Monday, November 30, 2009

Bhopal gas survivors mark 25 years of agony

Livestock outnumber humans at the Arif Nagar slum, a toxic wasteyard next to the site of the world's worst industrial accident, which occurred 25 years ago this week in the Indian city of Bhopal.

While the animals are blissfully unaware of their poisoned surroundings, residents are bitter whenever they glance behind their homes towards the old Union Carbide factory, where a lethal plume of gas escaped from a storage tank in the early hours of December 3, 1984, killing thousands instantly.

Arif Nagar and other destitute neighbourhoods around the plant became a graveyard as residents choked to death on more than 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate -- the raw material used to make the pesticide carbaryl.

"I started frothing from the mouth, my eyes were huge and red. I thought I was going to die," said Hamid Khan, 70, who watched his two children die in the disaster and whose skin and organs are racked with infections to this day.

Khan was a day labourer at the time, but -- like many living in the vicinity -- the effects of the gas and years of exposure to contaminated water and soil left him too weak to do regular work.

Government figures put the death tollat 3,500 within the first three days but independent data by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 for the same period.

"There were people falling, hundreds of them lying on the street vomiting, unconscious, convulsing," said N.R. Bhandari, who in 1984 was medical superintendent of one of the main hospitals in Bhopal and also led research for the ICMR.

Survivors say the anniversary marks another year of physical and psychological trauma compounded by government and corporate negligence.

Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide in 1999, but says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a 470 million dollar out of court settlement with the Indian government in 1989.

Calling the event a "terrible tragedy that understandably continues to evoke strong emotions even 25 years later" the company says it "worked diligently to provide aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims."

It insists the leak was caused by an unidentified act of sabotage and emphasises that the state government, which took control of the site 10 years ago, is now responsible for the tonnes of toxic waste yet to be cleared up.

Activists and victims reacted furiously when Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, visiting the compound earlier this year, held a clump of soil in his hand and declared he was still healthy.

"The government is so insensitive, it has no idea what is happening to our children," said Mamta Sen, as she held her six-year-old mentally challenged son Sandeep.

The ICMR conducted research on the health effects of the disaster until the central government ordered it to stop in 1994. Most of the research was never published, which Bhandari calls a "criminal scientific waste."

"Bureaucrats don't understand medical things and yet they want to dominate everywhere," he said. "The studies should have been continued to see the long-term effects of the leak."

Survivors suffer from ailments such as respiratory and kidney problems, hormonal imbalances, mental illness and cancer, and new generations have not been spared from the polluted groundwater and poisonous breastmilk fed to them from birth.

To this day, children are born grotesquely disfigured, with webbed hands and feet, weak immune systems, stunted growth, and congenital disorders, like 10-year-old Vikas who cannot stand or walk due to his spindly legs.

He beams and opens his mouth wide eager to speak, but the only sound that comes out is a high-pitched gurgle.

Twenty-seven-year-old Raj Kumari's height is also stunted. Her belly juts out as though she is pregnant, but her mother tells AFP she gave birth recently.

"She is sick from the gas and the water. The bump has been growing for months but the doctors say it will go away," said her mother Leela Bai.

The compensation doled out to survivors by the government -- between 1,000 to 2,000 dollars each -- has dried up after years of paying for the long-term health impact of the disaster.

ICMR research showed that 25,000 people have died from the consequences of exposure since 1984. After that research concluded, government statistics said 100,000 people were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 people living in water-contaminated areas.

Instead of the slums around the plant becoming a ghost town, victims -- mostly day labourers and migrants from outside Bhopal -- flocked to squat on the swampy land surrounding the factory, sometimes even buying it at cheap prices.

Although the government has set up new pipelines to connect residents to clean drinking water, the supply is infrequent and they often rely on archaic handpumps that spout dirty water.

"If the government supply doesn't fill up the tank we have no choice but to drink the groundwater, even though we know it makes us sick," said Sisupal Yadav as he lifted up his shirt to display a rash.

Survivors were furious when the government of Madhya Pradesh state, of which Bhopal is capital, announced plans to open the old factory to curious visitors keen to witness the scene of such tragedy. Last week it reversed its decision.

Inside the building, dozens of bottles of chemicals are still stocked in the factory's lab, covered in dust and cobwebs and surrounded by broken glass.

Emergency instructions and a sticker reading "safety is everybody's business" still hang on the wall, and families and cattle wander by.

Criminal cases against former Union Carbide executives are pending in various Indian courts to force them and Dow to take more responsibility for the catastrophe.

But with the Indian government keen to attract foreign investment, the chances of a groundbreaking ruling look slim.

"Dow and Union Carbide are American companies," said Afroze Bi, a survivor whose son died while clinging to his father as they tried to flee the cloud of fumes. "Poor people like us don't have a chance against them."

UN: Yao Ming in campaign to fight HIV stigma in China

UNAIDS said Friday it had launched a campaign to address rampant discrimination against people living with HIV in China, with the help of Chinese NBA megastar Yao Ming.

The campaign, launched with China's health ministry, will see posters and videos of Yao and his fans, including some with HIV, displayed on giant screens in 12 cities across China, the United Nations agency said in a statement.

People who are HIV positive in China experience high levels of stigma and discrimination.

According to a report by UNAIDS, a quarter of medical staff and over a third of government officials and teachers developed negative and discriminatory attitudes towards people living with HIV after learning their status.

More than 12 percent of people with HIV had also been refused medical care at least once since they tested positive, UNAIDS said in their China Stigma Index report emailed to AFP.

"These results really underscore the importance of ensuring health care professionals receive appropriate training to reduce stigma and discrimination and increase their ability to provide appropriate services to people living with HIV," UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe said in the statement.

The report was based on a survey of more than 2,000 people living with HIV in China and is the first of its kind in the Asian nation.

It also found that more than 34 percent of those of working age had stopped working as a result of being HIV positive and over 55 percent had chosen not to attend social gatherings or had isolated themselves from family and friends.

"Building understanding and care from society as a whole for people living with HIV, together with eliminating discrimination, are key elements of the AIDS response," Huang Jiefu, China's vice minister of health, said in the statement.

The campaign will also see more than 30,000 posters distributed across China, the statement said.

China's health ministry estimates that at the end of 2009, 740,000 people were living with HIV in the country, and according to the latest data, 48,000 were infected this year, according to UNAIDS.

Indonesian militants call for sharia law to stop HIV

Jakarta (AFP) Nov 29, 2009 - Several hundred hardline Muslim protestors staged rallies in Indonesia Sunday to urge the government to prevent the spread of HIV by implementing Islamic law.
Ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, members of the Hizbut Tahrir group took to the streets in several cities including Jakarta, Solo, Yogyakarta and Makassar.

"We urge everybody to support the application of sharia in an Islamic caliphate so that, God willing, all of us will be free from the HIV/AIDS threat," Hizbut spokeswoman Febrianti Abassuni said in a statement. In the capital, more than 200 female demonstrators urged the government to close down brothels and ban condoms, which they said encouraged "free sex and unhealthy behaviour".

One banner read: "Prostitutes, drug users and homosexuals are the agents of immorality." Around 270,000 Indonesians are estimated to be infected with HIV, and AIDS has claimed about 8,700 lives in the Muslim-majority nation of 228 million people, according to the UNAIDS agency.

