Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Space Radiation Reaches an all time High

Like a wounded Starship Enterprise, our solar system's natural shields are faltering, letting in a flood of cosmic rays. The sun's recent listlessness is resulting in record-high radiation levels that pose a hazard to both human and robotic space missions.

Galactic cosmic rays are speeding charged particles that include protons and heavier atomic nuclei. They come from outside the solar system, though their exact sources are still being debated.

Earth dwellers are protected from cosmic rays by the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere. But outside Earth's protective influence, cosmic rays can play havoc with spacecraft electronics – they may be responsible for some recent computer glitches on NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which temporarily halted its planet-hunting observations. They can also damage astronaut DNA, which can lead to cancer.

Now, the influx of galactic cosmic rays into our solar system has reached a record high. Measurements by NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft indicate that cosmic rays are 19 per cent more abundant than any previous level seen since space flight began a half century ago.

Solar minimum
"The space era has so far experienced a time of relatively low cosmic ray activity," says Richard Mewaldt of Caltech, who is a member of the ACE team. "We may now be returning to levels typical of past centuries."

The sun's magnetic field normally blocks some of the cosmic rays, preventing them from entering the solar system. But that protection has weakened of late. The solar wind, which helps project the sun's magnetic field out into space, has dropped in pressure to a 50-year low. And the strength of the magnetic field in interplanetary space is down to just 4 nanoTesla, compared to the more typical 6 to 8 nanoTesla.

The recent weakening of the shield is due to cycles in solar activity. The sun is at a minimum in its 11-year cycle of magnetic activity, and this particular dip is deeper than any other seen in nearly a century.

Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan

Cirque du Soleil Tourist on board
The Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 carrying Expedition 21 Flight Engineer Jeffrey N. Williams, Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev and Spaceflight Participant Guy Laliberté to the International Space Station.

(Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Standby: Electric Fish Turn Down Charge for Energy Efficiency

Fish that use electric fields to sense their environments dim their signals to save energy during the day when they are resting.

Sternopygus macrurus, a South American river fish, is a natural practitioner of energy efficiency. It can reshape the charged-molecule channels in its electricity-producing cells to tone down its electrical signature within a matter of minutes.

“This is a really expensive signal to produce. The fish is using up a lot of its energy budget,” said neurobiologist Michael Markham at the University of Texas at Austin, lead author of a paper in PLoS Biology on the fish. “These animals are saving energy by reducing the strength of the signal when they are not active.”

Thousands of fish and other oceanic creatures use electrical fields to help them perceive their environments. The most famous is the electric eel, which a colleague of Markham’s termed “a frog with a cattle prod attached,” but most animals use the electrical signals in more subtle ways.

The fish’s standard electrical signal runs at 100 hertz; if you turn the electrical signal into sound, it sounds like a hum high whine. In laboratory experiments, the fish can detect tiny bugs half a centimeter wide and easily navigate obstacles by detecting the changes the objects cause in the electrical field.

New Google Wave to be Beta Tested by 100,000 Users

Google Wave, a product that promises to revolutionize online communication, will go out to about 100,000 beta testers Wednesday.

Google Wave hopes to replace e-mail as the main way people communicate online.
The Web application from Google Inc. combines elements of e-mail, chat, Wiki documents, blogs and photo-sharing sites to create a form of Internet communication called a "hosted conversation," or a "wave."

Google demonstrated Wave at the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco, California, in May. The closed group of beta testers will help Google fish bugs out of the application before a public release by the end of the year, according to the Google Wave Web site.

The app was created by Jens and Lars Rasmussen, the Australian brothers who developed Google Maps. The Rasmussen brothers said they hope Google Wave will eventually replace e-mail as the main way people converse on the Internet.

"This should be something everybody uses and something everybody knows," Jens Rasmussen said.

In Wave, e-mail-like communications can be edited by several users simultaneously. And users can chat about certain sections of Wave documents in real time, where all users see what a person is typing as it is typed. If a person comes to the conversation late, they can replay everything they've missed.

The Rasmussens hope these functions will make online communication more efficient and collaborative.

Here are some of the Google Wave features and add-ons that could drive real benefits for organisations:

Ribbit (currently in beta) brings in audio with its conference call gadget and message gadget, incorporating real-time audio streaming and recorded messages (including a transcript) in the associated wave. No means of communication left behind! is working on a prototype extension to Google Wave that could help its customers provide customized, documented support in their own businesses — leveraging the cloud-based platforms and interactive capabilities. Support cases are maintained and updated, from initial point of contact to resolution within the wave. Google Wave, with the ability to interact with other cloud platforms, could change the way customer support is handled.

SAP is working on a prototype for business process modeling called Gravity. Using the communication integration capabilities of Wave, users collaborate on business process modeling activities in near real time — working together to approve models, find windows of opportunity for business process automation and help build a strategy for execution and refinement of the processes.

It’s still early days for the Wave technology (some bugs and kinks need to be worked out) but it all looks promising and a tool for CIOs to embrace

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Canadian space tourist and founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte

Canadian space tourist and founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte jokes with his wife during a press conference at Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome. He is due to launch into space tomorrow

Canadian space tourist and founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte jokes with his wife during a press conference at Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome. He is due to launch into space today/tomorrow.

Picture: AFP/GETTY

Iran's Hidden Nuclear Facility - Interactive MAP Feature -

Iran?s Hidden Nuclear Facility - Interactive Feature -

Iran's Hidden Nuclear Facility

Images show the details of a hidden facility in Iran that experts say is the nuclear site recently disclosed by the Obama administration. Information about the plant is from an analysis by IHS Jane's.

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New Dell Latitude Z Laptop Charges Wirelessly - - Business Technology Leadership

New Dell Latitude Z Laptop Charges Wirelessly - - Business Technology Leadership

Starting at $1,999, the Latitude Z can be recharged by placing it on a special notebook stand that creates an "inductive charging" field similar to cordless toothbrush or electric shaver chargers, said Steve Belt, vice-president of engineering for Dell's business client hardware group.

The induction charger works with an induction coil on the Latitude Z to refill its battery as fast as a conventional wired charger, Belt said. It is also 70% efficient, making it better than typical inductive charging systems that waste 50% of the electricity sent through them. Despite the power surging within its field, Belt said the charger won't affect any nearby devices.

Besides the inductive charging, Dell is also offering an optional wireless docking station based on Ultrawideband technology . Placed near the user's desk, the docking station includes several USB connectors, a DVI video connector, and audio jacks, which are connected via wired connections.

The Latitude Z needs to be brought only within about 9 feet of the docking station for it to be connected wirelessly to those ports and devices, Belt said.

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Google Earth: Live video makes cities bustle

Data from traffic and weather cameras can bring the ghost towns of virtual earth programmes to life with people, cars and weather....

Cell towers that blend vs. those that offend - Network World

Cell towers that blend vs. those that offend - Network World

A real nerds Slideshow !

