Friday, August 13, 2010

ESA MERIS Earth from Space: Eire Electric blue blooms

Resembling the brush strokes of French Impressionist Claude Monet, electric blue-coloured plankton blooms swirl in the North Atlantic Ocean off Ireland in this Envisat image. Plankton, the most abundant type of life found in the ocean, are microscopic marine plants that drift on or near the surface of the sea.

While individually microscopic, the chlorophyll they use for photosynthesis collectively tints the surrounding ocean waters, providing a means of detecting these tiny organisms from space with dedicated 'ocean colour' sensors, like Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS), which acquired this image on 23 May 2010 at a resolution of 300 m.

Credits: ESA

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stephen Hawking Says Humanity Won't Survive Without Leaving Earth

If humanity is to survive long-term, it must find a way to get off planet Earth — and fast, according to famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

In fact, human beings may have less than 200 years to figure out how to escape our planet, Hawking said in a recent interview with video site Big Think. Otherwise our species could be at risk for extinction, he said.

"It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million," Hawking said. "Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."

Humans stuck on Earth are at risk from two kinds of catastrophes, Hawking said. First, the kind we bring on ourselves, such as possible devastating impacts from climate change, or nuclear or biological warfare.

A number of cosmic phenomena could spell our demise, too. An asteroid could slam into Earth, killing large swaths of the population and rendering the planet uninhabitable. Or a supernova or gamma-ray burst near our spot in the Milky Way could prove ruinous for life on Earth.

Life on Earth could even be threatened by an extraterrestrial civilization, Hawking has pointed out on his Discovery Channel television series, "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking."

Dangerous aliens may want to take over the planet to use its resources for themselves, he said in the series. It would be safer for the survival of our species if we had people living on other worlds as a backup plan, Hawking proposed.

"The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet," he told Big Think. "Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load."

INTEGRAL Completes The Deepest All-Sky Survey In Hard X-Rays

This image shows a map of the Galactic Bulge region, reconstructed from data collected over seven years, from 2003 to 2010, with IBIS/ISGRI on board INTEGRAL, and covering the 17-60 keV energy band. The overlaid green contours are isophotes of the 4.9 micron surface brightness of the Galaxy as seen by COBE/DIRBE, revealing the bulge/disc structure of the inner galaxy.

The near-infrared brightness of the Galaxy traces also the hard X-ray Galactic Ridge emission.

Giant Ultraviolet Rings Found In Resurrected Galaxies

Astronomers have found unexpected rings and arcs of ultraviolet light around a selection of galaxies, four of which are shown here as viewed by NASA's and the European Space Agency's Hubble Space Telescope.

Observations from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) picked out 30 elliptical and lens-shaped "early-type" galaxies with puzzlingly strong ultraviolet emissions but no signs of visible star formation. Early-type galaxies, so the scientists' thinking goes, have already made their stars and now lack the cold gas necessary to build new ones.

Hubble images captured the great, shining rings of ultraviolet light, with some ripples stretching 250,000 light-years. In these Hubble images, ultraviolet light has been rendered in blue, while green and red light from the galaxies is shown in their natural colors. Image Credit: NASA/ESA /JPL-Caltech/STScI /UCLA

Star Wars Meets UPS As Robonaut Packed For Space

Getting into space isn't necessarily easy for astronauts, and it's not much easier for a robotic astronaut, either.

Cocooned inside an aluminum frame and foam blocks cut out to its shape, Robonaut 2, or R2, is heading to the International Space Station inside the Permanent Multipurpose Module in space shuttle Discovery's payload bay as part of the STS-133 mission.

Once in place inside the station, R2, with its humanlike hands and arms and stereo vision, is expected to perform some of the repetitive or more mundane functions inside the orbiting laboratory to free astronauts for more complicated tasks and experiments. It could one day also go along on spacewalks.

Making sure the first humanoid robot to head into space still works when it gets there has been the focus of workers at NASA's Kennedy and Johnson space centers. Engineers and technicians with decades of experience among them packing for space have spent the last few months devising a plan to secure the 330-pound machine against the fierce vibrations and intense gravity forces during launch.

"I think back in May we realized we had a huge challenge on our hands," said Michael Haddock, a mechanical engineer designing the procedures and other aspects of preparing R2 for launch, including careful crane operations inside the Space Station Processing Facility's high bay.