Arctic Expedition Investigates Climate Change and Alternative Fuels

Scientists from the Marine Biogeochemistry and Geology and Geophysics sections of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) organized and led a team of university and government scientists on an Arctic expedition to initiate methane hydrate exploration in the Beaufort Sea and determine the spatial variation of sediment contribution to Arctic climate change.

Utilising the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea as a research platform, three cross-shelf transects were surveyed and sampled off Alaska's North Slope at Hammerhead, Thetis Island and Halkett representing three regions of the Alaskan shelf.

The expedition integrated expertise in coastal geophysics, sediment geochemistry, dissolved and free methane fluxes through the water column and into the atmosphere, sediment and water column microbiology and biogeochemistry and detailed characterization of the sub-seafloor geology.

"The objective of the sampling is to help determine variations in the shallow sediment and water column methane sources, methane cycling and the subsequent flux to the atmosphere," said Richard Coffin, chief scientist, NRL Chemistry Division.

The content, location and distribution of methane in hydrate is variable and controlled by geothermal gradients and biological and thermal methane production. Large deposits of methane hydrates, frozen mixtures of hydrocarbon gas (mostly methane) and water, occur over large areas of the ocean floor. International research has begun with a primary goal of obtaining the methane in these hydrates as an energy source.

During the 12-day expedition, Methane In The Arctic Shelf and Slope (MITAS-1), the crew conducted 34 conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) water column casts using a rosette of Niskin bottles and collected sediment samples from 14 piston cores, three vibrocores and 20 multicores.

Regions selected for this study were based on the review of Minerals Management Service and U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) seismic data with specific sample locations decided onboard through review of the 3.5 Kilohertz (kHz) sub-bottom profiler data.

The MITAS-1 crew focused on six primary goals to include:

+ Acquire and integrate seismic, acoustic, temperature, geochemical, and lithostratigraphic data for evaluation of deep sediment hydrate distributions.

+ Estimate spatial variation and controls on the vertical methane flux as it relates to variations in lithostratigraphy, geologic structures, water column temperatures, heat flow, seismic and acoustic profiles, and water depth.

+ Develop and calibrate models to evaluate sediment hydrate loading, hydrate destabilization through warming, and the fate of methane after destabilization.

+ Determine and model the transport of methane from the sediment through the water column into the atmosphere.

+ Study the control of total methane emissions by microbial methane consumption in the sediment and in the water column.

+ Study the contribution of methane to the benthic and pelagic carbon cycling.

The expedition was supported by NRL, Office of Naval Research (ONR), Department of Energy (DoE), Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER) and the German Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-Geomar). Future expeditions will also include scientists from Scotland's Herriot-Watt University, Norway's University of Bergen and GNS Science of New Zealand.

"Our project is intended to initiate a long-term collaboration in future expeditions in the Beaufort Sea and other regions of the Arctic Ocean," said Coffin.

Flax And Yellow Flowers Can Produce Bioethanol

Surplus biomass from the production of flax shives, and generated from Brassica carinata, a yellow-flowered plant related to those which engulf fields in spring, can be used to produce bioethanol. This has been suggested by two studies carried out by Spanish and Dutch researchers and published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

"These studies evaluate, from an environmental point of view, the production of bioethanol from two, as yet unexploited sources of biomass: agricultural residue from flax (for the production of paper fibres for animal bedding), and Brassica carinata crops (herbaceous plant with yellow flowers, similar to those which carpet the countryside in spring)", Sara González-García, researcher of the Bioprocesses and Environmental Engineering Group of the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC), explains to SINC.

González-García, along with other researchers from USC, the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of Leiden (Holland), has confirmed that if bioethanol is produced from these two types of biomass "both CO2 emissions and fossil fuel consumption will be reduced, meeting two of the objectives established by the European Union to promote biofuels".

These works have analysed the environmental load associated with the different stages of the process: the harvesting of flax or Brassica; the production of ethanol (through enzymatic hydrolysis followed by fermentation and distillation); mixing it with petrol (in varying proportions); and its use in passenger automobiles.

The results of both studies, published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, show that the use of ethanol-based fuels can help to mitigate climate change (by reducing greenhouse gases).

However, these fuels also "contribute to acidification, eutrophication, the formation of photochemical oxidants and toxicity (for people and the environment)". According to the experts, these negative effects could be lessened with the use of high-yield crops, as well as through optimisation of agricultural activity and better use of fertilisers.

Which is better: flax or Brassica?
The studies developed by the researchers reveal that flax (which is richer in cellulose) can produce up to 0.3 kg of ethanol for every kg of dry biomass, compared with 0.25kg/kg of Brassica. However, when the whole production cycle is analysed, the yellow-flowered plant offers a greater production of biomass per hectare and has a lesser environmental impact.

The biofuel produced from these two plants is "second generation bioethanol", which is obtained from forest or agricultural residues, or from herbaceous crops, and does not enter into direct competition with agricultural crops intended for animal or human consumption.

The European Union and the International Monetary Fund are promoting the development of these types of biofuels. Spain is the third largest producer of bioethanol in Europe, after France and Germany, although its use still only represents 0.4% of total energy consumption.

DLR German Aerospace team with Bombadier for the train of the future

The German Aerospace Centre and Bombardier Transportation are pooling their expertise in the area of railway vehicle research.
During a press conference at DLR's facility in Gottingen, Prof. Johann-Dietrich Worner, Chairman of the Executive Board of DLR, and Dr Klaus Baur, Chairman of the Management Board of Bombardier Transportation Germany, have signed a cooperation agreement aimed at long-term collaboration.

The terms of the contract include regular professional exchanges and provide for simpler commissioning of joint research and development work. The framework agreement covers an initial period up to 31 December 2014.

The main aim of the agreement is to jointly promote research and development into next-generation high-speed trains and to optimise the use of each party's expertise. Practical fields of collaboration are railway vehicle aerodynamics and aeroacoustics, dynamic stability, interior airflows and interior acoustics.

Lightweight vehicle construction, energy systems and energy management, issues regarding homologation and railway control systems, as well as safety systems, are also covered.

"In the medium-term we expect the creation of express trains that are more climate-friendly, more efficient, lighter and more comfortable," explained Prof. Worner during the signing ceremony.

"We are developing technologies for tomorrow's trains and identifying what could be technically feasible. However, only with a strong partner from private industry, such as the one we have found in Bombardier Transportation to an optimum degree, can we determine whether and how our ideas can actually be implemented in practice," continued Prof. Worner.

DLR was pleased to agree to Bombardier Transportations proposal to enter into a framework agreement, the DLR Chairman explained. He said that the Gottingen research site possesses a long tradition and an excellent level of expertise in the field of high-speed research. Over the next year, two key test facilities for high-speed vehicle construction are to be opened: a tunnel simulation facility that is globally unique and a crosswind test facility.

"DLR is an ideal research and development partner for Bombardier. We are world market leader in rail technology; DLR is the leading research institution in the area of mobility. This is an ideal combination for exchange between industry and science," emphasized Dr Klaus Baur, Chairman of the Management Board of Bombardier Transportation Germany.

"Both partners have excellent specialists, whose fields of activity outstandingly complement each other. We will use these abilities in close cooperation and for a systematic exchange of expert knowledge. The innovative strategy of Bombardier focuses on making rail traffic even more attractive, more economical and environmentally friendly. Together with DLR we will be able to recognise and set technical trends even earlier," continued Dr Baur.