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In Liquid and Air, Scientists Find Order Among the Chaos -

In Liquid and Air, Scientists Find Order Among the Chaos -

Assisted by instruments that can track in fine detail how parcels of fluid move, and by low-cost computers that can crunch vast amounts of data quickly, researchers have found hidden structures beyond Monterey Bay, structures that explain why aircraft meet unexpected turbulence, why the air flow around a car causes drag and how blood pumps from the heart's ventricles. In December, the journal Chaos will highlight the research under way to track the moving skeletons embedded in complex flows, known as Lagrangian coherent structures.

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Dark Matter Hunters Construct a New Weapon - Detector


That dark matter has never been found is no deterrent to the physicists who are looking for it.

“Even if we don’t know what dark matter is, we know how it must act,” said Eduardo Abancens, a physicist at Spain’s University of Zaragoza and designer of a prototype dark matter detector.

According to physicists, only around five percent of what makes up the universe can presently be detected. The existence of dark matter is inferred from the behavior of faraway galaxies, which move in ways that can only be explained by a gravitational pull caused by more mass than can be seen. They estimate dark matter represents around 20 percent of the universe, with the other 75 percent made up of dark energy, a repulsive force that is causing the universe to expand at an ever-quickening pace.

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Burst of Technology Helps Blind to See -

Burst of Technology Helps Blind to See -

She is beginning an intensive three-year research project involving electrodes surgically implanted in her eye, a camera on the bridge of her nose and a video processor strapped to her waist.

The project, involving patients in the United States, Mexico and Europe, is part of a burst of recent research aimed at one of science’s most-sought-after holy grails: making the blind see.

Some of the 37 other participants further along in the project can differentiate plates from cups, tell grass from sidewalk, sort white socks from dark, distinguish doors and windows, identify large letters of the alphabet, and see where people are, albeit not details about them.

Linda Morfoot, 65, of Long Beach, Calif., blind for 12 years, says she can now toss a ball into a basketball hoop, follow her nine grandchildren as they run around her living room and “see where the preacher is” in church.

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Fighting Conficker Update - Network World

Fighting Conficker - Network World

Before you tear all of your hair out, you do some more research and realize that running your anti-virus software alone may not clean the virus. Conficker has five known variants and can utilize the various versions to help itself spread fast and via different vectors. Looking at the research done by the Conficker Work Group, you find that the major anti-virus vendors have published a variety of repair tools that may clean the virus better than anti-virus alone.

Furthermore, you start reading the fine print in the Microsoft Knowledge Base article on Conficker and you see that there is a Group Policy Object (GPO) that can be used to help stop the propagation of the worm.

Now what? First up: get the GPO in place as soon as possible and make sure you enforce it to all Organizational Units. This is not the right time to block inheritance of a policy! Next, you need to test how best to clean an infected machine. Typically, running a couple of tools (one being a full scan of the anti-virus) to find and clean the infection, then rebooting, then running the anti-virus again (full scan), along with having the GPO in place, will help clean and stop the spreading. Start with systems that are showing the account lockout traffic in your logs to focus efforts on known infected machines.

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DNA Tests Throw Doubts on Hitler's skull

Doubt has again been thrown on whether Adolf Hitler shot himself dead and whether he was in his bunker, it emerged yesterday.

A skull fragment believed for decades to be the Nazi leader’s has turned out to be that of a woman under 40 after DNA analysis.

Scientists and historians had long thought it to be conclusive proof that Hitler shot himself in the head after taking a cyanide pill on 30 April 1945 rather than face the ignominy of capture.

Revealed: The skull with a bullet hole, kept in a Russian archive, is a woman's

Revealed: The skull with a bullet hole, kept in a Russian archive, is a woman's

The piece of skull - complete with bullet hole - had been taken from outside the Fuhrer’s bunker by the Russian Army and preserved by Soviet intelligence.

Now the story of Hitler’s death will have to rewritten as a mystery - and conspiracy theorists are likely to latch on to the possibility that he may not have died in the bunker at all.

The traditional story is that Hitler committed suicide with Eva Braun as the Russians bombarded Berlin.

Although some historians doubted he shot himself and suggested it was Nazi propaganda to make him a hero, the hole in the skull fragment seemed to settle the argument when it was put on display in Moscow in 2000 but DNA analysis has now been performed on the bone by American researchers.

We know the skull corresponds to a woman between the ages of 20 and 40,' said University of Connecticut archeologist Nick Bellantoni.

'The bone seemed very thin; male bone tends to be more robust. And the sutures where the skull plates come together seemed to correspond to someone under 40.' Hitler was 56 in April 1945.

Mr Bellantoni flew to Moscow to take DNA swabs at the State Archive and was also shown the bloodstained remains of the bunker sofa on which Hitler and Braun were believed to have killed themselves.

'I had the reference photos the Soviets took of the sofa in 1945 and I was seeing the exact same stains on the fragments of wood and fabric in front of me, so I knew I was working with the real thing,' he said.

His astonishing results have been broadcast in the U.S. in a History Channel documentary titled Hitler's Escape.

Monday, September 28, 2009

CBC News - Health - Horse virus death may be 1st in N.S.

CBC News - Health - Horse virus death may be 1st in N.S.

Nova Scotia appears to have its first case of a mosquito-borne virus that is almost always fatal to horses and in rare cases can kill people.

A case of Eastern equine encephalitis virus has been confirmed in a horse in southwest Nova Scotia, an official with the provincial Department of Agriculture said Monday.

Rob Kerr, a department veterinarian, said the horse was put down.

"It was acting oddly, according to the owner and the veterinarian," said Kerr. "It wasn't drinking water. It had some slight tremors."

The virus cannot be spread directly from horse to horse. Mosquitoes pick up the virus by feeding on infected birds, then pass it on when they feed on the blood of horses.

"There's a slight possibility it could be picked up from the horse by mosquitoes and then spread to other animals, but that's apparently very uncommon," said Kerr.

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Population: Overconsumption is the real problem - opinion - 27 September 2009 - New Scientist

Population Control Question: Is Overconsumption the real problem? - New Scientist

Back in the late 1960s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his seminal book The Population Bomb, rapid population growth was arguably the number 1 threat to the planet's future. Many believed that only strict birth control could prevent doomsday. But after scandals about forced vasectomies in India and China's draconian one-child policy, such views fell into disrepute. What's more, Ehrlich's prediction of hundreds of millions of deaths from famine in the 1980s fortunately failed to be borne out.

Now the demographic monster has become a hot topic again. Yet the arguments still don't fit the reality. The population "bomb" is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did - mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more "doing something" about global population might achieve.

