Sunday, May 31, 2009

Genetic Disorders: Europe demands early testing of Children

CHILDREN should be tested for genetic disorders if their family history puts them at high risk, even if they don't show any symptoms, according to new Europe-wide guidelines.

Some European countries already have guidelines on testing children at risk of genetic disorders, but they disagree on when to carry out the tests. There is also the thorny issue of whether to test for disorders that can't be treated or prevented, says Pascal Borry of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, who helped write the new guidelines.

Now the European Society of Human Genetics is recommending immediate testing of children at increased risk of treatable conditions that appear in childhood, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and retinitis pigmentosa. Even if treatment is not an option, testing can be worthwhile as it may forewarn or reassure the family, but the child's interests must come first, says the society (European Journal of Genetics, DOI: 10.1038/ejhg.2009.26).

It also states that minors should be able to choose in the case of conditions that only occur later in life, such as inherited breast cancer, provided they understand the implications of the test. Such tests are particularly valuable if modifying lifestyle can lower the chance of getting the disease.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Synaesthesia: Means Wednesday is Indigo Blue!

Synaesthesia, as it turns out, may be up to seven times as common among artists, novelists and composers as it is among other people. What's more, it seems to run in families. For example, the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov (see "From father to son") saw letters in colours, as did his mother - who also heard in colours - and as does his son Dmitri. This obviously lends support to the idea that synaesthesia has a genetic underpinning.

If it is genetic - and common - why would evolution have selected for such a condition? According to Cytowic and Eagleman, it is all "to do with creativity - especially an ease for making metaphoric cross-connections". Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego, has had a book on metaphor and synaesthesia in the wings for a couple of years, so we may be at the start of a rich theory of synaesthesia, one that could illuminate profound issues in consciousness studies and cognitive science.

Malaria and Dengue on the Run

Aedes aegypti. The head is at centre right, with large compound eyes (blue). There are two hairy antennae and a long proboscis (pink) used for penetrating human skin and sucking blood (Image: Eye Of Science / SPL)" title="A coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the head of a female yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The head is at centre right, with large compound eyes (blue). There are two hairy antennae and a long proboscis (pink) used for penetrating human skin and sucking blood (Image: Eye Of Science / SPL)">

A coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the head of a female yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The head is at centre right, with large compound eyes (blue). There are two hairy antennae and a long proboscis (pink) used for penetrating human skin and sucking blood (Image: Eye Of Science / SPL)

Female A. aegypti feed almost exclusively on human blood (see image), and unlike most other mosquito species, it thrives in human habitats. Their larvae grow readily in water-filled plant pot plates and discarded plastic containers. Some even claim that it is more adept at avoiding well-aimed swats.

When an A. aegypti mosquito (see image) bites someone who has dengue, the virus begins replicating in the mosquito's gut. From there it spreads to the salivary gland and, 10 to 14 days after being infected, the mosquito's saliva contains enough virus to infect anyone it bites.

The aim is to combat dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that has reached pandemic proportions in a matter of decades. If the new approach works against dengue fever it should also work against other insect-borne diseases, including the biggest killer, malaria. That possibility has won the team developing this strategy funding through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The potential benefits are huge, but before it can go ahead the team will have to convince people the strategy is safe. If things go wrong, it might make dengue spread even faster.

Still, the situation is already pretty bad. In south-east Asia, long plagued by dengue, outbreaks are becoming bigger, more frequent and longer lasting. In Australia, the Pacific and most of the Americas, where dengue was once rare, the disease is taking hold with a vengeance. An outbreak earlier this year that affected at least 60,000 people in Brazil and Argentina reached Buenos Aires for the first time.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Betrayal by Vietnamese Wildlife farms

Restaurant workers skinning a crocodile. But is it from a farm or from the wild? (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Restaurant workers skinning a crocodile from a Wildlife farm that pretends to protect endangered species (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

WILDLIFE farms are supposed to promote conservation by providing a sustainable alternative to hunting animals in the wild. But those in Vietnam are having exactly the opposite effect, says a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York.

Over the past two decades, dozens of commercial wildlife farms have sprung up in Vietnam. WCS investigators and Vietnamese officials who visited 78 farms undercover found that half had taken original breeding stock from wild populations, and 42 per cent were still doing so.

Animals farmed include snakes, turtles, crocodiles and monkeys. Worst affected are species such as tigers and bears, whose body parts or secretions are valued in traditional medicine. Not only are they slow to breed, but farms can also be used to launder products from animals killed in the wild.

Wildlife farmers should have to prove the source of their animals, and penalties for breaching wildlife laws should be increased, the WCS concludes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Challenging Command: Belgian Astronaut Leads Crew of Six

Frank De Winne is the first European commander of the International Space Station. During his six months in space, De Winne will run a newly enlarged crew conducting science and station-keeping on a mission named OasISS in space.