In two special presentations, Prof. Andreas Dillmann, Executive Director of DLR's Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology in Gottingen, and Dr Alexander Orellano, Manager, Centre of Competence in Aero- and Thermodynamics at Bombardier Transportation, presented the topics of railway transportation aerodynamics and high-speed research for the trains of the future.

Prof. Dillmann explained that a key safety aspect for high-speed trains is crosswind stability, especially with regard to double-deck trains as planned by DLR.

The forces acting upon high-speed trains are enormous, particularly in tunnels, on bridges or when there is oncoming traffic. For example, at a speed of 300 kilometres per hour, there is very little downforce on the leading vehicle of the train, so it could tip over if subjected to a strong crosswind.

Dr Orellano used the aerodynamic table developed by Bombardier Transportation to demonstrate the aerodynamic effects that act upon trains that are constructed using various techniques. Using a silver rotary switch, five construction variables can be adjusted for the table.

The user can then run a race against the ZEFIRO high-speed train developed by Bombardier and tested in DLR's facilities. In this way, users can understand which components of a train have an effect on aerodynamics.

With its five wind tunnels related to high-speed vehicle construction, DLR possesses a test facility portfolio that is unique in Europe. At DLR, the elements for tomorrow's trains come together in the 'Next Generation Train' project. The expertise of nine of DLR's institutes will be combined under the auspices of the DLR Institute for Vehicle Concepts in Stuttgart.

DLR German Aerospace: The train of the future

What will the 'train of the future' look like? What materials will it be built from?
How will future rail systems be managed? Answering these questions will be facilitated by the cooperation agreement between the German Aerospace Center and the world's leading rail company, Bombardier Transportation, which was signed on 25 November 2009.
The image shows a model of the 'Next Generation Train', DLR's project for the train of the future. The aim is to develop type-approved high-speed trains with greatly reduced specific energy consumption and improved comfort and noise characteristics. Credit: DLR.

Indian nuclear workers deliberately poisoned by radiation in water supply

Workers at a nuclear power plant in southern India were treated for poisoning after drinking water was deliberately spiked with radiation, senior government officials said Sunday.

Routine tests showed 55 employees from the plant in Kaiga in the state of Karnataka had increased levels of the radioactive element tritium, which is used in nuclear reactors.

B. Bhattacharjee, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, said someone had inserted contaminated water into a water cooler, according to the Press Trust of India.

The employees had not suffered any ill effects and had returned to work, plant officials told AFP.
Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar, speaking on the Headlines Today television network, blamed the sabotage on "an insider who has played mischief".

Kakodkar said security was "fool-proof" and there was no chance of an outsider gaining access to the station.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which operates the country's civil nuclear facilities, said in a statement that preliminary enquiries revealed no radioactive leak or security breach.

"It is possibly an act of mischief," the statement said.

State ministers assured local residents that their health was not at risk.

The Kaiga plant was shut down in October for annual maintenance and is due to reopen shortly.

British nuclear watchdog issues grave concerns on safety of French & Japanese reactors

nuclear safety watchdog has warned that French and US-Japanese reactors planned for construction in Britain could be rejected unless safety concerns were met.

The Health and Safety Executive said it has some concerns about features of both designs of the reactor technologies, proposed for use in a new generation of British nuclear power stations.

"We continue to believe that the UK EPR could be suitable for construction on licensed sites in the UK," it said in a report released Thursday.

"However, we have identified a significant number of issues with the safety features of the design that would first have to be progressed.

"If these are not progressed satisfactorily then we would not issue a design acceptance confirmation," the report said.

The executive conducted a safety review of the AP-1000 reactor put forward by US nuclear firm Westinghouse, now owned by Japan's Toshiba, and the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) from French power giant Areva.

"As is normal for complex assessment projects of this type, we are identifying technical questions and issues that we are requesting Westinghouse to address," the report said.

Final approval of the designs is not due to be granted until 2011.

The British government decided to go ahead with a new generation of nuclear plants to replace the country's ageing nuclear infrastructure, most of which will be decommissioned by 2023. Ministers hope the first of a new generation of stations can come on stream as early as 2017.

H1N1: Swine Flu Mutations endangers Europe: WHO issues ineffective rhetoric

Swine flu virus mutations are spreading in Europe, French health officials said Friday as the World Health Organisation reported a leap in deaths from the disease by more than 1,000 in a week.

Two patients who were infected by a mutation that was also recently detected in Norway have died in France, the government's Health Surveillance Institute (InVS) said in a statement.

"This mutation could increase the ability of the virus to affect the respiratory tracts and, in particular, the lung tissue," said a statement from "For one of these patients, this mutation was accompanied by another mutation known to confer resistance to oseltamivir," it added, referring to the main drug being used to treat swine flu, under the brand name Tamiflu.

The case was the first drug-resistant strain found in France among the 1,200 strains experts have analysed here, the InVS said, adding that "the effectiveness of vaccines currently available is not being questioned."

The two patients were not related and had been hospitalised in two different cities in France, it said.

The WHO said Friday the death toll had reached at least 7,826 worldwide since the A(H1N1) flu virus was first uncovered in April.

The number of deaths reported to the UN health agency showed the biggest rise in the Americas, where 5,360 deaths have now been recorded compared to 4,806 a week ago.

But Europe also posted a substantial increase percentage-wise with at least 650 fatalities now reported, representing a surge of 300 deaths or 85 percent from data posted a week ago.

The WHO said Thursday it was investigating reports of mutations in the virus, after half a dozen countries recorded such cases.

"The question is whether these mutations again suggest that there is a fundamental change going on in viruses out there -- whether there's a turn for the worse in terms of severity," said Keiji Fukuda, WHO's special adviser on pandemic influenza.

"The answer right now is that we are not sure," he added following reports from China, Japan, Norway, Ukraine and the United States.

He noted, however, that mutations are common in influenza viruses, and "if every mutation is reported out there it would be like reporting changes in the weather."

"What we're trying to do when we see reports of mutations is to identify if these mutations are leading to any kinds of changes in the clinical picture -- do they cause more severe or less severe disease?

"Also we're trying to see if these viruses are increasing out there as that would suggest a change in epidemiology," he added.

China said earlier Thursday that it had discovered eight people with mutated versions of swine flu while Norway reported last week that it had detected one case.

Fukuda also said that the UN health agency was looking into Tamiflu-resistant cases reported in Britain and the United States but noted they concerned people who are already undergoing treatment for other diseases or who have underlying health issues.

The health agency was therefore maintaining its assessment that Tamiflu, produced by Swiss drugmaker Roche, remained "effective" as a treatment for swine flu, but that "we do have to be vigilant in these very susceptible people."

H1N1:Japan experts go to Canada to study flu vaccine reactions - WHO

Tokyo (AFP) Nov 29, 2009 - Japan sent a team of health experts Sunday to Canada to investigate allergic reactions to swine flu vaccinations from British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

The World Health Organization said last week that an unusual number of severe allergic reactions to swine flu vaccinations have been recorded in Canada, where a batch of the vaccine from GSK has been recalled. The team from the health and welfare ministry was seen departing from Tokyo's Narita airport.

It is scheduled to spend four days in Canada to study precautionary measures against allergic reactions. Tokyo has ordered doses of GSK-made vaccinations for 37 million people, a shipment due for delivery in December in a country that has a limited supply of domestically-made prophylactics.

