primordial material, stuff that would be metal-free,” said co-author J. Xavier Prochaska, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“This is the first solid detection of such gas,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s something we expected to find at some level, but it has been challenging to find it.”

The two pristine gas clouds were formed 2 billion years after the Big Bang creation of the universe.

Prochaska, along with lead author Michele Fumagalli, a graduate student at Santa Cruz, and John O’Meara, an astronomer at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., discovered the two clouds by analyzing light from quasars. They used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Russia struggles to save Mars moon probe

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

MOSCOW (AP) — As Russia’s space agency struggled Thursday to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth’s orbit, some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said efforts to communicate with the unmanned Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) spacecraft hadn’t brought any results yet. The probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

The Phobos-Grunt was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Kuznetsov said controllers on Thursday will continue attempts to fix the probe’s engines to steer it to its path to one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin, said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. Other space experts suggested that the craft’s computer failure was a likely cause.

If a software flaw was the problem, scientists can likely fix it by sending new commands. Some experts think, however, that the failure was rooted in hardware and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fix.

Biggest asteroid in 35 years swings close to Earth

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Leonard Ortiz

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An asteroid as big as an aircraft carrier zipped by Earth on Tuesday in the closest encounter by such a massive space rock in more than three decades. Scientists ruled out any chance of a collision but turned their telescopes skyward to learn more about the object known as 2005 YU55.

Its closest approach to Earth was pegged at a distance of 202,000 miles at 6:28 p.m. EST. That’s just inside the moon’s orbit; the average distance between Earth and the moon is 239,000 miles.

The last time a large cosmic interloper came that close to Earth was in 1976, and experts say it won’t happen again until 2028.

Scientists at NASA’s Deep Space Network in the California desert have tracked the quarter-mile-wide asteroid since last week as it approached from the direction of the sun at 29,000 mph.

Astronomers and amateur skygazers around the world kept watch, too.

The Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Mass., planned an all-night viewing party so children and parents could peer through research-grade telescopes and listen to lectures. The asteroid can’t be detected with the naked eye.

For those without a telescope, the observatory streamed video of the flyby live on Ustream, attracting several thousand viewers. The asteroid appeared as a white dot against a backdrop of stars.

Large asteroid zipping close to Earth on Tuesday

Monday, November 7th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — An asteroid bigger than an aircraft carrier will dart between the Earth and moon on Tuesday – the closest encounter by such a huge rock in 35 years.

But scientists say not to worry. It won’t hit.

“We’re extremely confident, 100 percent confident, that this is not a threat,” said the manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, Don Yeomans. “But it is an opportunity.”

The asteroid named 2005 YU55 is being watched by ground antennas as it approaches from the direction of the sun. The last time it came within so-called shouting distance was 200 years ago.

Closest approach will occur at 6:28 p.m. EST Tuesday when the asteroid passes within 202,000 miles of Earth. That’s closer than the roughly 240,000 miles between the Earth and the moon.

The moon will be just under 150,000 miles from the asteroid at the time of closest approach.

Russian cargo ship launched to space station

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian cargo ship was launched successfully to the International Space Station on Sunday, clearing the way for the next manned mission and easing concerns about the station’s future after a previous failed launch.

The unmanned Progress M-13M blasted off as scheduled at 2:11 p.m. Moscow time (1011 GMT; 6:11 a.m. EDT) from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said.

“It was a perfect launch,” Lyndin told The Associated Press, adding the ship successfully reached a designated orbit and will dock at the station Wednesday. A new crew will be launched to the space outpost on Nov. 14, he said.

A Progress launch failure in August, which was blamed on an “accidental” manufacturing flaw, cast doubts about future missions to the station, because the upper stage of the Soyuz booster rocket carrying the cargo ship to orbit is similar to that used to launch astronauts.

The next Soyuz launches were delayed pending the outcome of the probe. NASA said the space station – continuously manned for nearly 11 years – will need to be abandoned temporarily if a new crew cannot be launched by mid-November.

NASA space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier congratulated Russia on the successful Progress launch.

“Pending the outcome of a series of flight readiness meetings in the coming weeks, this successful flight sets the stage for the next Soyuz launch, planned for mid-November,” Gerstenmaier said in a statement. The station’s crew, which has been reduced to three astronauts after the failed launch in August, will be restored to six in December when another trio of astronauts will be sent, he added.

The Russian spacecraft serve as the only link to the station after NASA retired the space shuttle in July.

Sundays’ Progress mission was the second successful launch of a Soyuz booster rocket after the August mishap. Earlier this month, another Soyuz rocket launched the first two satellites of the European Union’s Galileo navigation system from the Kourou launchpad in French Guiana. The launches followed inspections, which required the rocket engines to be sent back to manufacturers for close examination.