Space station (ISS) Astronauts Drink Urine

Astronauts drink water recycled from their urine to toast the official start of their new water recycling system - fit to pass any taste test.

Shuttle Atlantis Returnd Safely

Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely After Hubble Success

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely in California on Sunday, bringing home seven triumphant astronauts after their successful service call on the beloved Hubble Space Telescope.

After two days of delay due to storms, the third time was the charm for Atlantis as it touched down on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base at 11:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT) to end a 13-day mission to the 19-year-old Hubble. Rainy weather thwarted the shuttle's attempts to land in Florida earlier today and on Friday and Saturday.

"Welcome home, Atlantis!" radioed Mission Control. "Congratulations on a very successful mission giving Hubble a new set of eyes that will continue to expand our knowledge of the universe."

"Thank you, Houston, it was a thrill from start to finish," Atlantis commander Scott Altman replied. "We've had a great ride. It took a whole team across the country to pull it off, our hats off to you all."

Astronauts' Security Blankets

Giant Moon Blanket Could Protect Astronauts

Solar flares and powerful cosmic rays can shred DNA and increase cancer risks for future astronauts who might make long-term stays on future moon missions.

As NASA considers this issue in its plans for a return the moon by 2020, a team of college students has proposed a solution: giant blankets.

Engineering students at North Carolina State University (NCSU) designed a "lunar texshield," a layered blanket made of lightweight polymer material. The outer surface of the shield is a flexible array of solar cells that generate electricity. Underneath, a layer of radiation shielding deflects or absorbs incoming particles, to better protect astronauts in lunar outposts.

The students entered their design in a NASA-sponsored aerospace engineering competition for college students that will begin in June.

Curiosity: NASA's next Mars Rover

Flagship Mars Rover Gets Name: Curiosity

NASA's next rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, finally has its new name: Curiosity.

The name comes courtesy of Clara Ma, a 12-year-old sixth-grade student at Sunflower Elementary school in Lenexa, Kan.

"We have been eager to call the rover by name," said Pete Theisinger, who manages the JPL team building and testing Curiosity. "Giving it a name worthy of this mission's quest means a lot to the people working on it."

The rover is expected to launch in 2011.

Decyphering the Past

WRITING is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Perhaps the greatest, since it made history possible. Without writing, there could be no accumulation of knowledge, no historical record, no science - and of course no books, newspapers or internet.

The first true writing we know of is Sumerian cuneiform - consisting mainly of wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets - which was used more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Soon afterwards writing appeared in Egypt, and much later in Europe, China and Central America. Civilisations have invented hundreds of different writing systems. Some, such as the one you are reading now, have remained in use, but most have fallen into disuse.

These dead scripts tantalise us. We can see that they are writing, but what do they say?

That is the great challenge of decipherment: to reach deep into the past and hear the voices of the dead. When the Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1823, they extended the span of recorded history by around 2000 years and allowed us to read the words of Ramses the Great. The decipherment of the Mayan glyphs revealed that the New World had a sophisticated, literate civilisation at the time of the Roman empire.

Hot Gas Giants go Through Phases

A SUPER-HOT planet 1500 light years away has been seen waxing and waning like the moon. The discovery hints that hot gas giants come in two varieties.

The phases of Corot 1b were detected by a team at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, who analysed changes in the amount of red light from the system. A small component of the light smoothly dims and brightens as the planet orbits. This is probably alternation between the dark of Corot 1b's relatively cool night side and the glow of its red-hot day side, which permanently faces its star and reaches a temperature of about 2400 kelvin (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature08045).

The stark temperature difference contrasts with previous observations of another gas planet, HD 189733b, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which found a fairly even temperature around the planet of about 1000 kelvin.

The theory is that fierce winds carry solar heat around HD 189733b, whereas on Corot 1b, metal oxides appear to absorb heat high in the stratosphere and quickly re-radiate it before it can be spread around. "What we observe really fits into the idea that there are two different types of planet in this range", says Leiden team member Ignas Snellen.

Hundreds of Insect Fossils found in Amber

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vision through Retina Implants

The Argus II is a minuscule artificial eye that attaches to the retina via 60 electrodes. Stephen Rose, chief research officer at the Foundation Fighting Blindness, says it has “great potential for giving vision to people with the most advanced retinal disease.” With the second phase of human trials underway, expect production models this year.

Need a Lift? Try HAL - Hybrid Assistive Limb

Does your body need an upgrade? Then the robot suit HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), will do the job in a single, step-motored reboot.

Japanese manufacturer Cyberdyne Inc plans to make 500 this year. HAL’s inventor Yoshiyuki Sankai reckons the suit can, “multiply human strength by a factor of two to ten”. It also makes you look like a gladiator from Tron.