Japan started vaccinating medical workers against swine flu in October. Since May, the A(H1N1) virus is known to have killed 70 people in the country, which is now heading into the autumn-winter flu season.

H1N1: Dogs diagnosed with swine flu in China

Beijing (AFP) Nov 29, 2009 - Two dogs in Beijing have tested positive for swine flu in the second case of animals catching the disease in China along with pigs in the northeast, Chinese media said Sunday. The A(H1N1) virus detected in the dogs was 99 percent identical to the one circulating in humans, the state-run Beijing Times reported, quoting China's agriculture ministry.

The news comes 10 days after four pigs in China's Heilongjiang province were diagnosed with the virus, which specialists said might have been caught from humans, the report said. Countries including the United States, Canada and Chile have already reported cases of animals being infected with the A(H1N1) virus.

A cat in the US state of Iowa was diagnosed with swine flu at the beginning of the month in the first known case in the world of the new pandemic strain spreading to the feline population. The World Health Organisation has called for closer monitoring of farm workers and animals for influenza A viruses following the reported cases.

Citing an official at the Beijing municipal agriculture bureau, the report said the dogs probably contracted the virus from human sufferers who were in close contact with the canines. "Dogs can infect nearby dogs after they catch A(H1N1) flu," the unidentified official was quoted as saying. The agriculture ministry and the Beijing agriculture bureau were not immediately available for comment.

H1N1: Virus Mutation Increases Death Toll by 1,000 per week

Geneva (AFP) Nov 27, 2009 - The number of swine flu deaths showed a sharp jump compared to a week ago, but the World Health Organisation said Friday that the epidemic may have peaked in parts of the northern hemisphere. The number of deaths reported to the WHO was up 1,000 from a week ago, reaching at least 7,826 worldwide since the A(H1N1) virus was first uncovered in April, fresh data showed.

The number of deaths reported to the UN health agency showed the biggest rise in the Americas, where 5,360 deaths have now been recorded compared to 4,806 a week ago but Europe also posted a substantial increase percentage-wise with at least 650 fatalities now reported, representing a surge of 300 deaths or 85 percent from data posted a week ago.

The WHO said influenza activity appears to have peaked across North America, although in Canada, the number of hospitalisations and deaths is increasing. In European countries including Belgium, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Ukraine and Iceland, influenza activity also appears to have reached a peak, added the WHO.

IAEA: Nuclear science to fight Tse fly sleeping sickness

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday announced an agreement to help African nations battle the tsetse fly, the main carrier of parasites that causes sleeping sickness with its bites.
The IAEA, which has been working on the problem with African countries for 30 years, can make available a Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), a nuclear-based pest control technology that is often described as "biological birth control for insects", according to the agency's website.

The IAEA signed a memorandum of understanding on Wednesday with the African Union, extending cooperation in a range of domains. Work on sleeping sickness follows an effective trial in Zanzibar in the late 1990s.

Sleeping sickness, or trypanosomosis in animals, is a deadly disease found in 35 African countries, where it kills 400,000 people a year, along with some three million head of cattle.

Apart from the cost in lives, the disease is seen as a major obstacle to development, causing an estimated loss in earnings of about four billion dollars (2.7 billion euros) a year.

"In SIT-supported pest suppression and prevention campaigns, millions of sterilized male insects are released into targeted areas. They mate with wild females in the field, but no offspring are produced. Eventually, the pest population is suppressed and steadily reduced over time," the IAEA explained.

Medical cooperation is part of the brief of the IAEA, which is based in Vienna and is responsible for promoting peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Athletic Prothesis: Hugene Murray Competes in Javelin event

South African athlete Hugene Murray walks past his artificial leg lying on the ground as he competes in the javelin event at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation's World Games in Bangalore

Picture: AFP/GETTY

NASA: Chandra X-ray pictures of the Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula, one of the most studied objects in the sky. X-ray data from Chandra provide significant clues to the workings of this mighty cosmic "generator," which is producing energy at the rate of 100,000 suns

Picture: AP / NASA

NASA: Shuttle Atlantis - Space Bubble

A water globule floats freely on the middeck of space shuttle Atlantis in front of NASA astronaut Leland Melvin

Hammerhead sharks - Evolutionary process

For over a century, scientists have speculated why hammerheads evolved such an odd shape and whether having eyes so far apart would enhance their vision.

In 1942 a leading authority on sharks, Gordon Walls, suggested the position of the shark's eyes prevented it from having binocular vision but others have argued exactly the opposite, saying the animals must have enhanced eyesight.

Now, hammerhead sharks have had their first eye examination, and it has laid the debate to rest. Sharks with wider heads have better binocular vision – all the better to track fast-moving prey like squid with far more accuracy than sharks with close-set eyes.

The research also shows that hammerheads – among other sharks – have a 360-degree view of the world in the vertical plane, allowing them to simultaneously see prey above and below them.

Mini Helicopter - Robotic Surveillance Device - Obstacle avoidance system

The helicopter in this video may weigh only 30 grams, but it carries a compass and motion sensors, can change course and warn fellow craft of obstacles it bumps into, and could even carry a small camera. It can also resist what might be called a King Kong attack – if swatted out of the air the tiny craft soon recovers and takes off again.

It was developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley in Moffett Field, California. It would make a great toy, but the team's intentions are deadly serious. They aim to fly squadrons of "Sensorfly" craft that coordinate with each other to explore indoor environments – for instance, to check out buildings after a natural disaster.

The robots are built by adding custom processors, sensors and software to rotors and motors from an off-the-shelf toy helicopter. Each prototype costs only about $200 to build, says Pei Zhang, an electrical engineer working on the project with graduate student Aveek Purohit.

Shuttle Atlantis lands safely at Florida runway 33

Ghost Lobster Traps are drowning Lobsters and crabs

Beneath the cold ocean waters off the coast of Maine in the US, lie hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of old and abandoned wire lobster traps or "ghost traps."

These traps have been lost overboard or broken free from their buoys in storms. The tragedy is that many of the discarded traps continue to catch and kill lobsters.

Marine biologists say lost and abandoned lobster, crab and other fish traps plague coastal waters around the globe, putting pressure on a number of already-stressed fish populations.

The commercial perspective in the U.S. is that in thier waters alone, millions of dollars' worth of marketable seafood is lost each year. More worrying from a global, ecological perspective is that millions of sea creatures are being trapped, starved and drowned by these devices. All this is hidden or unseen, unless the traps are washed up on shore or dredged up in fishermens' nets.

Clean up the sea bed
Lobster fishermen this winter will grapple up doscarded traps and fishing gear from selected spots. This is the first large-scale study of ghost traps along the Maine coast, the area of the U.S. where many of the country's lobsters are caught. Nationwide, other studies are focusing on lost traps off the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.

"It would be very interesting if we could drain the ocean and look at what's down there," said Holly Bamford, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program. "We might be surprised." I think we are more likely to be horrified and disgusted, given that the oceans have been a dumping ground for humanity's waste for centuries.

Recovered traps
The extent of Maine's ghost-trap problem isn't fully known, but lobster fishermen say they sometimes recover traps that contain skinny, starving lobsters or shells from lobsters that have starved and withered away to nothing or been eaten (canibalised) by other trapped and starving lobsters.

Most lobstermen feel it'll get worse with a new federal regulation requiring them to use a biodegradable type of rope on their gear. The rope, they say, is prone to breaking and will result in even more lost traps.