Though it was fast-paced, intense work, the payoff of getting to help R2 into space added extra motivation for the engineers involved.

By spaceflight standards, planning for the packing effort moved quite quickly, particularly considering R2 is perhaps the heaviest payload to be taken into space inside a cargo module.

"The mass is what's driving the crane operations, otherwise we'd be handling the robot by hand," Haddock said. "But the robot itself weighs on the order of 333 pounds and when it is installed in the structural launch enclosure, it will weigh over 500 pounds."

As they must when loading anything for spaceflight, the engineers designed the packaging so astronauts could easily remove R2 from its launch box, known by its acronym SLEEPR or Structural Launch Enclosure to Effectively Protect Robonaut.

China Orbits New Remote-Sensing Satellite

China put into orbit on Tuesday another remote sensing satellite, China's Xinhua news agency reported. The Yaogan X was launched aboard a Long March 4C carrier rocket from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in northern Shanxi Province.

According to Xinhua, the satellite will be used primarily for scientific experiments, land survey, crop yield assessment, and disaster monitoring.

Western experts believe, though, that this class of satellites could be used for reconnaissance and other military purposes.

The previous satellite in the series, Yaogan IX, was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province on March 5.

China, which has unveiled comprehensive space exploration plans, launched its first Yaogan class satellite in 2006.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rubik's cube mystery solved after 15 years

Rubik's cube mystery solved after 15 years - New Scientist

It has taken 15 years to get to this point, but it is now clear that every possible scrambled arrangement of the Rubik's cube can be solved in a maximum of 20 moves – and you don't even have to take the stickers off.

That's according to a team who combined the computing might of Google with some clever mathematical insights to check all 43 quintillion possible jumbled positions the cube can take. Their feat solves the biggest remaining puzzle presented by the Rubik's cube.

"The primary breakthrough was figuring out a way to solve so many positions, all at once, at such a fast rate," says Tomas Rokicki, a programmer from Palo Alto, California, who has spent 15 years searching for the minimum number of moves guaranteed to solve any configuration of the Rubik's cube.

The figure is dubbed "God's number", the assumption being that even the Almighty couldn't solve the puzzle faster. New Scientist reported in 2008Movie Camera that Rokicki had reduced the value of God's Number to 22, but it was clear that bringing it down further would require some clever shortcuts.

Exploiting symmetry

To further simplify the problem, Rokicki and his team have now used techniques from the branch of mathematics called group theory .

First they divided the set of all possible starting configurations into 2.2 billion sets, each containing 19.5 billion configurations, according to how these configurations respond to a group of 10 possible moves.

This grouping allowed the team to reduce the number of sets to just 56 million, by exploiting various symmetries of a cube. For example, turning a scrambled cube upside down doesn't make it harder to solve, so these equivalent positions can be ignored.

That still left a vast number of starting configurations to check, however, so the team also developed an algorithm that speeds up this process.

Frozen jet stream links Pakistan floods, Russian fires

Raging wildfires in western Russia have reportedly doubled average daily death rates in Moscow. Diluvial rains over northern Pakistan are surging south – the UN reports that 6 million have been affected by the resulting floods.

It now seems that these two apparently disconnected events have a common cause. They are linked to the heatwave that killed more than 60 in Japan, and the end of the warm spell in western Europe. The unusual weather in the US and Canada last month also has a similar cause.

According to meteorologists monitoring the atmosphere above the northern hemisphere, unusual holding patterns in the jet stream are to blame. As a result, weather systems sat still. Temperatures rocketed and rainfall reached extremes.

Renowned for its influence on European and Asian weather, the jet stream flows between 7 and 12 kilometres above ground. In its basic form it is a current of fast-moving air that bobs north and south as it rushes around the globe from west to east. Its wave-like shape is caused by Rossby waves – powerful spinning wind currents that push the jet stream alternately north and south like a giant game of pinball.

In recent weeks, meteorologists have noticed a change in the jet stream's normal pattern. Its waves normally shift east, dragging weather systems along with it. But in mid-July they ground to a halt, says Mike Blackburn of the University of Reading, UK (see diagram). There was a similar pattern over the US in late June.