(HAL should not to be confused with the homicidal computer company in The Terminator)

Monday, May 25, 2009

FBI Shutdown by Mysterious Virus Attack!

The FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service were forced to shut down parts of their computer networks after a mystery virus struck the law-enforcement agencies.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed that it had disconnected from Justice Department computers as a precaution after being hit with the virus, while an FBI spokesperson would only say that it was experiencing similar issues.

"We too are evaluating a network issue on our external, unclassified network that's affecting several government agencies," reported FBI spokesman Mike Kortan.

The virus' type and origin are unknown, but spokespeople for both agencies said agencies' access to the Internet and e-mail was shut down while the issue was evaluated.

Government regulations require agencies to report any security issues to US-Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), but a call to CERT late Thursday for comment was not immediately returned.

All this following reports that a number of unfriendly governments may have penetrated the US Government sites and planted spybots, viruses, trojans, etc.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ooops! Mars Robots may have destroyed vital evidence of life

Mars landers and Rovers have been destroying signs of life, instead of identifying chemicals that could point to life. NASA's robot explorers may have been toasting them by mistake.

In 1976, many people's hopes of finding life on Mars collapsed when the twin Viking landers failed to detect even minute quantities of organic compounds - the complex, carbon-containing molecules that are central to life as we know it. "It contributed, in my opinion, to the fact that there were no additional [US lander] missions to Mars for 20 years," says Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The result also created a puzzle. Even if Mars has never had life, comets and asteroids that have struck the planet should have scattered at least some organic molecules - though not produced by life - over its surface.

Some have suggested that organics were cleansed from the surface by naturally occurring, highly reactive chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide. Then last year, NASA's Phoenix lander, which also failed to detect organics on Mars, stumbled on something in the Martian soil that may have, in effect, been hiding the organics: a class of chemicals called perchlorates.

At low temperatures, perchlorates are relatively harmless. But when heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius they release a lot of oxygen, which tends to cause any nearby combustible material to burn. For that very reason, perchlorates are used in rocket propulsion.

After 17,000 Years Modern Human pathogens threaten ancient cave art

HISTORIC cave paintings in France partially saved from attack by a black fungus face a new threat: bacteria that moved in following four years of spraying with fungicide.

The Lascaux cave in south-west France houses invaluable animal paintings that are between 16,000 and 17,000 years old, making them among the oldest examples of cave art ever found. Now conservationists must deal with the twin threats of the Fusarium solani fungus and the new bacterial populations.

The latest invasion came to light when a team of Spanish and French microbiologists analysed 11 swabs from the cave walls, comparing the profile of species found in Lascaux with those in undisturbed caves in Spain. Almost all the bacteria and protozoa found in Lascaux were associated with human activity.

"The Lascaux cave is now a reservoir of potential pathogenic bacteria and protozoa similar to those found in disease outbreaks linked to contaminated air-conditioning systems and cooling towers in hospitals and public buildings," says team member Cesareo Saiz-Jimenez of the Spanish Institute of Natural and Agrobiological Research in Seville.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Thin Line of Earth's Fragile Atmosphere

The Hubble repair mission in pictures (Image © AP Photo/Nasa)
The blackness of space and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to this photograph of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Friday, May 22, 2009

US Arms are Tied!

CIVILIAN space flight companies are this week pressing the US government to change strict arms-control rules that could cripple their nascent industry.

At issue are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are supposed to prevent technological secrets ending up in the hands of 21 proscribed nations, including China, Iran and North Korea.

If a technology appears on a document called the US Munitions List, companies need a licence to export it or to reveal details to a foreign national. Even if granted, the licence often forces the firm to mount a security guard on the system while it is in another country.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ötzi the iceman: Leaves a Wealth of Knowledge

Ötzi is a mummified human discovered in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy. He died around 3300 BC.

The mummy offers a wealth of information about the humans living in Europe at the time. Ötzi was named after the Ötztal region where he was found.

The new EURAC Iceman photoscan website now gives all web users access to images of the body gathered by researchers. The site has a dynamic online-map-style interface to let people zoom into photographs that capture Ötzi from all angles and show details as small as 1 millimetre.

(Image: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / Eurac / Marco Samadelli / Gregor Staschitz)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Transitional Primate Fossil: NOT Missing Link!

This is Ida, a spectacularly preserved 47-million-year-old primate fossil from the Messel Pit in Germany. She is NOT the missing Link.

It is a transitional fossil, belonging to a new genus and species of primates: Darwinius masillae.

It has some features of the Strepsirrhini, popularly known as "wet nose" primates - the primate suborder that contains lemurs, but which does not belong to the human lineage.

However, the authors say that other features suggest it lies within the other primate group: the Haplorrhini, "dry nose primates", which contains tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans.