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Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico

Dry Tortugas National Park
Tony Arruza / CORBIS

Boondocks, USA
Located 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is a collection of seven tiny islands that can be reached only by boat or plane, making it the country's most remote national park. Besides a stunning amount of marine life (it's home to the third-largest barrier reef system outside of Australia and Belize), the park boasts an impressive military and nautical history. The 163-year-old stronghold of Fort Jefferson was once used to house prisoners during the Civil War, and a 17th-century Spanish galleon uncovered by divers in 1989.

Iran's newly disclosed nuclear fuel facility near Qom

Iran's newly disclosed nuclear fuel facility near Qom, Iran, is pictured in this GeoEye satellite photograph

Iran's newly disclosed nuclear fuel facility near Qom, Iran, is pictured in this GeoEye satellite photograph

Picture: REUTERS

Expedition 21 Soyuz Rollout !

Expedition 21 Soyuz Rollout (200909280009HQ) on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Russian security officers walk along the railroad tracks as the Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad Monday, Sept. 28, 2009 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz is scheduled to launch the crew of Expedition 21 and a spaceflight participant on Sept. 30, 2009.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Second wave of Swine Flu Hits Mexico

Project Management + Business Extras

The second wave of swine flu has arrived in Mexico, and they are bracing themeselves for an outbreak that may be even larger and more severe, than last spring, the first phase of the pandemic.

Daily diagnoses reached higher levels in September than the H1N1 peak in April, with 483 new cases in just one day this month alone.

It's unlikely there will be large-scale closings of schools and stadiums, however, because health officials know the virus is usually mild if treated early.

"We know the situation is not as serious" as officials feared last spring, said Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova.

Still, 3,000 schools across Mexico were closed earlier this week as a result of the virus. That number has dropped to 128, Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio told senators Wednesday, as he said officials are still developing the criteria they will use to shut down schools in the future.

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The Cause and Effect of Headaches?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lack of sleep linked to Alzheimer's disease

Lack of sleep linked to Alzheimer's - health - 24 September 2009 - New Scientist

A lack of sleep could help toxic plaques develop in the brain, accelerating the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

David Holtzman looked at how sleep affected the levels of beta-amyloid protein in mice and humans. This protein causes plaques to build up in the brain, which some think cause Alzheimer's disease by killing cells.

Holtzman's group found that beta-amyloid levels were higher in mouse brains when the mice were awake than when they were sleeping.

Lack of sleep also had an effect on plaque levels: when the mice were sleep-deprived – forced to stay awake for 20 hours of the day – they developed more plaques in their brains.
Sleep therapy

Holtzman also tried sending the mice to sleep with a drug that is being trialled for insomnia, called Almorexant. This reduced the amount of plaque-forming protein.

He suggests that sleeping for longer could limit the formation of plaques, and perhaps block it altogether.

The group also measured levels of beta-amyloid in the cerebrospinal fluid of 10 healthy men, both at night and during the day. Levels were lower at night, suggesting that sleep might also help keep levels of the plaque protein low in humans.

Holtzman reckons that when we're awake, our brains are more active, and that this may cause us to produce more beta-amyloid protein.

Discreet rooftop wind turbines for homes - Springwise

Discreet rooftop wind turbines for homes - Springwise

Just last week we covered SRS Energy's Solé Power Tiles, which disguise solar panels as clay roof tiles. Now a similarly unobtrusive solution for cloudier climes is on the horizon. RidgeBlade is a wind-power system that can be fitted to buildings with minimum visual impact and maximum energy conversion potential. This micro-generation system employs discreetly housed cylindrical turbines positioned horizontally along the apex of a sloping roof. The slope of the roof naturally channels wind into the turbine chamber, meaning RidgeBlade can "produce electricity under low or variable wind conditions." This high efficiency means that the system could pay for itself within a few years.

Designed by a former Rolls Royce turbine engineer under the wing of UK-based The Power Collective, RidgeBlade is one of six finalists in the Dutch Postcode Lottery's Green Challenge. Director Dean Gregory presented the design to judges today at Picnic '09 in Amsterdam. If they are successful, the team will receive a EUR 500,000 grand prize (or EUR 100,000 if they are one of the two runner-ups) to help them bring the design to market within the next two years. It's a rapidly accelerating industry—one to get involved in now! (Related: Urban windmills.)

Update 25 Sept 2009 | RidgeBlade won the EUR 500,000 Green Challenge Prize! "It's beyond a dream,” said English entrepreneur Dean Gregory when Skype founder Niklas Zennström, a contest juror, announced his name. "This means we can focus solely on bringing this to market." Gregory entered the Challenge on behalf of the English company The Power Collective Limited—after finding out about it two days before the deadline.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

How Far Can a Human Travel in the Universe

HOW far could an astronaut travel in a lifetime? Billions of light years, it turns out. But they ought to be careful when to apply the brakes on the return trip.

Ever since cosmologists discovered that the universe's expansion is accelerating, many have wondered just how much this will constrain what we could see with telescopes in the future. Distant regions of the universe will eventually be expanding so fast that light from any objects there can never reach us.

Likewise, dark energy - the mysterious force behind the acceleration - places a limit on human exploration of the universe, says Juliana Kwan at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, who has now refined this limit on our travels. Even with rockets that could take us to within a whisker of light speed, expansion would still eventually leave us behind.

The furthest that light emitted from our sun today could reach, as it races in vain to outdo the accelerating expansion, currently lies around 15 billion light years away. According to previous calculations by Jeremy Heyl of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, a super-advanced rocket could get most of this way in a human lifetime.

Accelerating at around 9 metres per second per second - which would feel roughly like a comfortable 1 g - a craft could get 99 per cent of the way to the expansion "horizon". Despite the vast distance, this would take only about 50 years in the astronaut's reference frame, because time would pass slower than on Earth due to relativity (Physical Review D, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.72.107302).

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - Meteorites expose water
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed frozen water hiding just below the surface of mid-latitude Mars. The spacecraft's observations were obtained from orbit after meteorites excavated fresh craters on the Red Planet.

Scientists controlling instruments on the orbiter found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that range in depth from approximately half a meter to 2.5 meters (1.5 feet to 8 feet). The craters did not exist in earlier images of the same sites. Some of the craters show a thin layer of bright ice atop darker underlying material. The bright patches darkened in the weeks following initial observations, as the freshly exposed ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere. One of the new craters had a bright patch of material large enough for one of the orbiter's instruments to confirm it is water-ice.

The finds indicate water-ice occurs beneath Mars' surface halfway between the north pole and the equator, a lower latitude than expected in the Martian climate.

"This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago," said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Byrne is a member of the team operating the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera, which captured the unprecedented images. Byrne and 17 co-authors report the findings in the Sept. 25 edition of the journal Science.

Sun Spot activity renewed


Two sunspots are visible on our star’s face for the first time in more than a year, possibly ending an unexpected lull in solar activity.

Solar flares rise and fall on an 11-year cycle, so scientists thought sunspot activity would pick up some time in 2008. It didn’t. And this year has been quiet, too. No sunspots have been visible on the sun for 80 percent of the days this year.