The August crash was the latest in a string of spectacular launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the nation’s space industries. The Russian space agency said it will establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality.

No anthrax vaccine testing on children _ for now

Friday, October 28th, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Should the anthrax vaccine be tested in children? It will be a while longer before the government decides.

An advisory board said Friday that ethical issues need to be resolved – but if that can be accomplished the vaccine can be tested in children to be sure it’s safe and to learn the proper dose in case it’s needed in a terrorist attack.

Because of concerns that terrorists might use the potentially deadly bacteria, the government has stockpiled the vaccine. It has been widely tested on adults but never on children.

The question is whether to do tests so doctors will know if children’s immune systems respond to the shots well enough to signal protection. The children would not be exposed to anthrax.

The National Biodefense Science Board said Friday a separate review board should look into the ethical issues of doing such tests in children. If that is completed successfully, the panel, said, the Department of Health and Human Services should develop a plan for a study of the vaccine in children.

How to protect young people after an anthrax attack is a challenging issue, said Dr. Nicole Lurie, a member of the board and assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Public Health Service. “Protecting children still stands, for me, among the most important responsibilities that we have as a nation.”

The board gives advice to the Department of Health and Human Services on preparations for chemical, biological and nuclear events. Its vote was 12-1.

There is no deadline for the government to decide whether to go along. And if it does agree, it’s not clear how much time it would take to find money for such research and get clearance from review boards at medical centers that would conduct studies.

Another big question is whether parents would sign up their children to test a vaccine when there is no immediate threat. It’s not possible to get anthrax from the vaccine, but there are side effects. In adults, shot-site soreness, muscle aches, fatigue and headache are the main ones, and rare but serious allergic reactions have been reported.

Anthrax is among several potential bioterror weapons and is of special interest because it was used in letters sent to the media and others in 2001, claiming five lives and sickening 17. That prompted extensive screening of mail and better ventilation and testing at postal facilities and government agencies.

Study: Japan nuke radiation higher than estimated

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — The Fukushima nuclear disaster released twice as much of a radioactive substance into the atmosphere as Japanese authorities estimated, reaching 40 percent of the total from Chernobyl, a preliminary report says.

The estimate of much higher levels of radioactive cesium-137 comes from a worldwide network of sensors. Study author Andreas Stohl of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research says the Japanese government estimate came only from data in Japan, and that would have missed emissions blown out to sea.

The study did not consider health implications of the radiation. Cesium-137 is dangerous because it can last for decades in the environment, releasing cancer-causing radiation.

The long-term effects of the nuclear accident are unclear because of the difficulty of measuring radiation amounts people received.

In a telephone interview, Stohl said emission estimates are so imprecise that finding twice the amount of cesium isn’t considered a major difference. He said some previous estimates had been higher than his.

The journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics posted the report online for comment, but the study has not yet completed a formal review by experts in the field or been accepted for publication.

Last summer, the Japanese government estimated that the March 11 Fukushima accident released 15,000 terabecquerels of cesium. Terabecquerels are a radiation measurement. The new report from Stohl and co-authors estimates about 36,000 terabecquerels through April 20. That’s about 42 percent of the estimated release from Chernobyl, the report says.

An official at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the Japanese government branch overseeing such findings, said the agency could not offer any comment on the study because it had not reviewed its contents.

It also says about a fifth of the cesium fell on land in Japan, while most of the rest fell into the Pacific Ocean. Only about 2 percent of the fallout came down on land outside Japan, the report concluded.

US, Swedish researchers crack 250-year-old cipher

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Scientists in California and Sweden said they have used computer translation techniques to solve a 250-year-old mystery by deciphering a coded manuscript written for a secret society.

The University of Southern California announced Tuesday that researchers had broken the Copiale Cipher, a 105-page, 18th century document from Germany.

The handwritten, beautifully bound book didn’t contain any sort of Da Vinci Code but rather a snapshot of the arcane rituals practiced by one of the many secret societies that flourished in the 1700s.

It also recorded rites for some apparent sects of Freemasonry that showed political leanings.

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” USC computer scientist Kevin Knight, who was on the deciphering team, said in a statement. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”

The handwritten Copiale Cipher was discovered in East Berlin after the Cold War and is now in a private collection. Most of the book was written in a cipher of 90 characters that included abstract symbols and Roman and Greek letters.

Teeth study shows big dinosaurs trekked for food

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/HOPD

LOS ANGELES (AP) — What did giant plant-munching dinosaurs do when they couldn’t find enough to eat in the parched American West? They hit the road. An analysis of fossilized teeth adds further evidence that the long-necked dinosaurs called sauropods – the largest land creatures – went on road trips to fill their gargantuan appetites.