Hubble (HST) upgraded and returned to orbit

The space shuttle Atlantis has released the Hubble Space Telescope back into space, after five days of back-to-back spacewalks to repair and upgrade the 19-year-old observatory (Image: NASA)

A spruced-up Hubble Space Telescope has been released back into space after five days of spacewalks to repair and upgrade the ageing observatory.

The space shuttle Atlantis will now make its way back to Earth, ending the $1.1 billion mission, which aimed to extend Hubble's life to at least 2014 and vastly improve its vision.

Six days after grabbing hold of the telescope with the shuttle's 15-metre-long robotic arm, astronaut Megan McArthur lifted the telescope from the shuttle's payload bay and placed it back in its own orbit at 1257 GMT.

Now, the 19-year-old telescope will undergo an intensive testing period, in which astronomers and engineers will calibrate and assess the health of the newly-installed and repaired instruments. NASA hopes Hubble science operations will reach "full stride" by September, Hubble programme manager Preston Burch told reporters on Monday.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hubble condition is stable

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel installed Hubble's highest-priority instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, on the first of five spacewalks (pictured) on Thursday. On Friday, astronauts Mike Massimino and Michael Good tackled the space shuttle servicing mission's top priority - installing six gyroscopes used to stabilise the telescope (Image: NASA)

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel installed Hubble's highest-priority instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, on the first of five spacewalks (pictured) on Thursday. On Friday, astronauts Mike Massimino and Michael Good tackled the space shuttle servicing mission's top priority - installing six gyroscopes used to stabilise the telescope (Image: NASA)

Hubble Re-fit Goes as Planned, almost

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel installed a new camera and data router on the Hubble Space Telescope during the first spacewalk of the last Hubble servicing mission. The 7 hour, 20 minute spacewalk took almost an hour longer than scheduled (Image: NASA)

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel installed a new camera and data router on the Hubble Space Telescope during the first spacewalk of the last Hubble servicing mission. The 7 hour, 20 minute spacewalk took almost an hour longer than scheduled (Image: NASA)

Hubble was outfitted with a brand-new camera during a marathon spacewalk on Thursday – one of the top priorities of the space shuttle mission to service the telescope. But the crucial installation did not go off without a hitch – spacewalking astronauts had to struggle to remove a stuck bolt on the telescope's old camera.

The space shuttle Atlantis launched on Monday on an 11-day shuttle mission to refurbish the telescope and extend its life until at least 2014. The mission, the last to service the iconic telescope, is set to leave the probe with its best vision yet.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Italian Spiderbots to explore the Moon

Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a $30 million prize. Here, looks at Team Italia, one of 17 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize:

What began as a glimmer in the mind's eye for one robotics researcher has grown into a national endeavor for Team Italia, one of 17 groups competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.

"Team Italia has evolved," said Piero Messina, president of the Naples-based International Association for the Aerospace Culture (AICA) that is coordinating Team Italia. Messina helped pull together all the major Italian aerospace and engineering universities, as well as the two largest Italian aerospace companies, to support the race to land a robot on the moon by 2012.

Hubble sees Eye in the Sky

This Hubble image of planetary nebula Kohoutek 4-55 was taken by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 on May 4, 2009. The colors represent the makeup of the various emission clouds in the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen. K 4-55 is nearly 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL

Planetary nebulas have nothing to do with planets. They were named so because in early telescopes, they had the fuzzy look of planets in our outer solar system. In fact planetary nebulas sit throughout our galaxy. This one contains the outer layers of a red giant star that were expelled into space as the star entered its death throes.

Ultraviolet radiation from the remaining hot core of the star zaps the ejected gas shells, making them glow. A bright inner ring is surrounded by a bipolar structure. The entire system is then surrounded by a faint red halo, seen in the emission by lit-up nitrogen gas. This multi-shell structure is fairly uncommon in planetary nebulas, astronomers said.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Female(?) Robot asks for Directions

Robots are getting better at finding their way around unknown areas, and making their own maps as they explore. But robots lost in urban areas don't need to rely on their own faculties to get from place to place, German roboticists have shown.

Their mobile robot simply rolls up to any humans nearby and asks for directions. By using that strategy, their robot has become one of the first to be properly let loose in the real world, not just carefully controlled environments.

Martin Buss's team at the Technical University of Munich dumped their mobile robot outside the university and instructed it to find its way to the Marienplatz in the centre of Munich, some 1.5 kilometres away.