Sunspot activity is correlated with the total amount of energy we receive from the sun. If the sun’s activity were to change remarkably, it would have an influence on global climate. So, in the context of climate change, the fact that the current solar minimum has been the longest and deepest in more than a century has been of special interest.

In May, a big sunspot seemed to augur a return to normal, but it faded away and sunspotless days returned. The latest activity might not mark the end of the solar minimum, however. People have been counting sunspots since Galileo first observed one in the early 17th century. Through the 28 documented cycles, stretching from 1745 to today, some variation in cycle length has been observed.

That’s why NASA’s former chief sunspot watcher, Michael Kaiser, told us earlier this year that the minimum was “not out of the extreme ordinary.”

Siemens Fills Russia’s Need for High-Speed Train

Interpress, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Sapsan train arriving in St. Petersburg, Russia, after a test.

The Soviet Union, despite its dependence on railroads, had fallen far behind Japan and Western Europe on high-speed transport. That the order came to the Rubin design bureau suggests that Moscow viewed catching up as a matter of national security.

The result of the little-known program was a slate-gray, round-nosed locomotive called the Sokol, Russian for falcon, that petered out soon after the Soviet Union did. The prototype achieved a top speed of only 143 miles an hour — hardly breaking a sweat by high-speed standards.

The fall of the Falcon created an opening for Siemens.

This December, high-speed trains designed by the German conglomerate and adapted for Russian winters will ply the rails between St. Petersburg and Moscow. But Siemens hopes their final destination will be the last laggard of the high-speed age: the United States.

For years, businesspeople and politicians have dreamed about America entering the high-speed era, but Amtrak has been plagued by budget and service problems and the closest Americans have come to high speed is the Acela, which rarely runs at what Europeans call high speed.

Now Siemens and its competitors are hoping all that has changed. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in April includes a five-year, $13 billion high-speed rail program. Siemens is one of four makers of high-speed trains, none of them based in the United States, that hopes to take advantage of it.

Siemens executives said the tilt toward political acceptance of high-speed rail in the United States presented a remarkable business opportunity — assuming the systems get built.

The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. “We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

Male breast cancer patients blame water at Marine base -

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series.

Jim Fontella was based at Camp Lejeune in 1966 and 1967. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.
Jim Fontella was based at Camp Lejeune in 1966 and 1967. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.

The sick men are Marines, or sons of Marines. All 20 of them were based at or lived at Camp Lejeune, the U.S. Marine Corps' training base in North Carolina, between the 1960s and the 1980s.

They all have had breast cancer -- a disease that strikes fewer than 2,000 men in the United States a year, compared with about 200,000 women. Each has had part of his chest removed as part of his treatment, along with chemotherapy, radiation or both.

And they blame their time at Camp Lejeune, where government records show drinking water was contaminated with high levels of toxic chemicals for three decades, for their illnesses.

"We come from all walks of life," said Mike Partain, the son and grandson of Marines, who was born on the base 40 years ago. "And some of us have college degrees, some of us have blue-collar jobs. We are all over the country. And what is our commonality? Our commonality is that we all at some point in our lives drank the water at Camp Lejeune. Go figure."

Starting in 1980, tests showed drinking water at Camp Lejeune had been "highly contaminated" with solvents. Several wells that supplied water to the base were found to have been contaminated in 1984 and 1985, and were promptly taken out of service after the pollutants were found, the Marine Corps told CNN.

Among the chemicals later identified in the drinking water were trichloroethylene, a degreaser; benzene; and the dry cleaning solvent perchloroethylene. Two independent studies have found no link between water contamination and later illnesses, according to the Marine Corps. But the men facing a debilitating and possibly lethal disease don't buy it.

"That's literally unheard of to have 20 men come from the same place, walking on the same dirt, drinking the same water," said Jim Fontella, who was based at the camp in 1966 and 1967. "I mean, there has to be a link there somehow. And they're saying that it couldn't happen."

Fontella, a Detroit native who fought in Vietnam, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. When it returned after surgery, spreading to his spine and back, he "kind of manned up to it after a while and expected to die."

"Once you have metastasis in the bone, it's basically just a matter of time before you die, you know," he told CNN. "Luckily I have already passed my due date by five years. I outlived that death sentence I got."

Fontella is one of seven male breast cancer survivors who spent time at Camp Lejeune who spoke to CNN. Fontella said at the time of his diagnosis, he didn't know men could get breast cancer.

Peter Devereaux, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, was based at Camp Lejeune in 1981 and 1982. The cancer spread to his spine, ribs and hips.

"The difference with metastatic breast cancer means now there's no cure. So the average life expectancy is two to three years," Devereaux told CNN.

"Being a man, I try to take care of my wife and my daughter," he said, his voice catching. "Now that I'm considered disabled because I can no longer work and use my arms, you're having challenges."

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Studying Twins to Learn About Aging - ABC News

Studying Twins to Learn About Aging - ABC News

For researchers, especially those studying how people age, having access to so many pairs of these genetic carbon copies is a scientific bonanza.

"We can compare the twins that have different social behaviors ... and see how those factors make a difference in their appearance," said Dr. Bahman Guyuron of University Hospital, Case Medical Center. Guyuron is the author of the study comparing 186 pairs of twins.

Many times there is a glaring difference reflected in the photos of twins. When comparing a pair of twin sisters, one who smokes and one who doesn't, for instance, the smoker has tiny, telltale vertical lines around her lips and longer, deeper wrinkles around her eyes.

"That's because smoking shrinks tiny blood vessels in the face so the skin is not being nourished," said Dr. Darrick Antell of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital and the author of one of the first twin studies. "Smoking dehydrates the skin so it's much drier."

There's also aging from excessive sun exposure. Twin sisters Gaye and Gwynn Verbit are now 72 years old. Gaye lives in Hawaii and worshiped the sun, eager for a tan. Her sister Gwynn lives in Baltimore, Md. and avoided the sun. The result? Gaye's skin today is coarser with much deeper creases around her cheeks and eyes.

"I knew about the risks but I didn't care," Gaye said. "It was the 70s and I was just more interested in having a good time."

The study even documents aging from divorce and the subtle toll stress has on the skin. Stress can lead to added lines beside the mouth and darker skin under the eyes.

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CBC News - Health - Low vitamin D linked to high blood pressure

CBC News - Health - Low vitamin D linked to high blood pressure

Young women with vitamin D deficiency may be at higher risk of developing high blood pressure years later in life, according to new research reported Thursday.

Vitamin D deficiency before age 45 was linked with a three-fold increased risk of a type of hypertension more than a decade later, researchers from Michigan told a blood pressure meeting of the American Heart Association in Chicago.