Scientists have long theorized that sauropods foraged for precious resources during droughts because of their preserved tracks and long limbs that were “ideal moving machines” and allowed them to cover long distances, said paleobiologist Matthew Bonnan of Western Illinois University.

China spacecraft to launch soon to test docking

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

BEIJING (AP) — China will launch an unmanned spacecraft early next month that will attempt to dock with an experimental module, the latest step in what will be a decade-long effort to place a manned permanent space station in orbit.

In space, the Shenzhou 8 will carry out maneuvers to couple with the Tiangong 1 module now in orbit.

The ship and the modified Long March-2F rocket that will sling it into space were transferred early Wednesday to the launch pad at the Jiuquan space base on the edge of the Gobi desert in northern China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Its exclusive report did not specify a date for the launch. Chinese space officials rarely speak to foreign media.

The 8.5-ton, box car-sized Tiangong 1 launched last month has moved into orbit 217 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth and is surveying Chinese farmland using special cameras, Xinhua said.

It is also conducting experiments involving growing crystals in zero gravity, the report said, citing the launch center’s chief engineer, Lu Jinrong.

Following Shenzhou 8, two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with the module next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.

NASA to launch new Earth-observing satellite

Monday, October 24th, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a five-year delay, an Earth-observing satellite will be launched to test new technologies aimed at improving weather forecasts and monitoring climate change.

The $1.5 billion NASA mission comes in a year of weather extremes from the Midwest tornado outbreak to the Southwest wildfires to hurricane-caused flooding in New England.

“We’ve already had 10 separate weather events, each inflicting at least $1 billion in damages,” said Louis Uccellini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The satellite will lift off before dawn Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Delta 2 rocket that will boost it into an orbit some 500 miles high.

The space agency already has a fleet of satellites circling the Earth, taking measurements of the atmosphere, clouds and oceans. But many are aging and need replacement.

The latest – about the size of a small school bus – is more sophisticated. It carries five different types of instruments to collect environmental data, including four that never before have flown into space.

AP Exclusive: NASA sting terrifies woman, 74

Monday, October 24th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The elaborate mission to recover a moon rock led NASA agents to one of the most down-to-earth places: a Denny’s restaurant in Riverside County.

But at the end of the sting operation, agents were left holding a speck of lunar dust smaller than a grain of rice and a 74-year-old suspect who was terrified by armed officials.

Five months after NASA investigators and local agents swooped into the restaurant and hailed their operation as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to sell national treasure, no charges have been filed, NASA isn’t talking and the case appears stalled.

The target, Joann Davis, a grandmother who says she was trying to raise money for her sick son, asserts the lunar material was rightfully hers, having been given to her space-engineer husband by Neil Armstrong in the 1970s.

Satellite pieces may hit Earth on weekend

Thursday, October 20th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/EADS Astrium

BERLIN (AP) — Pieces of a retired German satellite hurtling toward the atmosphere may crash to earth this weekend, the German Aerospace Center said Thursday.

Scientists have now honed their initial estimate of when the satellite would hit from a span of four days to either Saturday or Sunday. As it nears, they will eventually be able to estimate impact within a window of about 10 hours.

Hawaii astronomer captures image of forming planet

Thursday, October 20th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Karen L. Teramura

HONOLULU (AP) — Astronomers have captured the first direct image of a planet being born.

Adam Kraus, of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, said the planet is being formed out of dust and gas circling a 2-milion-year-old star about 450 light years from Earth.

The planet itself, based on scientific models of how planets form, is estimated to have started taking shape about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Called LkCa 15 b, it’s the youngest planet ever observed. The previous record holder was about five times older.

Kraus and his colleague, Michael Ireland from Macquarie University and the Australian Astronomical Observatory, used Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea to find the planet.

“We’re catching this object at the perfect time. We see this young star, it has a disc around it that planets are probably forming out of and we see something right in the middle of a gap in the disc,” Kraus said in a telephone interview.

Kraus presented the discovery Wednesday at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Kraus and Ireland’s research paper on the discovery is due to appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

Observing planets while they’re forming can help scientists answer questions like whether planets form early in the life of a star or later, and whether they form relatively close to stars or farther away.

Planets can change orbits after forming, so it’s difficult to answer such questions by studying older planets.

California desert spaceship factory completed

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — Space tourism is closer to reality.

The $8 million Mojave Desert production plant where the world’s first fleet of passenger-ready spaceships will be built has been completed and production is expected to begin at the end of the month.