Shuttle and Hubble (HST) Re-united at last

After a two-day approach to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttle Atlantis has captured the probe and stowed it safely in its payload bay. Astronauts will begin the first of five full days of spacewalks on Thursday to refurbish the probe and extend its life until at least 2014 (Image: NASA)

After a two-day approach to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttle Atlantis has captured the probe and stowed it safely in its payload bay. Astronauts will begin the first of five full days of spacewalks on Thursday to refurbish the probe and extend its life until at least 2014 (Image: NASA)

As the captured telescope came into view of astronauts in the shuttle, lead spacewalker John Grunsfeld, who has visited the telescope on two previous shuttle missions, sent the first dispatch on the condition of the telescope to mission control: "I'm just looking out the window here, and it's an unbelievably beautiful sight. Amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in fantastic shape."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Caution Mars samples: Bio-Hazard?

If NASA aims to bring Mars samples back to Earth, it should prepare for the possibility that the samples could include organisms that might endanger humans and other terrestrial life, a new report by the US National Research Council says. To prevent potential contamination by any Martian life, the report argues that early in the mission, NASA should begin building a secure facility on Earth to house the samples.

Within the next two decades, NASA hopes to launch a mission to Mars that could return the first pristine samples of Martian atmosphere, rocks and soil. These samples could be used to perform tests that may be impossible with lightweight robotic explorers, such as definitively measuring rock ages and, potentially, finding the first evidence of Martian life.

But the hazards such life might pose to terrestrial life are unknown. If self-replicating organisms are brought back to Earth, there could be a slim but non-zero chance that they could infect Earth organisms or compete with them in a way that could affect Earth's ecosystems.

"Given that this is a very high-stakes game where we're talking about a potentially global problem, we have to be inherently conservative," says Jack Farmer of Arizona State University in Tempe, who chaired the committee of 10 experts behind the report, which was commissioned by NASA.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Shuttle Atlantis: Hubble Space Telescope repair mission

The shuttle Atlantis blasted off on Monday to service the Hubble Space Telescope (Image: NASA TV)

The shuttle Atlantis blasted off on Monday to service the Hubble Space Telescope (Image: NASA TV)

Seven astronauts took to the skies on Monday on the last space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission is expected to extend Hubble's life until at least 2014 and provide it with its best vision yet.

The space shuttle Atlantis successfully reached orbit about nine minutes after blasting off at 1801 GMT from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 11-day shuttle mission will be the last to visit the iconic telescope. Over the course of five consecutive spacewalks, astronauts will install six new gyroscopes that help the telescope stabilise itself, six new batteries, two new science instruments and will repair two others.

"In some ways, this is the toughest servicing mission we've ever attempted," NASA's associate administrator for science Ed Weiler told reporters at a pre-mission briefing in April.

Global Warming: Protecting the Maldives

Global Warming holds the greatest threat for these idyllic atolls in the Indian Ocean

Friday, May 8, 2009

Horse Head Nebula - New vision

The Horse-Head Nebula

This photograph capturing light 1500 years old was taken by pioneering photographer and astronomer David Malin (Image: David Malin)

Every astronomy buff is familiar with the Horsehead nebula in the constellation Orion - a dark, dense molecular cloud in the shape of an equine head and neck, silhouetted against the fiery light of ionised hydrogen gas. The optical effect is completed by the less often appreciated "mane" behind the horse's head (pictured left).

The mane is a cloud of cold gas, mostly hydrogen, that is fluorescing. Since this fluorescence is red, David Malin used a red filter to take this photograph. He then applied "unsharp masking" which, belying its name, increases image sharpness by bringing forth features that are otherwise too faint to see. The 1500-year-old light from the nebula was collected using the Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Malin's innovative techniques and extraordinarily long exposure times - some as long as an hour - have created images of galaxies and nebulae that reveal their hidden details, and have furthered our understanding of the universe. He has helped identify two new types of galaxies - shell and proto-galaxies - among the faintest objects ever detected by a ground-based telescope.

A more familiar representation of the Horsehead Nebula

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Decaying Reactors (RTG)s

Developed in the 1950s, radioisotope thermal generators, or RTGs, power spacecraft such as Cassini (illustrated) as well as historic spacecraft including Pioneer 10 and 11, the Viking and Voyager missions, and experiment 'packages' on the Apollo moon landers. Reliable RTG power allowed some missions to continue for decades (Illustration: NASA/JPL)"

We owe the wonderful imagesMovie Camera of the outer solar system taken by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft to the power generated by Cold War surplus nuclear isotopes. But those leftovers are expected to run out in 2018, and no good alternatives are ready, warns a new report by the US National Research Council.

The crucial isotope is plutonium-238. It can't be used in weapons or reactors, but as the atoms decay, they emit alpha particles, or helium nuclei, that easily convert their energy to heat.

Nearly half a century ago, NASA developed radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that convert the heat from radioactive decay into electricity. That makes them the only long-term source of power available when sunlight is too weak to use solar cells.

Plutonium 238 production

But the weapons-production reactors that produced plutonium-238 were shuttered two decades ago. The existing inventory is running out, and most of it is needed for pending missions including the Mars Science Laboratory and the planned Europa orbiter.