Stationary patterns in the jet stream are called "blocking events". They are the consequence of strong Rossby waves, which push westward against the flow of the jet stream. They are normally overpowered by the jet stream's eastward flow, but they can match it if they get strong enough. When this happens, the jet stream's meanders hold steady, says Blackburn, creating the perfect conditions for extreme weather.

A static jet stream freezes in place the weather systems that sit inside the peaks and troughs of its meanders. Warm air to the south of the jet stream gets sucked north into the "peaks". The "troughs" on the other hand, draw in cold, low-pressure air from the north. Normally, these systems are constantly on the move – but not during a blocking event.

Play-acting orang-utans signal their desires

They might not win any Oscars, but orang-utans can act. They have been caught on camera performing "pantomimes", in which they express their intentions and desires by acting them out. The finding challenges the view that these behaviours are exclusive to humans.

Non-human great apes such as orang-utans and chimpanzees were already known to display meaningful gestures. They might throw an object when angry, for example. But that is a far cry from displaying actions that are intentionally symbolic and referential – the behaviour known as pantomiming.

"Pantomime is considered uniquely human," says Anne Russon from York University in Toronto, Canada. "It is based on imitation, recreating behaviours you have seen somewhere else, which can be considered complex and beyond the grasp of most non-human species."

Yet over years she has worked with great apes, Russon has seen several cases that she thought could be considered pantomiming. So to gather more concrete evidence, she and colleague Kristin Andrews searched through 20 years of data on the behaviour of free-ranging, rehabilitated orang-utans.

ESA ENVISAT ASAR: Greenland glacier gives birth to giant iceberg

Time-series animation based on Envisat Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) data from 31 July, 4 August, and 7 August 2010 showing the breaking of the Petermann glacier and the movement of the new iceberg towards Nares Strait.

Credits: ESA

True-colour Envisat MERIS image of Petermann glacier on 5 August 2010 showing the iceberg already separated from the main glacier tongue. Cloud coverage prevents obtaining additional MERIS images spanning the actual calving event.

Credits: ESA

To read the full article Click here

ESA: Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer arrives at launch site

Looking down on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) inside the Large Space Simulator in March 2010

One of the most exciting scientific instruments ever built, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will arrive at the Kennedy Space Center.

The quest for discovering the composition of the Universe is about to take a step further on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is not only the largest scientific instrument to be installed on the Station, and the largest cryogenically cooled superconducting magnet ever used in orbit. It will be delivered to the ISS by NASA's Space Shuttle.

During the unloading of AMS, following arrival at the Space Shuttle Landing Facility, media will have the opportunity to have a look at the hardware and talk to AMS scientists and managers.

Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight, and Prof. Sam Ting, the experiment's leader from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be available for interviews.

Understanding our Universe
AMS will help us to understand the origin and structure of the Universe by searching for signs of antimatter and dark matter.

As a byproduct, AMS will also gather a host of information on stars and galaxies millions of light years from our home Galaxy.

AMS was built mostly by institutes in Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, together with the participation of China, Russia, Taiwan and US. In all, the experiment's team consists of 56 institutes from 16 countries.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Future on display: Technology you'll want to stroke

Whatever you might expect from the latest computer technology, fur is unlikely to be one of them.

An unusual display at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics and animation conference in Los Angeles this month is all about the senses, and uses optical fibre to create a surface that feels furry.

Humans are naturally inclined to stroke furry objects, say Kosuke Nakajima from Osaka University, Japan, and colleagues. So, they say, we will need no instructions to interact with a furry display. "The surface of the Fusa2 display is covered with fur made of optical fibres. When a user stands in front of the display, they begin to touch its surface without any suggestions and instructions," says Yuichi Itoh of Osaka University, who is project manager of Fusa2.

When you stroke the display, it changes colour, creating "stroke marks". "In order to detect the touched area, the fibre-optics surface has many infrared LEDs," explains Itoh. Underneath the display, half the fibres lead to a camera and the other half to a projector. When a hand strokes the fibres, the infrared radiation is reflected and travels down the fibres to the camera. This image is fed to a computer, which calculates the track of the hand and has the projector shine coloured light up through the other fibres to create the coloured trails.