The Spaceship Co. facility is a joint venture of Mojave-based Scaled Composites and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

US scientists testing earthquake early warning

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Elizabeth Cochran was sitting in her office when her computer suddenly sounded an alarm.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

A map of California on her screen lit up with a red dot, signaling an earthquake had struck. A clock next to the map counted down the seconds until shock waves fanning out from the epicenter north of Los Angeles reached her location in Pasadena: 5-4-3-2-1.

Right on cue, Cochran felt her chair quiver ever so slightly from a magnitude-4.2 that rumbled through Southern California on Sept. 1.

“If I hadn’t known it was an earthquake, I would have thought it was a truck going by,” she said.

After years of lagging behind Japan, Mexico and other quake-prone countries, the U.S. government has been quietly testing an earthquake early warning system in California since February. Cochran belongs to an exclusive club of scientists who receive a heads up every time the state shakes.

NASA: Satellite pieces to hit Earth in a week

Friday, September 16th, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. space officials say they expect a dead satellite to fall to Earth in about a week.

NASA has been watching the 6-ton satellite closely. On Friday officials moved up their prediction for its arrival to Sept. 23, give or take a day.

NASA scientists have calculated the satellite will break into 26 pieces as it gets closer to Earth. The odds of it hitting someone anywhere on the planet are 1 in 3,200. The heaviest piece to hit the ground will be about 350 pounds, but no one has ever been hit by falling space junk in the past.

NASA expects to give the public more detailed information early next week. For now, all continents except Antarctica could be hit by satellite debris.

UARS satellite: http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/uars/uars-concept.html

Future NASA rocket to be most powerful ever built

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — To soar far away from Earth and even on to Mars, NASA has dreamed up the world’s most powerful rocket, a behemoth that borrows from the workhorse liquid-fuel rockets that sent Apollo missions into space four decades ago.

But with a price tag that some estimate at $35 billion, it may not fly with Congress.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several members of Congress on Wednesday unveiled the Obama administration’s much-delayed general plans for its rocket design, called the Space Launch System. The multibillion-dollar program would carry astronauts in a capsule on top, and the first mission would be 10 years off if all goes as planned. Unmanned test launches are expected from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in six years.

Scientists shocked by behavior of rare gray whale

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Scientists tracking a rare western Pacific gray whale were shocked last winter when the endangered animal left the Asian coast, crossed the Bering Sea and swam south along Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest coasts.

Researchers are back in Russia to see whether the feat will be repeated by other Pacific gray whales.

A science team coordinated by the International Whaling Commission has attached satellite tags to five more of the highly endangered whales, according to an announcement by Oregon State University, which is taking part in the study. Researchers hope to tag 10 more whales before field work concludes.

Only about 130 western Pacific gray whales remain and little is known of their winter habits. They spend summers near Russia’s Sahkalin Island. They face threats from offshore petroleum development, according to environmental groups.

Scientists: Bacteria spreading in warming oceans

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) — Warning: The warming of the world’s oceans can cause serious illness and may cost millions of euros (dollars) in health care.

That is the alarm sounded in a paper released online Tuesday on the eve of a two-day conference in Brussels.

The 200-page paper is a synthesis of the findings of more than 100 projects funded by the European Union since 1998. It was produced by Project CLAMER, a collaboration of 17 European marine institutes.

The paper says the rising temperature of ocean water is causing a proliferation of the Vibrio genus of bacteria, which can cause food poisoning, serious gastroenteritis, septicemia and cholera.

Twin NASA craft launched to study insides of moon

Saturday, September 10th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Terry Renna

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A pair of spacecraft rocketed toward the moon Saturday on the first mission dedicated to measuring lunar gravity and determining what’s inside Earth’s orbiting companion – all the way down to the core.

“I could hardly be happier,” said the lead scientist, Maria Zuber. After two days of delays and almost another, “I was trying to be as calm as I could be.”

NASA launched the near identical probes – named Grail-A and Grail-B – aboard a relatively small Delta II rocket to save money. It will take close to four months for the spacecraft to reach the moon, a long, roundabout journey compared with the zippy three-day trip of the Apollo astronauts four decades ago.

Too wacky? Moving water from flood to drought

Friday, September 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the soggy East tries to dry out from flooding and Texas prays for rain that doesn’t come, you might ask: Isn’t there some way to ship all that water from here to there?

It’s an idea that has tempted some, but reality gets in the way.

A Texas oilman once envisioned long pipelines carrying water to drought-stricken Texas cities, just one of several untested fantasies of moving water vast distances. Parched Las Vegas still wants to indirectly siphon off excess water from the overflowing Mississippi River. French engineers have simulated hauling an iceberg to barren Africa. There are even mega-trash bags to move heavy loads of water.