Greater impact on sea bed
Fishermen have been losing and discarding equipment for as long as they've plied the world's seas but the range and impact of that refuse has grown in the past 50 years as fishing has increased, especially with more durable, non-biodegradable equipment.

The ability of lost lobster traps to continue fishing diminishes as the bait — herring, mackerel or other oily fish — dissipates. Scientists believe the traps continue catching lobsters, attracting creatures in search of shelter.

Emergency exits
Although the traps are required to have escape vents that break free over time, not all vents break free as intended. There is no way of knowing how attentive fishermen are to this feature and how well it is maintained.

Ghost Fishing studies
"Ghost fishing" studies are underway or recently completed along all U.S. coasts. They include looks at Dungeness crab traps in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California; blue crab and sea bass traps off North Carolina; blue crab traps in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico; spiny lobster traps in Florida; and fish traps in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Other studies have looked at the impact of lost fishing nets found in Puget Sound in Washington and off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where more than 600 tons of nets were collected. More work has to be done to address this issue to further reduce the suffering of sea creatures and the deadly impact that humanity is having on the oceans.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

ESA supports the European film launch of 'Oceans' - Jacques Perrin

Oceans cover nearly three-quarters of Earth's surface, yet they remain the least explored territories of our planet.

Oceans, a new film produced by filmmaker Jacques Perrin, captures the mysterious and fascinating marine world like never before.

ESA supported the production of the film by providing views of our oceans from space, advice from Earth-monitoring experts and the use of Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

"Images play an irreplaceable role in communicating to our minds. The images that Jacques Perrin has brought together in his film are a hymn to life and to the ocean, the source of all life, the regulator of our climate and the guardian of diversity.

Outer space is a privileged place from which to observe, understand and verify the way our oceans are evolving on a truly planetary scale. Ocean and Space, two dimensions still largely unknown, hold at one and the same time the secrets of our origins and of our future," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said.

A tradition of commitment to nature and the environment

Employing the same style as their critically-acclaimed film Winged Migration about the astonishing journey birds make annually, French filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud take the public on a journey using new filming techniques, from the polar wastes to the tropics, to the heart of the oceans and their storms to the discovery of little known and largely ignored marine creatures.

"Travelling at 10 knots through the heart of a hunting shoal of tuna, accompanying dolphins in their clownish escapades, swimming shoulder-to-fin with the great white shark … the film Oceans is about being a fish among fish," explained Jacques Perrin.

Oceans will be released in cinemas across France, Belgium and Switzerland at the end of January 2010 and in a host of other European countries between February and May 2010.

Capture a Rainbow in a Glass Lens

The rainbow trap is a gilded 4.5-millimetre-wide lens perched atop a gold-coated glass slide (Image: Vera Smolyaninova/Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland)

Oh, to catch a rainbow. Well, it's been done for the first time ever – and with just a simple lens and a plate of glass at that.

The technique could be used to store information using light, a boon for optical computing and telecommunications.

All-optical computing devices promise to be faster and more efficient than current technology, but they suffer from the drawback that signals have to be converted back and forth from optical to electrical. The ability to "slow" light to a crawl or even trap it helps, as information in the light can then be manipulated directly.

In 2007, Ortwin Hess of the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, and colleagues proposed a technique to trap light inside a tapering waveguide, which is a structure that guides light waves down its length. The waveguide in question would use metamaterials – exotic materials that can bend light sharply.

The idea is that as the waveguide tapers, the components of the light are made to stop in turn at ever narrower points. That's because any given component of the light cannot pass through an opening that's smaller than its wavelength. This leads to a "trapped rainbow".

Gilded waveguide
While numerical models showed that such waveguides would work in theory, making them out of metamaterials remained a distant dream. Now Vera Smolyaninova of Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues have used a convex lens to create the tapered waveguide and trap a rainbow of light.

They coated one side of a 4.5-millimetre-diameter lens with a gold film 30 nanometre thick, and laid the lens – gold-side down – on a flat glass slide which was also coated with film of gold. Viewed side-on, the space between the curved lens and the flat slide was a layer of air that narrowed to zero thickness where the lens touched the slide – essentially a tapered waveguide.

When they shone a multi-wavelength laser beam at the open end of the gilded waveguide, a trapped rainbow formed inside. This could be seen as a series of coloured rings when the lens was viewed from above with a microscope: the visible light leaked through the thin gold film.

Chinese Dog Butchers - an abomination against humanity

A worker kills a dog with a stick at a slaughter house in Dongbei county of Lianzhou, Guangdong province, China.
Preserved dog meat is an accepted cuisine in some parts of Guangdong province

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Someone's Breath on Your Neck Makes you Hear Better

DEPENDING on whose it is, breath on your neck may or may not feel good. Either way, now it seems that it can help you understand what someone is saying. The discovery could lead to hearing aids that emit puffs of air.

We know that what we see affects what we hear. For example, if we hear "ba" while watching a person saying "ga" we think we've heard "da". Bryan Gick and colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, wondered whether tactile sensations affect hearing too.

In speech, the "aspirated" syllables "pa" and "ta" are accompanied by a puff of exhaled air, whereas "ba" and "da" are not. Such puffs aren't always detected when someone is speaking, but Gick's team reasoned that the brain might learn to use puffs to modify its perception of certain sounds.

They had 66 volunteers listen to a male voice saying all four syllables against background noise that made it hard to distinguish them. At the same time as some of the syllables, they delivered a puff of air to the hand or neck.

Although many volunteers could not consciously feel the puffs, they were still more successful at correctly identifying "pa" and "ta" when these sounds were accompanied by air puffs. In contrast, air puffs made it less likely that they would correctly identify "ba" and "da" and more likely that they would mistake these for sounds for "pa" and "ta" (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature08572).

The Gruesome Power of Raptor Talons

The most thorough study to date of raptor talons reveals their feet to be extraordinarily specialized hunting tools, perfectly suited to their gruesomely amazing killing strategies.

”Despite the ubiquity of raptors in terrestrial ecosystems, many aspects of their predatory behavior remain poorly understood,” wrote ornithologists in a paper published Wednesday in PLoS ONE.

“Surprisingly little is known about the morphology of raptor talons and how they are employed during feeding behavior.”

To get a better understanding, the researchers took detailed measurements of the talons from 24 bird of prey species, and linked them to literature on raptor hunting and 170 videos of attacks.

They describe how accipitrids, which include hawks and eagles, have two giant talons on their first and second toes. These give them a secure grip on struggling game that they like to eat alive, “so long as it does not protest too vigorously. In this prolonged and bloody scenario, prey eventually succumb to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during dismemberment.”

Meanwhile, the talons of owls, which don’t usually land a killing blow as they strike, are relatively short but strong, and one toe actually swivels backwards. That lets owls crush wounded quarry between two pairs of opposable talons. The animal is then swallowed whole.

Falcons are so skilled at disabling prey with a mid-air, high-speed strike that their talons are smaller than those of other raptors. They just don’t need them as much. Once they’ve landed, falcons “will quickly pluck the neck area and attempt to kill prey swiftly by breaking the neck with a bite attack.”

Osprey have large, curved talons, almost like fishhooks — which is appropriate because they specialize in catching fish, swooping down and hitting them just below the water’s surface.