People's bodies make vitamin D from sunlight. The vitamin, also found in fatty fish, fortified dairy products and supplements, has long been considered important for building healthy bones and teeth.

More recently, researchers have raised vitamin D deficiency as a possible risk factor for other diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The blood pressure study defined vitamin D deficiency as less than 80 nanomoles per litre of blood. Researchers define optimal vitamin D intake differently, with some recommending 400 to 600 international units daily and others suggesting up to 5,000 IU daily.

When the study began, two per cent of the 559 participants had been diagnosed or were being treated for hypertension, and four per cent had undiagnosed hypertension.

After 15 years, when the trial ended, 19 per cent of the women had been diagnosed or were being treated for hypertension and six per cent had the condition but didn't know it.

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Chinese taikonauts' great leap into space -

Chinese taikonauts' great leap into space -

In 2003 Yang Liwei became a national hero when he became the first Chinese man in space, followed five years later by Zhai Zhigang who became the first "taikonaut" to make a spacewalk.

"The moment I stepped out of the hatch and entered space, the sensation of completely becoming one with space was a feeling I had never felt before on Earth," Zhai told CNN.

"I deliberately looked into outer space, looking past my toes and deep into outer space. The differing brightness and distances of the celestial bodies really brought out the deepness of outer space. The vast , boundless expanse of outer space stirred my soul."

From out of this world moments to their place in Chinese history, these two pioneering spacemen tell CNN's John Vause about their missions, how they had prepared for the worst should things go wrong and if China and other nations with the moon in their sights are creating a new international space race.

And tune in to Talk Asia on September 30 to watch the show, as the nation gears up to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Can Your X-Box Detect Heart Disease?

Heartworks, the first fully functioning virtual heart to help train cardiologists and doctors

A computer scientist at the University of Warwick in England has devised a way to use an Xbox 360 to detect heart defects and help prevent heart attacks.

The new tool has the potential to revolutionize the medical industry because it is both faster and cheaper than the computer systems that are currently used by scientists to perform complex heart research.

The system, detailed in a study in the August edition of the Journal of Computational Biology and Chemistry, is based on a video-game demo created by Simon Scarle two years ago when he was a software engineer at Microsoft's Rare studio, the division of the U.S.-based company that designs games for the Xbox 360.

Scarle modified a chip in the console so that instead of producing graphics for the game, it now delivers data tracking how electrical signals in the heart move around damaged cardiac cells.

This creates a model of the heart that allows doctors to identify heart defects or conditions such as arrhythmia, a disturbance in the normal rhythm of the heart that causes it to pump less effectively.

Shadow of the Past on the Moon

Surveyor 1, the first of the Surveyor missions to make a successful soft landing, proved the validity of the spacecraft's design and landing technique.
In addition to transmitting more than 11,000 pictures, Surveyor sent information on the bearing strength of the lunar soil, the radar reflectivity and temperature.

This image of Surveyor 1's shadow shows it against the lunar surface in the late lunar afternoon, with the horizon at the upper right. Surveyor 1 was launched on May 30, 1966, and landed on June 2, 1966.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Honda: New Unicycle Personal Transport Demo

Honda President Takanobu Ito displays the prototype model of a personal mobility device called the U3-X at the company's headquarters in Tokyo.

This is great! Now all we need is for it to incorporated into a suitcase and suddenly travelling is not such a hassle! Over to you Honda!

Picture: AFP/GETTY

Obesity is the leading cause of Cancer in Western Women

Being obese is nothing to sing about. Obesity is fast becoming the leading cause of cancer in women in Western countries, European researchers said Thursday.

Being overweight or obese accounts for up to 8% of cancers in Europe. Experts said that figure is poised to increase substantially, as the obesity epidemic continues.

This is partly caused by a decrease in the other major causes of cancer, such as smoking and hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. These causes have dropped or been reduced, dramatically.

"Obesity is catching up at a rate that makes it possible it could become the biggest attributable cause of cancer in women within the next decade," said Andrew Renehan, a cancer expert at the University of Manchester. Renehan presented his findings to a joint meeting of the European Cancer Organisation and the European Society for Medical Oncology in Berlin on Thursday.

Renehan and colleagues designed a model to estimate the number of cancers that could be blamed on being fat in 30 European countries. In 2002, they calculated that 70,000 cases of cancer out of about 2 million cancer cases were attributable to being overweight or obese. By 2008, the number had jumped to at least 124,000.

Colorectal cancer, breast cancer in menopausal women and endometrial cancer accounted for 65% of all cancers linked to being fat. Renehan said that in the U.S., some studies found obesity was responsible for up to 20% of cancers.

European health experts said the results will shape future cancer policies across Europe.

"Being overweight or obese is one of the biggest single causes of cancer after smoking," said Lucy Boyd, an epidemiologist at Cancer Research United Kingdom who was not linked to the research.

Scientists aren't sure why being fat boosts your cancer risk, but suspect it is connected to hormones. As people become fatter, they produce more hormones like estrogen that help tumors grow. People with big bellies also have more acid in their stomachs, which can lead to stomach, intestinal or esophageal cancer.

National Geographic: Crittercam - Swim with the Penguins

Surprise! Water (hydroxyl) found on the Moon

Never mind Evian or Perrier the next new thing for the discerning diner may be Moon or Lunar Water.
There appears to be, to the surprise of most planetary scientists, water everywhere on the Moon. Although, how many refreshing drops future astronauts might be able to drink, is not clear.

Data from three spacecraft indicate the widespread presence of water or hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom as opposed to the two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms that make up a water molecule. The discoveries are being published Thursday on the Web site of the journal Science.

“It’s so startling because it’s so pervasive,” said Lawrence A. Taylor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a co-author of one of the papers that analyzed data from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration instrument aboard India’s Chandrayyan-1 satellite. “It’s like somebody painted the globe.”

For decades, the Moon has been regarded as a completely dry place. The dark side is more than ice cold, but when it passes into sunlight, any ice should have long ago been baked away. The possible exceptions are permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s poles, and data announced this month by NASA verified the presence of hydrogen in those areas, which would most likely be in the form of water.

If water is somehow more widespread, that could make future settlement of the Moon easier, especially if significant water could be extracted just by heating the soil. Oxygen would also be a key component for breathable air for astronauts, and hydrogen and oxygen can also be used for rocket fuel or power generation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mosquito borne infection of Dengue Fever reaching Epidemic proportions in Philipines

A government worker fumigates a slum community in Manila in an attempt to control the spread of dengue fever.

Kenya Drought: The true cost of Global Catastrophe

Farmers in drought-stricken Kenya are cutting their losses by selling their dying livestock for meat at places like the Kenya Meat Commission.

NASA: Shuttle Discovery Brings Buzz Home

Buzz Lightyear returns to Earth aboard space shuttle Discovery, after spending 15 months aboard the International Space Station.
To the infinity of space and back!