There’s certainly plenty of rainwater available. Tropical Storm Lee dumped enough on the already saturated Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Gulf Coast to bring 9.6 inches of rain across the entire state of Texas, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Associated Press.

Dead NASA satellite will soon plummet to Earth

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — A dead NASA satellite will soon fall to Earth, but the space agency says there is very little chance that a piece of it will hit someone.

NASA says the 20-year-old satellite will probably fall sometime between late September and October. Pieces of it could land anywhere in the six inhabited continents in a worldwide swath from south of Juneau, Alaska, to just north of the tip of South America. NASA scientists estimate a 1-in-3,200 chance a satellite part could hit someone. Most of it will burn up after entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The 6-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) ran out of fuel in 2005 and will fall uncontrolled out of orbit. Only about 1,200 pounds of metal should survive, NASA said.

Earthquake prediction still stymies scientists

Sunday, September 4th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The East Coast earthquake left more than just residents unaccustomed to feeling the ground shake and sway in a daze. It also surprised some scientists who spend their careers trying to untangle the mysteries of sudden ground shifts.

Despite decades of research, earthquake prediction remains elusive. As much as society would like scientists to tell us when a jolt is coming, mainstream seismologists are generally pessimistic about ever having that ability.

They lived through the checkered history of earthquake prediction, filled with passioned debates, failed oracles and the enduring search for warning signs that may portend a powerful quake. The Earth so far has refused to give up its secrets.

In recent years, however, a more hopeful camp has emerged, pushed by researchers using satellites who say it may be possible to someday predict earthquakes from space and others who think they can tease out signals in rocks. The two schools of thought swapped notes during a two-day meeting in Los Angeles weeks before a relatively mild magnitude-5.8 rattled the Eastern Seaboard.

Jeff Bezos’ spaceship fails during test flight

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

VAN HORN, Texas (AP) — An unmanned spacecraft bankrolled by Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos failed during a recent test flight.

The vehicle became unstable at 45,000 feet and ground controllers had to terminate it as a precaution. Additional details about what went wrong were not released.

“Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard,” Bezos wrote in a blog post Friday.

Bezos founded Blue Origin to develop a vertical takeoff and landing rocketship that would fly passengers to suborbital space. It recently won money from NASA to compete to go into orbit as a space taxi now that the space shuttle fleet is retired.

Mars rover Opportunity studying new surroundings

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Mars rover Opportunity is snapping pictures like a tourist since arriving at its latest crater destination, much to the delight of scientists many millions of miles away.

The solar-powered workhorse beamed back images of the horizon, soil and nearby rocks that are unlike any it has seen during its seven years roaming the Martian plains.

Opportunity is doing more than just sightseeing. It recently spent a chunk of time using its robotic arm to investigate a flat-topped boulder that likely formed in a hydrothermal environment.

Scientists were giddy with excitement Thursday – a tone reminiscent of the mission’s early days.

Space junk littering orbit; might need cleaning up

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — Space junk has made such a mess of Earth’s orbit that experts say we may need to finally think about cleaning it up.

That may mean vacuuming up debris with weird space technology – cosmic versions of nets, magnets and giant umbrellas, according to the chairman of an expert panel that issued a new report on the problem Thursday.

There are 22,000 objects in orbit that are big enough for officials on the ground to track and countless more smaller ones that could do damage to human-carrying spaceships and valuable satellites. The International Space Station has to move out of the way of debris from time to time.

“We’ve lost control of the environment,” said retired NASA senior scientist Donald Kessler, who headed the National Academy of Sciences report.

Earth lost fight to keep orbit clean of space junk

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Experts say there’s so much junk in space that we may need to finally think about cleaning it up.

That may mean vacuuming up space debris with cosmic versions of nets, magnets and giant umbrellas. A new report says the situation got worse because of two recent events – a Chinese weapon test and the crash of two satellites.

Mars rover Opportunity examining rocks at new site

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Mars rover Opportunity is snapping pictures like a tourist since arriving at its latest crater destination much to the delight of scientists many millions of miles away.

The solar-powered workhorse beamed back images of the horizon, soil and nearby rocks that are unlike any it has seen during its seven years roaming the Martian plains.

Opportunity is doing more than just sightseeing. It recently spent a chunk of time using its robotic arm to investigate a flat-topped boulder to find out what it’s made of.

After a three-year drive, the six-wheel rover finally rolled up to the western rim of Endeavour Crater earlier this month to begin a new chapter of exploration.

Ancient humans used hand axes earlier than thought

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Pierre-Jean Texier

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ancient humans fashioned hand axes, cleavers and picks much earlier than believed, but didn’t take the stone tools along when they left Africa, new research suggests.