With eight years needed to start producing 5 kilograms of plutonium-238 per year, the report argues that funding be added to the 2010 budget for the project. Existing reactors could produce the isotope but at least $150 million in new equipment would be needed to process it into a usable form.

Six Degrees of Separation

Flowers: some potent, some facing extinction and some just stink up the place

Angel trumpet flowers

Angel trumpet flowers come from Colombia in South America.
In ancient times, the slaves and wives of dead Mayan kings were put to sleep by drinking a potion containing this innocent looking flower - and then buried alive.

Mauritian blue bell flower

Existing on only one cliff in Mauritius, this flower is highly endangered in the wild.

The lovely blue bell-shaped flower contains a sweet red nectar. If you were to shake the flower, your hands would be left bright red.

Alas poor Hobbit......we did not know you well!

Anthropology is comparing this small hobbit skull to that of it's square jawed Homo Sapien cousin and coming to differing views.

The tale of Homo floresiensis, aka 'the hobbit' is beginning to read less like a Tolkien epic and more like an Agatha Christie whodunit.

Two studies have added a new and interesting twist to the plot. One claims that the skeleton's ape-like feet push back its ancestry near the dawn of Homo. Another argues that the hobbit is a later offshoot of Homo erectus, dwarfed by aeons of island isolation, just like the British!

"Either answer is pretty damn exciting," says William Jungers, a palaeoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, who led the analysis of the foot. "It's telling us something pretty amazing about human evolution."

The Hobbit skeleton

Researchers unearthed the hobbit's 18,000-year-old skeleton in Liang Bua Cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Then in 2004 partial remains from at least a half dozen individuals were uncovered.

Much of the subsequent research has focused on the skull, which encased a 417 cubic-centimetre brain; about the size of a chimpanzee's and a third the size of a human adult brain.

Allegedly, island species, separated from their mainland kin, tend to shrink over evolutionary time, so the main thrust of the "hobbit as a separate species" arguments have focussed on its small brain. However another theory holds that the skull is simply that of a diseased Homo sapiens.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Who wants to live forever? Who dares.......?

Maschinenmensch - The hunt for Singularity

This fictional robot, known as the Maschinenmensch or "false Maria", featured in Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis (Image: Everett Collection / Rex)

Vernor Vinge

Although Kurzweil is the public face of the singularity today, Vernor Vinge coined the term.

He was inspired by a monograph written in 1964 by the statistician and Bletchley Park code-breaker Irving John Good entitled "Speculations concerning the first ultra-intelligent machine". Good argued that for humanity to survive, we must create a machine more intelligent than ourselves. Such a machine would be able to continually improve itself, becoming more and more intelligent, essentially without limit.

The idea was developed by Vinge, a computer scientist and science fiction author, in an essay written in 1993 called "The coming technological singularity". He argued that the singularity would occur in the mid-21st century, and that barring civilisation-wide disasters it is inevitable.

Vinge has also explored the idea in a number of science fiction novels.

Statistician Irving John Good (1965) speculated on the consequences of machines smarter than humans:

"Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make."

Butterflies imprisoned by IntraTuin

Live butterfly in Mother’s Day gift box creates outrage in Netherlands and around the civilised World!

Intratuin Netherlands wants to pack live butterflies and sell them as Mother’s Day gifts. News that live butterflies will be packaged as Mother’s Day gifts and sold in garden centre Intratuin has been criticised by the Animal Rights Party (PvdD) and the Dutch Butterfly Conservation in the Netherlands.

The PvdD, which holds two seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, slams the sale of a live butterfly in a box as cruel and has asked the Nature Minister Gerda Verburg to ban the sale of the “fragile creatures”.PvdD leader Esther Ouwehand was quoted in the AD as saying: "This is bizarre; butterflies do not belong in boxes."The thistle butterflies, which will be sold in one of Intratuin branches in South Holland, will be priced at EUR 6.99 each.

The sales promotion is aimed at highlighting the plight of some butterfly species in the Netherlands, said a spokesperson for Intratuin. The company expects purchasers to release the insects within 24 hours, thus boosting the butterfly population.

The Dutch Butterfly Conservation condemns the plan and fears that many thistle butterflies are unlikely to survive their time spent in the box."It's a really bad idea. The chance that the butterfly will die is really, really high. If they get warm in the box, they start flapping their wings, get stressed and damage their wings," said Kars Veling of the Dutch Butterfly Conservation organisation.

However, Intratuin maintains there is nothing wrong with selling live butterflies."We are always very careful with the sale of live animals… It's also part of a campaign to make people aware of the fact that butterflies are facing serious problems in this country," said an Intratuin spokesperson.

The argument is invalid according to Veling who said butterfly numbers have fallen dramatically over the last 30 to 40 years due to the enormous changes in the Dutch landscape.“Releasing a few butterflies won't help at all," said Veling.