Itoh believes there are practical applications for a screen that users intuitively want to stroke. Because people are naturally drawn to it, it could work well with digital signage, he says, or for robotic pets. "If we create a bigger one, we could even construct a soccer stadium with turf made of a Fusa2 display. This could show lots of information, like the offside line, players' positions and score."

NASA HST Image: 'Island Universe' in the Coma Cluster

A long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope image shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, which lies 320 million light- years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices.

The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its centre.

These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation.

Hubble has also captured the outer spiral arms of NGC 4911, along with thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes. The high resolution of Hubble's cameras, paired with considerably long exposures, made it possible to observe these faint details.

This natural-color Hubble image, which combines data obtained in 2006, 2007, and 2009 from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, required 28 hours of exposure time.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

NASA-International Space Station: Coolant Leak and EVAs

Image above: In the International Space Station’s Quest airlock, Expedition 24 Flight Engineer Doug Wheelock works on a spacesuit in preparation for the second spacewalk to remove a failed ammonia pump module on the station's S1 Truss. Credit: NASA TV

Flight controllers and engineers continue meetings to review the results from the first spacewalk conducted Saturday by International Space Station Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson and to plan for the second of what now will be three spacewalks to complete the replacement of a failed pump module on the station’s starboard truss.

In the wake of an eight-hour, three-minute spacewalk Saturday that fell short of removing the failed pump module due to a leak in the fourth of four ammonia line connectors hooked up to the old pump, mission operations and station program officials laid out a series of procedures for Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson to perform at the beginning of the second spacewalk Wednesday designed to greatly reduce, or eliminate the possibility of ammonia leaking from the final fluid connector – called M3 – when it is demated to set the stage for the failed pump to be removed from the truss.

The plan would call for Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson to close other quick disconnect lines where the S1 and S0 trusses meet that will isolate ammonia upstream in the system from the final connector, preventing any recurrence of leakage while the new pump module is being installed. Additional work to configure lines and valves would be conducted by the spacewalkers prior to the final electrical demating of the old pump so it can be parked on a stowage bracket on the station’s Mobile Base System.

The goal Wednesday will be to remove the old pump and stow it on a payload attachment bracket on the Mobile Base System on the station’s truss while preparing the replacement pump for its removal from a stowage platform adjacent to the Quest airlock and its installation on the truss during a third spacewalk targeted for no earlier than next Sunday.

Mission and station managers are continuing meetings today to prepare for the second spacewalk before the station Mission Management Team meets Tuesday morning to provide its final approval to proceed.

The station’s systems remain in good condition operating on the second of two cooling loops available for the complex and the crew is well rested following Saturday’s spacewalk, spending the last two days recharging spacesuit batteries, reviewing spacewalk procedures and configuring tools for Wednesday’s excursion.

NASA MODIS Image: Russia ablaze

It has been an unusually hot summer in parts of Russia.

This map released by NASA shows how temperatures across Asia deviated from their expected values in the period from 20 July to 27 July this year.

It is derived from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite, compared with average temperatures in the region between 2000 and 2008.

Exceptionally high temperatures which have led to wildfires around Moscow can be seen marked in red and brown.

At the same time, swathes of northern Russia and eastern Kazakhstan were significantly cooler than normal (shown in blue).

(Image: NASA)

NASA SDO Images: M-Class Solar Flare Erupts

An M-class flare erupted in active sunspot region 1093, peaking at 1824 UTC on August 7, 2010. The eruption hurled a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory observed the flare.

The CME is not fully directed toward Earth, but some of the plasma cloud may glance the magnetosphere between August 9 and August 10, causing a geomagnetic disturbance and possible aurora.

Scientists classify solar flares according to their x-ray brightness in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms.

There are 3 categories: X-class flares are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth's polar regions.

Minor radiation storms sometimes follow M-class flares. Compared to X- and M-class, C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences on Earth.

Monday, August 9, 2010

NASA MODIS: Tropical Storm Estelle

Tropical Storm Estelle strengthened from a tropical depression over the eastern Pacific Ocean on August 6, 2010.

By 2:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on August 8, the storm had maximum sustained winds of 65 miles (100 kilometers) per hour, according the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Estelle was roughly 355 miles (570 kilometers) south of the southern tip of Baja California.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image of Tropical Storm Estelle at 1:20 p.m. PDT (20:20 UTC) on August 8.