In addition to expanding understanding of these much-loved birds, the findings could help researchers understand the birds’ dinosaur ancestors. The researchers are now studying how dinosaur claws reflected their hunting and feeding habits.

Image: (A) goshawk (B) red-tailed hawk (C) peregrine falcon (D) great grey owl (E) osprey./PLoS ONE

NASA's Aqua Satellite Sees Nida Explode into a Category 5 Super Typhoon!

Typhoon Nida is in a favorable environment that has enabled it to intensify faster and stronger than previously forecast, and has now exploded into a Super typhoon.

NASA's Aqua satellite passed over Nida and captured a visible image of the storm revealing a clear eye, which indicates a strong typhoon.

The Moderate Imaging Spectroradiometer or MODIS instrument that flies aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured a visible image of Super Typhoon Nida on November 25 at 0355 UTC.

The image clearly revealed an eye that showed the surface of the northwestern Pacific Ocean! The MODIS image showed a tightly circulating symmetrical hurricane form.

At 10 a.m. ET on November 25, Super Typhoon Nida had maximum sustained winds near 172 mph (150 knots) with gusts as high as 207 mph!

A category five typhoon on the Saffir-Simpson scale has sustained winds greater than 155 mph. Typhoon-force winds extend as far as 45 miles from Nida's center, while tropical storm-force winds extend out as far as 105 miles from Nida's center.

Nida was about 155 miles west-southwest of Guam, near 12.6 North latitude and 142.2 East longitude. It was moving to the northwest near 15 mph, and its powerful winds were kicking up dangerously high waves up to 44 feet high!

Fortunately, no landmasses are directly threatened by Nida, although today, Nida is passing between the island of Yap and Andersen Air Force Base.

Those islands will experience heavy surf to their northeastern and southwestern sides, respectively. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center noted that Nida can strengthen even further as it is going to track over very warm sea surface temperatures in the next day.

Cassini Camera Captures Aurora high over Saturn

This video shows the tallest known auroras in the solar system, rippling high above Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In the first video showing the auroras above the northern latitudes of Saturn, Cassini has spotted the tallest known "northern lights" in the solar system, flickering in shape and brightness high above the ringed planet.

The new video reveals changes in Saturn's aurora every few minutes, in high resolution, with three dimensions. The images show a previously unseen vertical profile to the auroras, which ripple in the video like tall curtains. These curtains reach more than 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) above the edge of the planet's northern hemisphere.

Auroras occur on Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and a few other planets, and the new images will help scientists better understand how they are generated.

"The auroras have put on a dazzling show, shape-shifting rapidly and exposing curtains that we suspected were there, but hadn't seen on Saturn before," said Andrew Ingersoll of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who is a member of the Cassini imaging team that processed the new video.

"Seeing these things on another planet helps us understand them a little better when we see them on Earth."

Auroras appear mostly in the high latitudes near a planet's magnetic poles. When charged particles from the magnetosphere - the magnetic bubble surrounding a planet - plunge into the planet's upper atmosphere, they cause the atmosphere to glow.

The curtain shapes show the paths that these charged particles take as they flow along the lines of the magnetic field between the magnetosphere and the uppermost part of the atmosphere.

The height of the curtains on Saturn exposes a key difference between Saturn's atmosphere and our own, Ingersoll said. While Earth's atmosphere has a lot of oxygen and nitrogen, Saturn's atmosphere is composed primarily of hydrogen. Because hydrogen is very light, the atmosphere and auroras reach far out from Saturn. Earth's auroras tend to flare only about 100 to 500 kilometers (60 to 300 miles) above the surface.

The speed of the auroral changes in the video is comparable to some of those on Earth, but scientists are still working to understand the processes that produce these rapid changes. The height will also help them learn how much energy is required to light up auroras.

"I was wowed when I saw these images and the curtain," said Tamas Gombosi of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who chairs Cassini's magnetosphere and plasma science working group. "Put this together with the other data Cassini has collected on the auroras so far, and you really get a new science."

Ultraviolet and infrared instruments on Cassini have captured images of and data from Saturn's auroras before, but in these latest images, Cassini's narrow-angle camera was able to capture the northern lights in the visible part of the light spectrum, in higher resolution.

The movie was assembled from nearly 500 still pictures spanning 81 hours between Oct. 5 and Oct. 8, 2009. Each picture had an exposure time of two or three minutes. The camera shot pictures from the night side of Saturn.

The images were originally obtained in black and white, and the imaging team highlighted the auroras in false-color orange.

The oxygen and nitrogen in Earth's upper atmosphere contribute to the colorful flashes of green, red and even purple in our auroras. But scientists are still working to determine the true color of the auroras at Saturn, whose atmosphere lacks those chemicals.

Norway Open First Osmosis Plant for Green Energy

Statkraft said the plant is intended mostly for testing and development purposes, with the goal of building a commercial plant within a few years. Osmotic power's global potential is estimated to be equivalent to 50 percent of the EU's total power production.

A Norwegian power company announced Tuesday Norway's Crown Princess Mette-Marit will head the opening of the world's first osmotic power plant.

Statkraft, Europe's largest renewable energy company, said the plant at Tofte, outside Oslo, will generate power by using the energy produced when fresh water and seawater are mixed, the Norway Post reported.

Osmotic power is an emissions-free energy source that will make a global contribution to eco-friendly power production, Statkraft said, adding it has been researching osmotic power for 10 years.

"In an era of major climate change and an increasing need for clean energy, we are proud to be presenting a renewable energy source which has never been harnessed until now. We are also most grateful that the crown princess wishes to lend her support to this milestone in our development of osmotic power," Statkraft CEO Bard Mikkelsen, said.

Statkraft said the plant is intended mostly for testing and development purposes, with the goal of building a commercial plant within a few years.

Osmotic power's global potential is estimated to be equivalent to 50 percent of the EU's total power production.

Osmotic power plants can, theoretically be built wherever fresh water runs into the sea, and they produce no noise or pollution emissions, the Norway Post reported.

UK Nuclear Power Station Closed After Blaze

A UK nuclear power station has been shut down following a fire.

Firefighters were called to the Dungeness B site at Romney Marsh in Kent just before midnight on Monday after staff spotted a small blaze in the boiler annexe.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service said 10 crews were sent to the scene and managed to extinguish the blaze by 2am.

Crews remained at the site on Tuesday morning before handing over duty of care to plant owners British Energy by 1pm.

All 52 staff on site were accounted for and there were no casualties.

A fire service spokesman said the cause of the blaze was being investigated.

The station has two reactor units, one of which, unit 21, was already offline for maintenance.

A British Energy spokesman said: "There was no risk to the public and there was no release of radioactive material."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dow Powerhouse Solar Powered Roof Tiles

The DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle (roof tiles) integrates low-cost, thin-film CIGS photovoltaic cells into a proprietary roofing shingle design, which represents a multi-functional solar energy generating roofing product.

Dow Chemical's DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle has been named one of "The 50 Best Inventions of 2009" by TIME magazine. "The introduction of the DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle exemplifies Dow's commitment to delivering innovative solutions to the world's most critical challenges," said Jane Palmieri, Managing Director of Dow Solar Solutions.

"This groundbreaking technology will make affordable renewable energy a reality now and for future generations. Dow is proud to be recognized by TIME magazine - a strong testimonial to the power of our chemistry and science to deliver sustainable solutions."

The DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle integrates low-cost, thin-film CIGS photovoltaic cells into a proprietary roofing shingle design, which represents a multi-functional solar energy generating roofing product. The innovative product design reduces installation costs because conventional roofing shingles and solar generating shingles are installed simultaneously by roofing contractors - no specialised skills or knowledge of solar array installations are required.

"Products like the DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle demonstrate what the innovation engine of the new Dow can do," said David Parrillo, Senior R and D Director for Dow Solar Solutions.

"Dow's innovation pipeline is robust and will allow us to continue to develop new building related photovoltaic materials and solutions. The collaboration with Caltech is projected to keep affordability and accessibility at the forefront of Dow's solar photovoltaic product lines and is another example of how Dow's leadership and innovation will further unlock the power of the sun for the masses."

The DOW POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle systems are expected to be available in limited quantities by mid-2010 and projected to be more widely available in 2011, putting the power of solar electricity generation directly and conveniently in the hands of homeowners.

AIRS image of global carbon dioxide transport

This image was created with data acquired by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder instrument (AIRS) on NASA's Aqua satellite during July 2009.
The image shows large-scale patterns of carbon dioxide concentrations that are transported around Earth by the general circulation of the atmosphere.
Dark blue corresponds to a concentration of 382 parts per million and dark red corresponds to a concentration of almost 390 parts per million.

The northern hemisphere mid-latitude jet stream effectively sets the northern limit of enhanced carbon dioxide. A belt of enhanced carbon dioxide girdles the globe in the southern hemisphere, following the zonal flow of the southern hemisphere mid-latitude jet stream.
This belt of carbon dioxide is fed by biogenesis activity in South America (carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere through the respiration and decomposition of vegetation), forest fires in both South America and Central Africa, and clusters of gasification plants in South Africa and power generation plants in south eastern Australia.

The AIRS instrument flies on NASA's Aqua satellite and is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Climate Change: Netherlands Building Dams Higher

More than 18 million cubic metres of sand are set to be poured onto the new coastal band of dunes until 2011. Photo courtesy AFP.

On the beach at Monster, bulldozers painstakingly turn sand dredged from the bottom of the North Sea bed into dunes in an ambitious effort to safeguard the Netherlands from flooding.

Stretching more than 20 kilometres (15 miles) southwards from The Hague, the project is one of many in a never-ending battle against rising sea levels attributed to global warming.

"Because it is a low-lying delta, the Netherlands is very sensitive to climate change," Water Management Deputy Minister Tineke Huizinga said on a recent visit to the bustling work site.

"If sea and river levels rise, the Netherlands will be under threat," Huizinga said, walking in yellow boots along a pipeline of several hundred metres (yards) spewing out dredged sand.

"Fortunately, the coast is safe today, but we are investing in the security of people who will live here in 50 years."

More than 18 million cubic metres of sand -- enough to fill 7,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- are set to be poured onto the new coastal band of dunes until 2011.

The project got underway last year at a total cost of 130 million euros (about 200 million dollars) to the Dutch state.

Sand is dredged from the bottom of the North Sea, about 15 kilometres from shore, by two specialised vessels that work in turns, day and night. The sand is then relayed to the beach via the pipeline.

Bulldozers then amass the sand to create the dunes, broaden the beach and gain territory from the sea, metre by metre.

"We had no choice but to extend the coast towards the sea," the area's flood prevention chief Michiel van Haersma Buma said.

"Our coast is relatively narrow. Houses and greenhouses lie just beyond the dunes. This area is so densely populated that we had no space to construct more dunes and dykes further inland."

The new dunes -- 30 to 60 metres wide, and rising up to 10 metres above sea level -- are going up next to an existing band of dunes. Covering them is a special type of grass with long roots to keep the sand intact.

"The more dunes there are, the less sea water can infiltrate," thus reducing the danger of contamination of fresh water inland, Haersma Buma explained.

When completed, the project would have made the 20-kilometre stretch of dune-lined beach up to 200 metres wide at low tide, compared to 180 metres at present.

The economic stakes are high: Up to 65 percent of the Netherlands' gross domestic product comes from areas that are located below sea level.

"We want to to be able to live and work in security," Huizinga said.

"It is a big investment, but the cost of protecting this area is a fraction of the cost that a flood would cause to the economy -- and that does not even take into account the social disruption and loss of life."

The government is due to unveil a new programme next year for protecting the nation from water-related consequences of global warming, at a cost to the state of around one billion euros (1.5 billion dollars) per year from 2020, water ministry spokeswoman Marie-Christine Lanser-Reusken said.

In September last year, a government-appointed commission warned that the Netherlands must spend more than 100 billion euros over the next century on dyke upgrades and coastal expansion.

The Delta commission predicted a sea level rise of between 0.65 and 1.3 metres (2.15 and 4.3 feet) by 2100, and said about nine million of the country's 16 million inhabitants already lived in areas directly shielded from the sea and rivers by dykes and dunes.

Floods in 1953 killed 1,835 people and left 72,000 homeless when a total 200,000 hectares of land in the southern provinces of Zeeland, Noord Brabant and Zuid-Holland were inundated.

China Threatening Border with Taiwan with Extensive Missile Systems

China has nearly 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan, with no signs that the build-up is about to stop anytime soon.

Taiwan's Premier Wu Den-yih has urged China to remove missiles targeting the island to pave the way for peace talks between the formal arch-rivals, a report said Saturday.

Beijing needed to build deeper trust with Taiwan by removing the rockets as well as allowing the island greater space in the international community, Wu was quoted by the United Daily News as saying.

"We can only begin talks on a peace agreement when the two sides accumulate more mutual trust and mutual benefits, and when there is a strong consensus in Taiwan and more concrete goodwill by China.

"It is not the time to rush into any peace talks now," he said.

China has nearly 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan, with no signs that the build-up is about to stop anytime soon, according to the island's defence officials.

Taiwan's missile capability is not known. It has been test-firing weapons such as the Hsiungfeng 2E surface-to-surface missile, with a range of 600 kilometres, but it remains unclear how effective it is.

Although Taiwan has been governed separately since the civil war ended in 1949, China still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Relations have improved markedly since Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became president of Taiwan last year. However, Ma has repeatedly said the missiles remain a major obstacle to improved relations.

Chile Buys Radar & Missile Systems from US

The contracts will include Sentinel Radar systems, HMMWV-based Avenger fires units and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as 100 AIM 120C-7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles.

Bent on bolstering its defense capabilities, Chile has requested an estimated $665 million in arms and radar systems from the United States.

The announcement was made by the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which notified the U.S. Congress of the Chilean request last week.

Chile has had longstanding political and economic ties with the United States. As the country's strongest trade partner, the United States has boosted bilateral trade ties by 154 percent in the last three years.

The United States' dominance in the arms market, however, has dwindled with the South American country preferring European defense suppliers in recent years.

This latest foreign military sale, however, is expected to tilt that balance, primarily benefiting U.S. defense contractors Boeing, Raytheon and Thales Raytheon Systems.

The contracts will include Sentinel Radar systems, HMMWV-based Avenger fires units and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as 100 AIM 120C-7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles.

Those missiles alone -- estimated at $145 million -- are expected to support Chile's designs to buy a fleet of U.S. made F-16 fighter jets.

"Chile intends to use these assets and services to modernize its armed forces and expand its existing air defense architecture to counter threats posed by air attack," defpro reported this week.