The Internet: How easily could it be shut down?

How easy is it to SHUTDOWN the Internet?

The experts and geeks alike will tell you that it is impossible! "Almost, certainly not." They would say in their clearly doubtful manner.

Why not?, you ask. Well, much of the infrastructure, the servers, cabling, satellites, and the internet service providers (ISPs) that run them, is in private hands. A single government might be able to command ISPs in their territory to shut down, but people could still receive data through satellite links controlled by other companies not answerable to that government. Hmm! OK so far.

To extend that shutdown across national borders is barely conceivable. "One very powerful government could have strong effects on their own country, but it would be very difficult to do this on a worldwide basis," says Milton Mueller, and he should know, he represents the international Internet Governance Project.

Who would 'want' to shut down the internet? Even the biggest cyber-attacks cause much less economic damage than closing the internet would. What's more, the experts say, malicious attempts to disable the internet are testimony to the difficulty of the task: the biggest attack in history came in February 2007, and you probably didn't even notice.

This attack attempted to overwhelm the 13 "root name servers" that carry the directory of all the internet addresses in use worldwide - data vital to the smooth running of the net. Two servers, both in the US, were affected, but with 11 others untouched, the attack failed.

ICANN has now begun to implement a further safeguard system, known as Anycast, by which each of the internet's 13 root name servers also acts as a duplicate, or mirror, for some of the others. "A root server in California can be mirrored in Taiwan or the Middle East," Mueller says. "By playing tricks with the addressing, we effectively have hundreds of these root servers."

If cyber-assaults get nowhere in shutting down the net, physical attacks on the infrastructure are unlikely to fare any better. You would have to physically plant bombs to destroy undersea cables, before launching missile attacks on the root name servers that are spread around the planet. "Then the internet will be the least of your worries," says Mueller. "We're talking about full-fledged international war."

There is another question that puzzles me. Why would the cyber-criminals and hackers want to shut down the web? It is the source of all their revenue, thrills and raison d'etre. I believe that the 'manipulation' and 'control' of the internet is a more probably target and that again is only partly possible with or without government funding, allegedly.

Could flowers bloom on icy moon Europa?

The Arctic Poppy and other high-latitude flowers have parabolic shapes to focus sunlight on the reproductive parts at their centres. Physicist Freeman Dyson says such plants might evolve on other worlds as well (Image: Ansgar Walk)

The Arctic Poppy and other high-latitude flowers have parabolic shapes to focus sunlight on the reproductive parts at their centres. Physicist Freeman Dyson says such plants might evolve on other worlds as well (Image: Ansgar Walk)

Physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson says we should search for extraterrestrial life where it is easiest to find, even if the conditions there are not ideal for life as we know it. Specifically, he says spacecraft should look for flowers – similar to those found in Earth's Arctic regions – on icy moons and comets in the outer solar system.

"I would say the strategy in looking for life in the universe should be to look for what's detectable, not what's probable," he said on Saturday at a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"We have a tendency among the theorists in this field to guess what's probable. In fact our guesses are likely to be wrong," Dyson said. "We never had as much imagination as nature."

He said spacecraft should hunt for signs of life on Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa, since it would be detectable there.

It is eminently possible that flowers could bloom on the icy surface of Europa, given that they can be seen outdoors in chilly Scotland.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ISS Node 3 to be shipped to NASA for launch

The European-built Node 3 starts it's journey to the ISS via NASA in Florida

The European-built Node 3 module is an essential component for the much needed expansion of the International Space Station. It will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, on 17 May. Media representatives are invited to attend a ceremony on 16 May at Thales Alenia Space, Turin, Italy, to mark the departure of Node 3.

Node 3 module was under construction at Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy. Once in space, Node 3 will connect to the port side of the Unity Node and will provide room for eight refrigerator-sized racks, two of the locations being used for the avionics racks controlling Node 3.

It will house many of the Station's Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS), including an air revitalisation system, an oxygen generator system, a water recycling facility, a waste and hygiene compartment and a treadmill for crew exercise, which are currently stored in various places around the Station.

The Node 3 connecting module is the last element of a barter agreement (no money changes hand) by which ESA supplied NASA with Space Station hardware including the Cupola and two Node modules (Node 2 and 3). In return, NASA ferried the European Columbus laboratory to the ISS in February 2008.

I have to admit that, whilst working at ESA I played a minor role in reviewing and advancing these barter agreements and take some pride in seeing them come to fruition. They are symbolic of the co-operation and mutual support that has been the backbone supporting space exploration and exploitation in Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada and the USA, to date. Let's hope it continues and can be extended to other emerging nations.

Herschel & Planck: High Risk and High Stakes

Herschel & Planck sits ready in the cargo bay of the Ariane 5 launcher.