Estelle appears as a compact cloud mass with a few disconnected bands of clouds along its perimeter. Along the storm’s northeastern margin, a band of clouds casts shadows toward the northeast.

At 8:00 a.m. PDT on August 9, 2010, the NHC reported that Estelle was roughly 390 miles (630 kilometers) south-southwest of the southern tip of Baja California, with maximum sustained winds of 40 miles (65 kilometers) per hour.

The storm had moved westward, and was expected to continue along that track before turning toward the west-southwest.

NASA MODIS: Ice Island of Petermann Glacier

On August 5, 2010, an enormous chunk of ice, roughly 97 square miles (251 square kilometers) in size, broke off the Petermann Glacier, along the northwestern coast of Greenland.

The Canadian Ice Service detected the remote event within hours in near real-time data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

The Peterman Glacier lost about one-quarter of its 70-kilometer (40-mile) long floating ice shelf, said researchers who analysed the satellite data at the University of Delaware.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured these natural-color images of Petermann Glacier 18:05 UTC on August 5, 2010 (top), and 17:15 UTC on July 28, 2010 (bottom).

The Terra image of the Petermann Glacier on August 5 was acquired almost 10 hours after the Aqua observation that first recorded the event. By the time Terra took this image, skies were less cloudy than they had been earlier in the day, and the oblong iceberg had broken free of the glacier and moved a short distance down the fjord.

Icebergs calving off the Petermann Glacier are not unusual. Petermann Glacier’s floating ice tongue is the Northern Hemisphere’s largest, and it has occasionally calved large icebergs. The recently calved iceberg is the largest to form in the Arctic since 1962, said the University of Delaware.

Toxic leak: space station repair fails

A toxic ammonia leak and a jammed fitting have foiled plans to fix a cooling pump on the International Space Station, forcing astronauts to delay the repairs until Wednesday at the earliest, reports NASA.

On Saturday, Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson suffered setbacks that stretched their space walk to 8 hours 3 minutes - the longest in space station history and the sixth longest ever undertaken, according to NASA.

The astronauts began their excursion outside the International Space Station at 0719 EDT (1119 GMT) as the outpost flew 220 miles (354 km) above Earth.

They planned to remove a broken ammonia coolant pump and install a replacement, which involved disconnecting four ammonia hoses and five electrical cables from the pump on the station's truss.

Problems arose about 4 hours into the spacewalk when one of the hoses wouldn't come loose. Colonel Wheelock managed initially to open the "quick-disconnect" fitting mechanism on the hose by hitting it with a hammer, but then reported a clearly visible ammonia leak.

"I see little sparklets of ammonia coming from the line," he said. The astronauts compared the crystals of frozen ammonia coolant to tiny snowflakes.

Colonel Wheelock re-tightened the fitting before returning to the airlock, where he had to delay entering the station so any toxic ammonia on his suit had time to evaporate.

Michael T. Suffredini, manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said he was disappointed by the setbacks.

He said that these ammonia quick-disconnect fittings are complicated. "It's very high-pressure ammonia, you have to try to be able to disconnect and reconnect on a regular basis."

The space station is now running on a single cooling system. "The challenge is to get through this problem before the next problem hits the other system," Suffredini stated.

Einstein and the end of space-time

Physicists struggling to reconcile gravity with quantum mechanics have hailed a theory – inspired by pencil lead – that could make it all very simple

IT WAS a speech that changed the way we think of space and time. The year was 1908, and the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski had been trying to make sense of Albert Einstein's hot new idea - what we now know as special relativity - describing how things shrink as they move faster and time becomes distorted.

"Henceforth space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade into the mere shadows," Minkowski proclaimed, "and only a union of the two will preserve an independent reality."

And so space-time - the malleable fabric whose geometry can be changed by the gravity of stars, planets and matter - was born. It is a concept that has served us well, but if physicist Petr Horava is right, it may be no more than a mirage.

Horava, who is at the University of California, Berkeley, wants to rip this fabric apart and set time and space free from one another in order to come up with a unified theory that reconciles the disparate worlds of quantum mechanics and gravity - one the most pressing challenges to modern physics.