Greenpeace Bravehearts Fight on

Fish Fight goes on - Greenpeace activists fly a banner depicting a skeleton of a tuna between the hulls of US-flagged American Legacy fishing vessel and Panamian-flagged MV Fong Seong 888, in the Pacific Ocean.

Does Experimental Vaccine helps prevent HIV infection

For the first time, an experimental vaccine has prevented infection with the AIDS virus, a watershed event in the deadly epidemic and a surprising result.

Recent failures led many scientists to think such a vaccine might never be possible.
The vaccine cut the risk of becoming infected with HIV by more than 31% in the world's largest AIDS vaccine trial of more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand, researchers announced Thursday.

Even though the benefit is modest, "it's the first evidence that we could have a safe and effective preventive vaccine," said Col. Jerome Kim. He helped lead the study for the U.S. Army, which sponsored it with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The institute's director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned that this is "not the end of the road," but said he was surprised and very pleased by the outcome.

"It gives me cautious optimism about the possibility of improving this result" and developing a more effective AIDS vaccine, Fauci said. "This is something that we can do."

Even a marginally helpful vaccine could have a big impact. Every day, 7,500 people worldwide are newly infected with HIV; 2 million died of AIDS in 2007, the U.N. agency UNAIDS estimates.

"Today marks an historic milestone," said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, an international group that has worked toward develping a vaccine.

"It will take time and resources to fully analyse and understand the data, but there is little doubt that this finding will energize and redirect the AIDS vaccine field," he said in a statement.

NASA: New Robotic Lunar lander Test Bed on Demo

Marshall Space Flight Center is testing a new robotic lunar lander test bed that will aid in the development of a new generation of multi-use landers for robotic space exploration.

The test article is equipped with thrusters that guide the lander, one set of which controls the vehicle's attitude that directs the altitude and landing.

On the test lander, an additional thruster offsets the effect of Earth’s gravity so that the other thrusters can operate as they would in a lunar environment. MSFC is partnered with John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation for this project.

Image Credit: NASA

Questions: When is the best time to go under the Knife?

  1. Is it safer to have elective surgery first thing in the morning rather than in late afternoon, when doctors and nurses might be tired?

  2. For the same reason, is it smarter to schedule surgery earlier in the workweek than later?

  3. Is it better to avoid having elective surgery in July and August, when a new crop of residents has just started training?

  4. Also, is it foolish to have elective surgery when the moon is full and, tradition has it, people can go a little off-kilter?


No, no, no and no, according to a Cleveland Clinic study that found timing isn't anything, at least when it comes to elective coronary bypass surgery.

The authors of the study, published today in the journal Anesthesiology, write that they decided to focus on elective heart bypass surgery because, thanks to "well-established protocols (for bypass surgery), there is much less variability than with other procedures." Plus, they write, "hospitals closely track morbidity and mortality for this operation", which is very encouraging. I am presuming that this is in an attempte to reduce it.

Daniel Sessler, an anesthesiologist who chairs the Cleveland Clinic's department of outcomes research, says he and his co-authors hope to examine whether timing affects other types of elective surgery, but they expect to find the same thing.

The researchers analysed the results of 18,597 elective bypass surgeries at the Cleveland Clinic from 1993 to 2006. Most were performed between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. None of the time factors — hour, day, month or phase of moon — made any difference in the outcomes of the operations.

"Fatigue is well-known to impair performance," Sessler says, citing its role in plane and car crashes. "It's highly plausible that fatigue would impair the performance of medical personnel."

But, he says, just because doctors or nurses are fatigued and make mistakes doesn't necessarily mean patients suffer. "Hospitals have extensive systems in place to minimize the consequences of any error," he says.

I hope this has answered some of your questions but I suspect it may have raised a few more!

62 New Meteor Showers Found: Don't Forget Perseids

Every now and again, biologists turn up a bonanza of new species deep in the ocean or in remote corners of the Earth. But astronomers usually have to make do with a trickle of new discoveries, spotting a rare supernova here or a couple of backwards planets there.

Now, researchers in Canada report finding an incredible 62 new meteor showers, displays of 'shooting stars' that recur every year when Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by a comet or asteroid.

"I was surprised to find so many new ones," says team leader Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario.

He credits the wealth of discoveries to the nature of his survey, which detects incoming debris about 10 times as small as can generally be seen by eye, catching objects about 0.1 millimetres across. The survey, based near London, Ontario, uses radar to detect the trail of ionised gases produced as the debris particles slam into the atmosphere at blistering speeds.

The survey measures the paths of the debris particles, allowing researchers to trace their orbits around the sun – and potentially track down their parent bodies. "The central reason for looking at these streams is to trace them back to their origins," Brown told New Scientist.

Red Sand Storm Blacks out Sydney Australia

Above - the smiling gates of Luna Park

Below - Sydney Opera House almost disappears into the red dust cloud. A disaster for locals but a photographer's dream come true!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know: Physics of Nuclear Explosions

Barack Obama may have instructed the Pentagon to prepare for massive cuts to the US nuclear arsenal, but a book published in Brazil has sparked fresh worries about nuclear proliferation.

Unbelievably, the book, by physicist Dalton Barroso, is called The Physics of Nuclear Explosions (translation from the Portuguese "A Física dos Explosivos Nucleares") and explains some of the physics required to engineer both fission and fusion bombs, from the dynamics of detonation to the plasma physics of the core.

The publication of is said by Brazilian media to have alarmed the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Pentagon because it may mean Brazil has a fresh interest in developing such nuclear weapons - despite being a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

Barroso has responded to his critics.

He told the Federation of American Scientists - whose excellent Secrecy News blog has the full story - that the book's information is deducible from public domain information in any case and represents no novel threat. It's actually a subset of his PhD thesis from the Military Institute of Engineering in Rio de Janiero.

Perspective is indeed called for here. A similar furore blew up in March 2008 over the release by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks of a Manhattan Project fission bomb design from 1947. Much of the information had been in the public domain since 2002 if anyone had cared to seek it out.

And as Wikileaks points out (scroll down its page), the British government cared so little about the "leak" it wouldn't field an official to deal with its own proposed take-down of the info. The reason? It was an Easter bank holiday weekend.

Further Mystery Surrounds Plague Death of Scientist

A follow up Story to the Death of a Chicago Scientist caused by Plague - Previous Story

Malcolm Casadaban died on September 13, the 60-year-old microbiologist at the University of Chicago had been suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Another victim of swine flu? Perhaps - but an autopsy revealed he had plague bacteria in his blood.

Casadaban was reported to have been working with a weakened vaccine strain of Yersinia pestis, intended for the development of vaccines against plague.

However, doctors are not sure the bacilli in Casadaban's blood were the cause of death, or how they got there. So what's going on?

Y. pestis
has been linked to the medieval Black Death, though proof has been elusive. We do know that it kills several thousand a year by causing bubonic plague, and it is considered a potential biological weapon.