Separately, each is a major mission. Together, they constitute a landmark in astrophysics. The probes could revolutionise our understanding of the cosmos. If everything goes to plan, Herschel and Plank will dominate space science for at least five years. But if the launch goes wrong...

With science budgets shrinking, launching two such important missions on the same rocket smacks of madness, especially given that the launcher, an Ariane 5 rocket, has suffered a couple of high-profile and expensive failures. In 1996, a computer bug caused the loss of ESA's Cluster mission, which was rebuilt at a cost of €315 million. In 2002, a commercial launch exploded, forcing ESA to delay its Rosetta mission and costing it a further €100 million.

With the combined bill for Herschel and Planck coming in at more than €2 billion, it is near-inconceivable that they will be rebuilt if something goes wrong. Their loss would leave ESA reeling. The agency has other missions in the pipeline, including a mission to Mercury and a star-mapping project called Gaia. These have excellent scientific potential but they somehow seem small in comparison.

In short, if we lose Herschel and Planck, the heart of ESA's - and arguably the world's - space science programme would be ripped out. Let us all wish ESA the very best of luck.

Herscel Planck: Ready for countdown

Monday, May 4, 2009

String Theory tied into Multiverses

BRIAN GREENE spent a good part of the last decade extolling the virtues of string theory. He dreamed that one day it would provide physicists with a theory of everything that would describe our universe - ours and ours alone. His bestselling book The Elegant Universe eloquently captured the quest for this ultimate theory.

"But the fly in the ointment was that string theory allowed for, in principle, many universes," says Greene, who is a theoretical physicist at Columbia University in New York. In other words, string theory seems equally capable of describing universes very different from ours. Greene hoped that something in the theory would eventually rule out most of the possibilities and single out one of these universes as the real one: ours.

So far, it hasn't - though not for any lack of trying. As a result, string theorists are beginning to accept that their ambitions for the theory may have been misguided. Perhaps our universe is not the only one after all. Maybe string theory has been right all along.

Greene, certainly, has had a change of heart. "You walk along a number of pathways in physics far enough and you bang into the possibility that we are one universe of many," he says. "So what do you do? You smack yourself in the head and say, 'Ah, maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.' I have personally undergone a sort of transformation, where I am very warm to this possibility of there being many universes, and that we are in the one where we can survive."

We keep banging into the possibility that we are one universe of many. Maybe that's telling us something

Vile trade: Bear Bile farming should be outlawed

JASPER is an Asiatic black bear, also known as a moon bear because of the yellow crescent on his chest. In 2000 he came to the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu, China, from a bear farm.

When Jasper arrived his rescuers had to cut him out of a tiny "crush cage" that pinned him down so the farmer could extract lucrative bile from his gall bladder. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine and fetches a tidy price. In China, the wholesale price is around 4000 yuan (approximately $580) per kilogram; each bear produces up to 5 kilograms a year. But it comes at terrible cost.

Jasper spent 15 years in his cage. Other bears spend up to 25 years in cages no bigger than their bodies, barely able to move. Bears are milked for bile twice a day. In China, farmers use a crude catheter inserted into the gall bladder or a permanently open wound. In Vietnam, they use long hypodermic needles.

Over the past 10 years, Animals Asia has rescued 260 bears from Chinese bear farms. These are the lucky ones. The official number of farmed bears in China is 7000, but Animals Asia fears the real figure is closer to 10,000.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

NEO: 3Km wide Asteroid in contra orbit - potential impact threat

The newly discovered asteroid 2009 HC82 travels on an orbit that is tilted by 155° with respect to the orbital plane of the planets, which means it travels in the opposite direction (Illustration: NASA/JPL)

The discovery of a 2- to 3-kilometre-wide asteroid in an orbit that goes backwards has set astronomers scratching their heads. It comes closer to Earth than any other object in a 'retrograde' orbit, and astronomers think they should have spotted it before.

The object, called 2009 HC82, was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona on the morning of 29 April.

From observations of its position by five different groups, Sonia Keys of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center calculated it orbits the sun every 3.39 years on a path that ventures within 3.5 million km of the Earth's orbit. Combined with its size, that makes 2009 HC82 a potentially hazardous asteroid.

HC82 a potentially hazardous asteroid.

What's really unusual is that the calculated orbit is inclined 155° to the plane of the Earth's orbit. That means that as it orbits the Sun, it actually travels backwards compared to the planets. It is only the 20th asteroid known in a retrograde orbit, a very rare group. None of the others comes as close to the Earth.

The retrograde orbit of this asteroid will greatly increase the 'speed at impact' of this object, colliding with the Earth

The retrograde orbit of this asteroid will greatly increase the 'speed at impact' of this object and its potential for major damage. This is because both the Earth and HC82 will be travelling towards each other at high speed, like two trains heading towards each other on the same track.