A team from the United States and France made the findings after traveling to an archaeological site along the northwest shoreline of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Two-faced blades and other large cutting tools had been previously excavated there along with primitive stone flakes.

Using a sophisticated technique to date the dirt, researchers calculated the age of the more advanced tools to be 1.76 million years old. That’s older than similar stone-age artifacts in Ethiopia and Tanzania estimated to be between 1.4 and 1.6 million years old.

Worry more about Irene’s water than storm’s wind

Friday, August 26th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Bruce Smith

WASHINGTON (AP) — Forget the wind and fury. Hurricane Irene’s most worrisome weapon is water.

There’s just way too much of it: storm surge pushing seawater ashore and heavy rainfall causing flooding. That’s not unusual with hurricanes, but with Irene there are a couple of added factors that are making meteorologists nervous.

This massive, slow-moving hurricane is forecast to soak an already drenched Northeast and may come ashore at a time when tides are unusually high, making storm surge even worse – 4 to 11 feet with waves on top, forecasters say.

“Water is the No. 1 killer,” retired National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Friday afternoon. “That’s going to cause the greatest loss of life.”

Agency releases video of hypersonic glider flight

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An unmanned glider streaks over the Pacific Ocean at 20 times the speed of sound in a video released Thursday by a U.S. defense research agency experimenting with technology that could give the military the ability to strike any part of the globe within an hour.

The Aug. 11 test ended early when a problem caused the craft’s safety system to force it down into the ocean but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said valuable data was collected in the nearly three minutes of free flight at the hypersonic speed of Mach 20 – about 13,000 mph.

The Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2 was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., atop a Minotaur 4 rocket that carried it to the edge of space, performed what DARPA described as a series of aggressive banks and turns, and then released the glider.

The video taken by a crewmember on a tracking ship shows the rocket and vehicle together as a fast-moving contrail and then the HTV-2 as a faint dot zipping away on its own.

Report: NASA made proper pick for retired shuttles

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — NASA acted properly when it picked new homes for the retired space shuttles, the space agency’s watchdog said Thursday.

The shuttles were awarded in April to museums in suburban Washington, Los Angeles, Cape Canaveral, Fla., and New York, based on recommendations by a special NASA team and a decision by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander.

Congressional and local officials for two of the losing cities – Houston and Dayton – had asked for an investigation, alleging political influences in the bidding process.

“We found no evidence that the team’s recommendation or the administrator’s decision were tainted by political influence of any other improper consideration,” Inspector General Paul Martin wrote in the report released Thursday. “Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making.”

Russians search for crashed spaceship in Siberia

Thursday, August 25th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian emergency workers are using helicopters Thursday in their search for the wreckage of the unmanned supply ship that crashed and exploded in a forested area in Siberia.

The spaceship was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan some 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) southwest of the crash site. It fell after the third stage of its booster rocket failed a few minutes into the launch, in the Choisky district in Russia’s Altai province.

It was the 44th launch of a Progress supply ship to the space station – and the first failure in the nearly 13-year life of the complex.

The Progress ship carrying almost 3 tons of supplies to the International Space Station was destroyed. The rocket failed barely a month after NASA’s final space shuttle flight.

Without the shuttles, NASA now is counting on Russia, Europe and Japan, as well as private U.S. businesses, to keep the station stocked.

Wild world: Millions of unseen species fill Earth

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Anonymous

WASHINGTON (AP) — Our world is a much wilder place than it looks. A new study estimates that Earth has almost 8.8 million species, but we’ve only discovered about a quarter of them. And some of the yet-to-be-seen ones could be in our own backyards, scientists say.

So far, only 1.9 million species have been found. Recent discoveries have been small and weird: a psychedelic frogfish, a lizard the size of a dime and even a blind hairy mini-lobster at the bottom of the ocean.

“We are really fairly ignorant of the complexity and colorfulness of this amazing planet,” said the study’s co-author, Boris Worm, a biology professor at Canada’s Dalhousie University. “We need to expose more people to those wonders. It really makes you feel differently about this place we inhabit.”

While some scientists and others may question why we need to know the number of species, others say it’s important.

It’s alive! Space station’s humanoid robot awake

Monday, August 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Anonymous

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s humanoid robot has finally awakened in space.

Ground controllers turned Robonaut on Monday for the first time since it was delivered to the International Space Station in February. The test involved sending power to all of Robonaut’s systems. The robot was not commanded to move; that will happen next week.

“Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind,” Robonaut posted in a Twitter update. (All right, so a Robonaut team member actually posted Monday’s tweets under AstroRobonaut.)