The University of Chicago has not revealed which strain the Yersinia was, but says it should have been safe:
This strain is not known to cause illness in healthy adults and has been used in some countries as a live-attenuated vaccine to protect against plague. It has been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for routine laboratory studies. The weakened strain does not require the special safety precautions required for work with virulent strains.
But the case reminds me of misgivings that have been voiced about weakened strains, which might not be as safe as they seem.

The strain seems likely to have been EV76, which is used as a vaccine in Russia and Madagascar. It is considered unlikely to revert to the virulent strain - but even without reverting, it kills some mice immunised with it.

Worse, up to a fifth of people vaccinated with EV76 develop flu symptoms such as fever, headache, weakness and malaise, according to Rick Titball of the University of Exeter, UK, a leading Yersinia expert. Some even need hospitalisation, he says, though no deaths have ever been reported that we know of.

Of course, we don't yet know whether these findings have any bearing on Casadaban's tragic death. For that we'll need to which strain was in his blood and whether it was the bacteria that killed him.

Video Games: White Males Dominate

You might not be surprised to hear that the demographics of video-game characters don't quite match up with those of real populations.

But the first "virtual census" of the human characters that inhabit US video games exposes just how much they diverge from reality.

The survey reveals that males, adults and white people are over-represented in games. Females, black people, children and the elderly are correspondingly under-represented.

Dmitri Williams at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, carried out the study with colleagues at Indiana University, Ohio University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He told New Scientist that the mismatch between real-world and videogame populations could be excluding some groups of potential players from games.

Identity feelings

Williams and colleagues say that this is the first research on the types of people represented by characters in video games – whose actions are claimed by some to act as role models for people's behaviour in the real world.

They ran a census on the top 150 games sold on nine popular video-gaming platforms, including the Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation, PS2, Nintendo GameCube, PSP, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS and the PC. The research took place in February 2006 but has only just been published.

Centre of Milky Way Galaxy: Find the Black Hole?

This stunning new view of the Milky Way's centre was produced using an amateur telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal observing site in Chile.

Astrophotographer and ESO engineer Stephane Guisard combined more than 1200 images from a 10-centimetre telescope to create this detailed view of the galaxy's core, where a supermassive black hole lies hidden.

Dark patches of dust are silhouetted against the galaxy's bright central region across the image, and bright stars illuminate gas and dust clouds, making nebulae, on the right.

This is the second in a series of three images to be released by ESO's GigaGalaxy Zoom project in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy.

The first image, part of which is available here, was a portrait of the entire sky.

(Image: ESO/S. Brunier/S. Guisard)

Heart Attacks Down 17% After Smoking Ban

Smoking bans have an immediate and dramatic effect on reducing heart attacks, according to two new analyses of laws in the USA, Canada and Europe.

Two separate analyses released Monday each found that heart attack rates fall 17% within a year after smoking bans take effect.

One analysis, which included 13 studies, appears in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. A second analysis, which considered 11 studies, appears in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Cigarette smoke can trigger a heart attack in people with underlying heart disease by causing clots or spasms in the blood vessels, says David Goff, a spokesman for the American Heart Association who wasn't involved in either study.

Given that there are about 920,000 heart attacks every year, the studies suggests that public smoking bans could prevent more than 150,000 of these, according to the Cardiology paper.

Taken together, the findings provide strong, consistent evidence that the country should enact more smoke-free laws, Goff says.

"This is a huge, huge effect for a very, very low cost," says Stanton Glantz of the University of California-San Francisco, co-author of the Circulation study.

NASA: The Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula, Messier 16 (M16) is a conspicuous region of active star formation, situated in Serpens Cauda.

The starforming nebula, a giant cloud of interstellar gas and dust, has already created a considerable cluster of young stars.

The cluster is also referred to as NGC 6611, the nebula as IC 4703.

NASA: Shuttle Discovery coming home courtesy of SCA

Click on the Picture to see the Video of the Landing

Chicago Research Scientist Dies of the Plague

There's no sign of any spread after the rare, possibly plague-related death of a University of Chicago scientist, public health officials said Monday as federal authorities flew in to help investigate.

As a precaution, antibiotics have been offered to about 100 co-workers, friends and family of genetics researcher Malcolm Casadaban, who died earlier this month after lab exposure to a weakened form of the bacterium that causes plague.

The strain is federally approved for lab studies. Dr. Kenneth Alexander, a UC infectious disease specialist, likened it to a "crocodile with no teeth" and called Casadaban's death a mystery.

Casadaban's lab on the South Side campus has been sealed off while authorities investigate.

Officials have said it's unlikely anyone else would be infected, and a Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman said Monday the window for that happening was nearly over.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent three scientists to Chicago on Monday to help with the investigation.

"It is very rare for a scientist's death to be linked to a pathogen he or she was studying," said CDC spokesman Dave Daigle. He didn't have information on any cases.

Alexander said the last one he recalled was Howard Taylor Ricketts, a former University of Chicago scientist who did pioneering research on two other bacterial diseases — Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus. Ricketts died of typhus in 1910 while researching the organism.

Casadaban, who studied the genetics of dangerous bacteria, was interested in what made such organisms so aggressive.

Saturn's Rings in 3-Dimensions

Shadows lengthened to stretch thousands of miles across the planet’s famous rings this summer as they slowly tilted edge-on to the Sun, which they do every 15 years, casting into sharp relief every bump and wiggle and warp in the buttery and wafer-thin bands that are the solar system’s most popular scenic attraction.

From her metaphorical perch on the bridge of the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn for five years, Carolyn Porco, who heads the camera team, is ecstatic about the view. “It’s another one of those things that make you pinch yourself and say, ‘Boy am I lucky to be around now,’ ” Dr. Porco said. “For the first time in 400 years, we’re seeing Saturn’s rings in three dimensions.”

On Monday, Dr. Porco and the Cassini team released a grand view of the rings in all their shadowed glory, including clumps, spikes, undulations and waves two and a half miles high on the edge of one ring.

“We always knew it would be good; instead, it’s been extraordinary,” Dr. Porco said of the cascade of results that have placed her in a spotlight to which she has become increasingly accustomed. “I feel I’m on a great human adventure,” she said.

The work may be carried out by robots, Dr. Porco said, “but we are all explorers.”

“It’s thrilling,” she added, “and I want everyone to know how thrilling it is.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

NASA: Previewing Mission to Fly By Mercury

NASA to Preview Mission's Third Flight Past Mercury WASHINGTON -- NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 23, to preview the third and final flyby of Mercury by the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft known as MESSENGER.

On Sept. 29, the spacecraft will swing less than 142 miles above the planet's rocky surface for a final gravity assist that will enable it to enter orbit around Mercury in March 2011. With more than 90 percent of the planet's surface imaged after the spacecraft's second flyby, the team will focus instruments on questions raised by the earlier flybys to advance our understanding of the planet closest to the sun.