"According to the DSCA, these systems will contribute to the Chilean military's goal of updating its capability while further enhancing greater interoperability between Chile and the U.S. and other allies," it added.

Should the sale be completed, Chile will join Brazil as the only nations in South America to own such medium-range air-to-air missiles, capable of destroying planes up to 60 miles away.

A decade ago Peru purchased a Russian model of the same weapon, stirring a balance of military power controversy in Peru.

The Pentagon denies similar allegations regarding Chile's missiles purchase.

"This sale will contribute to U.S. foreign policy and its national safety," a Pentagon statement said. "It will help improve the security of a friendly country that has been and will continue to be an important force in political stability and economic progress in South America."

Experts say Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil are also eyeing similar military hardware, but not from the United States. Local media said the arms search was focused on Russian, French and Chinese manufacturers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed concern over such prospective purchases, saying they signaled the start of a regional arms race. Latin American leaders, however, have denied the claim.

Voyager and Cassini reveal The View From The Centre Of the Solar System

In this illustration, the multicolored (blue and green) bubble represents the new measurements of the emission of particles known as energetic neutral atoms. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL.

When NASA's Cassini spacecraft began orbiting Saturn five years ago, a dozen highly-tuned science instruments set to work surveying, sniffing, analyzing and scrutinizing the Saturnian system.

But Cassini recently revealed new data that appeared to overturn the decades-old belief that our solar system resembled a comet in shape as it moves through the interstellar medium (the matter between stars in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy).

Instead, the new results suggest our heliosphere more closely resembles a bubble - or a rat - being eaten by a boa constrictor: as the solar system passes through the "belly" of the snake, the ribs, which mimic the local interstellar magnetic field, expand and contract as the rat passes.

"At first I was incredulous," said Tom Krimigis, principal investigator of the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument (MIMI) at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "The first thing I thought was, 'What's wrong with our data?'"

Krimigis and his colleagues on the instrument team published the Cassini findings in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Science, which featured complementary results from NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). Together, the results create the first map of the heliosphere and its thick outer layer known as the heliosheath, where solar wind streaming out from the sun gets heated and slowed as it interacts with the interstellar medium.

The Cassini data also provide a much more direct indication of the thickness of the heliosheath, whereas scientists previously had to rely on calculations from models.

The new results from Cassini show that the heliosheath is about 40 to 50 astronomical units (3.7 billion to 4.7 billion miles) thick and that NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft, which are traveling through the heliosheath now, will cross into true interstellar space well before the year 2020. Estimates as far out as 2030 had been suggested.

"These new data from Cassini really redefine our sense of our home in the galaxy, and we can now do better studies of whether our solar system resembles those elsewhere," Krimigis said.

Voyager 1 & 2
The Voyagers have sent back rich data on the heliosphere and heliosheath, but just at two locations. Scientists want more context. One way to learn about the region is to track energetic neutral atoms streaming back toward the sun from the heliosheath.

Energetic neutral atoms form when cold, neutral gas collides with electrically-charged particles in a cloud of plasma, which is a gas-like state of matter so hot that the atoms split into an ion and an electron. The positively-charged ions in plasma can't reclaim their own electrons, which are moving too fast, but they can steal an electron from the cold gas atoms.

Since the resulting particles are neutrally charged, they are able to escape magnetic fields and zoom off into space. The emission of these particles often occurs in the magnetic fields surrounding planets, but also happens when the solar wind mingles with the interstellar medium.

Cassini's role
How did Cassini, with 22,000 wire connections and 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) of cabling specifically tweaked to get the most out of its investigation of the solar system's second largest gas bag, recently end up helping to redefine how we look at our entire solar system?

Krimigis and his Cassini colleagues working with MIMI weren't sure their instrument could pick up emissions from far-out, exotic locations, such as from the boundary of our heliosphere, the region of our sun's influence.

Pictures from the Ion /Neutral Camera
Last year, after spending four years focused on the energetic electrons and ions trapped in the magnetic field that surrounds Saturn, as well as the offspring of these particles known as energetic neutral atoms, the team started combing through the data from the instrument's Ion and Neutral Camera, looking for particles arriving from far beyond Saturn.

"We thought we could get some hits from energetic neutral atoms from the heliosheath because Cassini has really been in an excellent position to detect these particles," said Don Mitchell, MIMI instrument scientist and a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Reduced Interference?
Cassini was farther away from the sun than previous spacecraft trying to image the heliosphere and even swung very far away from Saturn on some of its orbits, Mitchell said. The data would likely be free of much of the interference that hampered other efforts.

Mitchell, Krimigis and their team were able to stitch together data from late 2003 to the summer of 2009. They created a colour-coded map of the intensity of the energetic neutral atoms and discovered a belt of hot, high-pressure particles where the interstellar wind flowed by our heliosheath bubble.

The data matched up nicely with the IBEX images of lower-energy particles and connected that data set to the Voyager data on higher-energy particles.

"I was initially skeptical because the instrument was designed for Saturn's magnetosphere," Mitchell said, "But our camera had long exposures of months to years, so we could accumulate and map each particle that streamed through the tiny aperture from the far reaches of the heliosphere. It was luck, but also a lot of hard work."

Re-usable Launch Vehicles: Promised but not Delivered

There is a large up-front investment needed to develop and test any new launch system and companies either cannot raise enough money or are unwilling to take the risks associated with investing the needed funds.

The market for a reusable system is still immature, i.e., demand for launch services is in the embryonic stages, even though we have been launching satellites for over 50 years

Launch vehicle prices are sky high and they have been for a long time. This has presented a very high hurdle to space access for many potential space applications. There are literally tens of thousands of university experiments awaiting flight opportunities, but the cost is too high for students and faculty.

Hundreds of private-sector entrepreneurs have waited years for a chance to try new ideas and applications. Even large, established companies would like to stretch product lines through space experimentation, but have been frustrated by the high cost of launching trial products.

The promise of reusable space launch systems is dramatically lower costs to orbit. An ideal, fully-reusable system would be highly reliable, readily available and could cut costs by a factor of 10 or more. The introduction of such a system would open space access to thousands of denied users. So, why don't we have one?

There are several reasons. Technologies for fully-reusable orbital launch systems still evade the many companies that have attempted to design and build them.

There is a large up-front investment needed to develop and test any new launch system and companies either cannot raise enough money or are unwilling to take the risks associated with investing the needed funds. The market for a reusable system is still immature, i.e., demand for launch services is in the embryonic stages, even though we have been launching satellites for over 50 years.

Elusive technologies include truly reusable cryogenic tanks, low-maintenance thermal shielding, ultra-lightweight structures and advanced avionics. Financing such projects has been problematic, thanks to the many failures and overly-optimistic cost and revenue projections.

However, these hurdles will be overcome as the market matures. The one missing ingredient that would truly make reusable vehicles come to life is a "killer application" that would create a strong market demand for low-Earth-orbit flights.

There seem to be two possible business activities that might generate the needed market demand. One is the eventual human-tourism market that is just getting started with sub-orbital flights.

The other is the creation of a large, distributed space infrastructure of low-orbiting satellites that must be maintained over a long period of time. There is little doubt that the day will come when reusable systems are indeed a reality. The only question is: How soon?

If you want to know more about the design and technologies of launch vehicles register for a special session of the internationally popular course: Launch Vehicle Systems Design and Engineering, to be presented in Cocoa Beach on December 14-16, 2009.