The four visible light cameras that serve as Robonaut’s eyes turned on in the gold-colored head, as did the infrared camera, located in the robot’s mouth and needed for depth perception. One of Robonaut’s tweets showed the view inside the American lab, Destiny.

Utah researcher helps artist make bulletproof skin

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A bio-art project to create bulletproof skin has given a Utah State researcher even more hope his genetically engineered spider silk can be used to help surgeons heal large wounds and create artificial tendons and ligaments.

Researcher Randy Lewis and his collaborators gained worldwide attention recently when they found a commercially viable way to manufacture silk fibers using goats and silkworms that had spider genes inserted into their makeup.

Spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known and five times stronger than steel. Lewis’ fibers are not that strong but much stronger than silk spun by ordinary worms.

With Lewis’ help, Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi conducted an experiment weaving a lattice of human skin cells and silk that was capable of stopping bullets fired at reduced speeds.

In warmer Greenland, shoot the dogs, drill for oil

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

DISKO ISLAND, Greenland (AP) — The old hunter was troubled by the foreigners encroaching on his Inuit people’s frozen lands.

“The Inuit say that they are going to heat the `siku’ (the sea ice) to make it melt. There will be almost no more winter,” the elder says of the southerners in Jean Malaurie’s “Last Kings of Thule,” the French explorer’s classic account of a year in the Arctic.

The year was 1951. A lifetime later, another Inuit hunter looks out at Disko Bay from this island’s rocky fringe and remembers driving his dogsled team over the solid glitter of the siku all the way to Ilulissat, a town 90 kilometers (50 miles) across the water.

“The ice then was 1 to 2 meters thick,” Jakob Jensen, 65, recalled of those winters past.

“Now, it’s a few centimeters. It’s very thin and you can’t go on dogsled.”

Critters moving away from global warming faster

Thursday, August 18th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Jim Asher

WASHINGTON (AP) — Animals across the world are fleeing global warming by heading north much faster than they were less than a decade ago, a new study says.

About 2,000 species examined are moving away from the equator at an average rate of more than 15 feet per day, about a mile per year, according to new research published Thursday in the journal Science which analyzed previous studies. Species are also moving up mountains to escape the heat, but more slowly, averaging about 4 feet a year.

The species – mostly from the Northern Hemisphere and including plants – moved in fits and starts, but over several decades it averages to about 8 inches an hour away from the equator.

“The speed is an important issue,” said study main author Chris Thomas of the University of York. “It is faster than we thought.”

What’s the age of the moon? It could be waning

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

WASHINGTON (AP) — That old moon might not be as antique as we thought, some scientist think. They say it’s possible that it isn’t a day over 4.4 billion years old. But other astronomers disagree with a new study’s conclusions. They think the moon is up to its typical age-defying tricks and is really pushing 4.6 billion as they have suspected all these years.

Either way, the new analysis of an important moon rock brought back by the Apollo 16 mission is showing that the moon isn’t ready to give up its true age and origins quite yet, even though scientists thought they had it all figured out a decade or two ago.

Greenland’s ice: beauty and threat

Monday, August 15th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

ILULISSAT, Greenland (AP) — Greenland’s Inuit people have countless terms in their language to describe ice in all its varieties. This gallery of photographs by AP’s Brennan Linsley likewise is something of a visual vocabulary for the striking and beautiful forms ice takes on and around the giant Arctic island.

On endless ice, searching for clues to our future

Monday, August 15th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

ON JAKOBSHAVN GLACIER, Greenland (AP) — The pilot eased his five-ton helicopter toward the glacier’s rumpled surface, aiming for the lightest of setdowns atop one of the fastest-flowing ice streams on Earth.

David Holland’s voice suddenly broke in on the intercom.

“Carl doesn’t like this!” the scientist shouted. “Carl says it’s snow bridges!” – drifts that can hide a deep crevasse.

The chopper pulled up sharply and veered off over the chaotic icescape of white knobs and pinnacles and bluish glints of meltwater, on to another, safer landing spot where Carl Gladish, Holland’s lanky, ponytailed assistant, stepped cautiously off the skid and onto the ice, under the thudding rotor blades, to swiftly carry out his assigned task.

Anonymous vows to “kill Facebook”

Saturday, August 13th, 2011


The Anonymous group of hackers has claimed responsibility in nearly all major hacks in recent years. Most recently, they hacked into into 70 law enforcement websites in the U.S. and took down the website maintained by the Syrian Ministry of Defense. (more…)

Orion spaceship set for new tests in Colorado

Friday, August 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

DENVER (AP) — A spaceship that could carry the next wave of astronauts to an asteroid or beyond is being prepared for a new round of tests at a Lockheed Martin facility near Denver.