Mercury is the planet nearest the sun. It has a diameter of 3,032 miles (4,879 kilometers), about two-fifths of Earth's diameter. Mercury orbits the sun at an average distance of about 36 million miles (58 million kilometers), compared with about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) for Earth.

Because of Mercury's size and nearness to the brightly shining sun, the planet is often hard to see from the Earth without a telescope. At certain times of the year, Mercury can be seen low in the western sky just after sunset. At other times, it can be seen low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

Mercury travels around the sun in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit. The planet is about 28,580,000 miles (46,000,000 kilometers) from the sun at its closest point, and about 43,380,000 miles (69,820,000 kilometers) from the sun at its farthest point. Mercury is about 48,000,000 miles (77,300,000 kilometers) from Earth at its closest approach.

Mercury moves around the sun faster than any other planet. The ancient Romans named it Mercury in honor of the swift messenger of their gods. Mercury travels about 30 miles (48 kilometers) per second, and goes around the sun once every 88 Earth days. The Earth goes around the sun once every 365 days, or one year.

As Mercury moves around the sun, it rotates on its axis, an imaginary line that runs through its center. The planet rotates once about every 59 Earth days -- a rotation slower than that of any other planet except Venus. As a result of the planet's slow rotation on its axis and rapid movement around the sun, a day on Mercury -- that is, the interval between one sunrise and the next -- lasts 176 Earth days.

Until the mid-1960's, astronomers believed that Mercury rotated once every 88 Earth days, the same time the planet takes to go around the sun. If Mercury did this, one side of the planet would always face the sun, and the other side would always be dark. However, radar studies conducted in 1965 showed that the planet rotates once in about 59 days.

When viewed through a telescope, Mercury can be seen going through "changes" in shape and size. These apparent changes are called phases, and resemble those of the moon. They result from different parts of Mercury's sunlit side being visible from the Earth at different times.

As Mercury and the Earth travel around the sun, Mercury can be seen near the other side of the sun about every 116 days. At this point, almost all its sunlit area is visible from the Earth. It looks like a bright, round spot with almost no visible marks. As Mercury moves around the sun toward the Earth, less and less of its sunlit area can be seen. After about 36 days, only half its surface is visible. After another 22 days, it nears the same side of the sun as the Earth, and only a thin sunlit area is visible. The amount of sunlit area that can be seen increases gradually after Mercury passes in front of the sun and begins moving away from the Earth.

When Mercury is on the same side of the sun as the Earth is, its dark side faces the Earth. The planet is usually not visible at this point because Mercury and the Earth orbit the sun at different angles. As a result, Mercury does not always pass directly between the Earth and the sun. Sometimes Mercury is directly between the Earth and the sun. When this occurs, every 3 to 13 years, the planet is in transit and can be seen as a black spot against the sun.

Surface and atmosphere
The surface of Mercury consists of cratered terrain and smooth plains. Mercury's surface appears to be much like that of the moon. It reflects approximately 6 percent of the sunlight it receives, about the same as the moon's surface reflects. Like the moon, Mercury is covered by a thin layer of minerals called silicates in the form of tiny particles. It also has broad, flat plains; steep cliffs; and many deep craters similar to those on the moon. The craters formed when meteors or small comets crashed into the planet. Mercury does not have enough atmosphere to slow down meteoroids and burn them up by friction. The Caloris Basin, Mercury's largest crater, measures about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) across.

Mercury's interior appears to resemble that of the Earth. Both planets have a rocky layer called a mantle beneath their crust, and both planets have an iron core. Based on Mercury's size and mass, scientists believe the planet's core makes up about three-fourths of its radius. Earth's core makes up about half of its radius. The discovery of a magnetic field around Mercury led some scientists to believe that the planet's outer core, like Earth's, consists of liquid iron.

Mercury is dry, extremely hot, and almost airless. The sun's rays are approximately seven times as strong on Mercury as they are on the Earth. The sun also appears about 2 1/2 times as large in Mercury's sky as in the Earth's.

Mercury does not have enough gases in its atmosphere to reduce the amount of heat and light it receives from the sun. The temperature on the planet may reach 840 degrees F (450 degrees C) during the day. But at night, the temperature may drop as low as -275 degrees F (-170 degrees C). Because of the lack of atmosphere, Mercury's sky is black. Stars probably would be visible from the surface during the day.

Scans of Mercury made by Earth-based radar indicate that craters at Mercury's poles contain water ice. The floors of the craters are permanently shielded from sunlight, so the temperature never gets high enough to melt the ice.

Mercury is surrounded by an extremely small amount of helium, hydrogen, oxygen, and sodium. This envelope of gases is so thin that the greatest possible atmospheric pressure (force exerted by the weight of gases) on Mercury would be about 0.00000000003 pound per square inch (0.000000000002 kilogram per square centimeter). The atmospheric pressure on the Earth is about 14.7 pounds per square inch (1.03 kilograms per square centimeter).

The plant and animal life of the Earth could not live on Mercury because of the lack of oxygen and the intense heat. Scientists doubt that the planet has any form of life.

Density and mass
Mercury's density is slightly less than the Earth's (see Density). That is, a portion of Mercury would weigh slightly less than an equal portion of the Earth. Mercury is smaller than the Earth and therefore has much less mass (see Mass). Mercury's smaller mass makes its force of gravity only about a third as strong as that of the Earth. An object that weighs 100 pounds on the Earth would weigh only about 38 pounds on Mercury.

Flights to Mercury
Mariner 10 is the only space probe that has visited the planet Mercury. It flew past Venus in 1974, then made three passes near Mercury in 1974 and 1975. A probe called Messenger, launched in 2004, was scheduled to make its first visit to Mercury in 2008. Image credit: NASA

The United States Mariner 10 became the first and only spacecraft to reach Mercury. The remotely controlled spacecraft flew to within 460 miles (740 kilometers) of Mercury on March 29, 1974. It swept past the planet again on Sept. 24, 1974, and on March 16, 1975. During those flights, the spacecraft photographed portions of the surface of Mercury. It also detected Mercury's magnetic field.

Mariner 10 became the first spacecraft to study two planets. The probe photographed and made scientific measurements of Venus while traveling to Mercury. As the probe flew near Venus, the planet's gravity pulled on the spacecraft, causing it to move faster. Thus, Mariner 10 reached Mercury in less time and by using less fuel than if it had flown directly from the Earth.

In 2004, the United States launched the Messenger probe to Mercury. Messenger was scheduled to fly by Mercury twice in 2008 and once in 2009 before going into orbit around the planet in 2011. The probe was then to orbit Mercury for one Earth year while mapping Mercury's surface and studying its composition, interior structure, and magnetic field.

Contributor: Maria T. Zuber, Ph.D., Professor of Geophysics and Planetary Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.