Engineers have attached a launch-abort system to the nose of the capsule and will subject the combined spacecraft to a series of experiments to see if it can withstand the rigors of blastoff, Lockheed Martin said Friday.

The launch-abort system, essentially a rocket attached to the nose of the capsule, could lift the capsule off its booster rocket and carry it to safety if a problem developed before or during launch.

Lockheed Martin, of Bethesda, Md., is building the capsule, called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, under a $7.5 billion NASA contract issued in 2006.

Contact lost with hypersonic glider after launch

Thursday, August 11th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Scottie McCord

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An unmanned hypersonic glider developed for U.S. defense research into super-fast global strike capability was launched atop a rocket early Thursday but contact was lost after the experimental craft began flying on its own, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said.

The problem occurred during the critical point of transition to aerodynamic flight, DARPA said in a statement that described the mission as an attempt to fly the fastest aircraft ever built.

“More than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal,” it said. “Initial indications are that the aircraft impacted the Pacific Ocean along the planned flight path.”

The 7:45 a.m. launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was the second of two planned flights of a Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2. Contact was also lost during the first mission.

Shaped like the tip of a spear, the small craft is part of a U.S. military initiative to develop technology to respond to threats at 20 times the speed of sound or greater, reaching any part of the globe in an hour.

Ancient sea reptile gave birth, didn’t lay eggs

Thursday, August 11th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/S. Abramowicz

WASHINGTON (AP) — The remains of a giant sea creature are providing the first proof that these prehistoric reptiles gave birth to their young rather than laying eggs.

Plesiosaurs, which lived at the time of dinosaurs, were large carnivorous sea animals with broad bodies and two pairs of flippers. Researchers have long questioned whether they would have been able to crawl onto land and lay eggs like other reptiles or gave birth in the water like whales.

Surviving NASA rover nears rim of Martian crater

Monday, August 8th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Months after the death of the Mars rover Spirit, its surviving twin is poised to reach the rim of a vast crater to begin a fresh round of exploration.

Driving commands sent up to Opportunity directed the six-wheel rover to make the final push toward Endeavour crater, a 14-mile-wide depression near the Martian equator that likely could be its final destination.

At its current pace and barring any hiccups, Opportunity should roll up to the crater’s edge on Tuesday. The finish line was a spot along a ridge that the rover team nicknamed “Spirit Point” in honor of Opportunity’s lost twin.

“I’m totally pumped. We’ve been driving for so long,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis who is part of the team.

Continue reading

NASA spacecraft begins 5-year trip to Jupiter

Friday, August 5th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Terry Renna

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A sun-powered robotic explorer named Juno is rocketing toward Jupiter on a fresh quest to discover the secret recipe for making planets.

Hundreds of scientists and their families and friends – among thousands of invited guests – cheered and yelled “Go Juno!” as the unmanned Atlas rocket blasted into a clear midday sky Friday. It will take five years to reach Jupiter, the solar system’s most massive and ancient planet.

“Next stop is Jupiter,” exulted Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator and an astrophysicist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“It’s fantastic!” said Fran Bagenal, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is also part of the NASA project. “Huge relief all around.”

Within an hour of liftoff, Juno hurtled out of Earth’s orbit at 24,000 mph on a roundabout course for Jupiter. It was expected to whip past the orbit of the moon in half a day, or early Saturday morning.

(more…)

Mars Bars: Seasonal Markings on Martian Slopes Could Indicate Flowing Water

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

News | Space

Newfound features on the Red Planet hint that liquid water may still exist there

NEW EVIDENCE: Streaky features extending down Martian slopes could be caused by watery brines on the Red Planet. Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In the long hunt for water on Mars, researchers may have finally caught sight of flowing liquid.

High-resolution photographs from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show dark, transient features on slopes in several midlatitude locations in the southern hemisphere. The features have appeared in Mars’s southern spring across multiple years since the probe entered orbit in 2006, grow in length as they extend downhill, and then fade in late summer or early fall. The new features, which carry the purposefully uncontroversial moniker of recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were announced in a study in the August 5 issue of Science.

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US forecasters see busy rest of hurricane season

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

MIAMI (AP) — Exceptionally high ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions that support hurricane development will keep the Atlantic and Caribbean on track for an above-average storm season, U.S. forecasters said Thursday….

Earth’s two moons? It’s not lunacy, but new theory

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a spectacle that might have beguiled poets, lovers and songwriters if only they had been around to see it, Earth once had two moons, astronomers now think. But the smaller one smashed into the other in what is being called the “big splat.”…

Spacewalking astronauts release mini-satellite

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Spacewalking astronauts released a ham radio satellite outside the International Space Station on Wednesday despite a missing antenna that will hamper operations….

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