Since Horava published his work in January 2009, it has received an astonishing amount of attention. Already, more than 250 papers have been written about it. Some researchers have started using it to explain away the twin cosmological mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.

Others are finding that black holes might not behave as we thought. If Horava's idea is right, it could forever change our conception of space and time and lead us to a "theory of everything", applicable to all matter and the forces that act on it.

For decades now, physicists have been stymied in their efforts to reconcile Einstein's general theory of relativity, which describes gravity, and quantum mechanics, which describes particles and forces (except gravity) on the smallest scales.

The stumbling block lies with their conflicting views of space and time. As seen by quantum theory, space and time are a static backdrop against which particles move. In Einstein's theories, by contrast, not only are space and time inextricably linked, but the resulting space-time is moulded by the bodies within it.

Part of the motivation behind the quest to marry relativity and quantum theory - to produce a theory of quantum gravity - is an aesthetic desire to unite all the forces of nature. But there is much more to it than that.

We also need such a theory to understand what happened immediately after the big bang or what's going on near black holes, where the gravitational fields are immense.

One area where the conflict between quantum theory and relativity comes to the fore is in the gravitational constant, G, the quantity that describes the strength of gravity. On large scales - at the scale of the solar system or of the universe itself - the equations of general relativity yield a value of G that tallies with observed behaviour.

But when you zoom in to very small distances, general relativity cannot ignore quantum fluctuations of space-time. Take them into account and any calculation of G gives ridiculous answers, making predictions impossible.

To read the full article Click Here

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Breakthrough, nerve connections are regenerated after spinal cord injury

Researchers for the first time have induced robust regeneration of nerve connections that control voluntary movement after spinal cord injury, showing the potential for new therapeutic approaches to paralysis and other motor function impairments.

In a study on rodents, the UC Irvine, UC San Diego and Harvard University team achieved this breakthrough by turning back the developmental clock in a molecular pathway critical for the growth of corticospinal tract nerve connections.

They did this by deleting an enzyme called PTEN (a phosphatase and tensin homolog), which controls a molecular pathway called mTOR that is a key regulator of cell growth. PTEN activity is low early during development, allowing cell proliferation. PTEN then turns on when growth is completed, inhibiting mTOR and precluding any ability to regenerate.

Trying to find a way to restore early-developmental-stage cell growth in injured tissue, Zhigang He, a senior neurology researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, first showed in a 2008 study that blocking PTEN in mice enabled the regeneration of connections from the eye to the brain after optic nerve damage.

He then partnered with Oswald Steward of UCI and Binhai Zheng of UCSD to see if the same approach could promote nerve regeneration in injured spinal cord sites. Results of their study appear online in Nature Neuroscience.

“Until now, such robust nerve regeneration has been impossible in the spinal cord,” said Steward, anatomy & neurobiology professor and director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UCI. “Paralysis and loss of function from spinal cord injury has been considered untreatable, but our discovery points the way toward a potential therapy to induce regeneration of nerve connections following spinal cord injury in people.”

NASA-International Space Station - Coolant Pump Repair EVA

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock (left) and Tracy Caldwell Dyson work to remove a failed ammonia pump module on the International Space Station's S1 Truss. Credit: NASA TV

The next spacewalk to complete the removal of a failed ammonia pump module and installation and activation of a new pump module on the International Space Station’s S1 Truss will take place no earlier than Wednesday.

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson completed the first spacewalk to remove and replace the pump module at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday. As the result of an ammonia leak in the final line that needed to be disconnected from the failed pump module, the day’s tasks were only partially completed. The decision was made to reconnect the line on the pump module and install a spool positioning device to maintain proper pressure internal to the ammonia line.

Teams on the ground are evaluating the impact of the leak on plans to replace the failed pump, as well as possible fixes for the leak. The completion of the process will most likely require at least two additional spacewalks.

Saturday’s excursion lasted 8 hours, 3 minutes, making it the longest expedition crew spacewalk in history and the sixth longest in human spaceflight history.

Wheelock conducted the fourth spacewalk of his career. Caldwell Dyson made her first spacewalk. Flight Engineer Shannon Walker operated Canadarm2, the station’s robotic arm, and assisted the spacewalkers from inside the station.

After the loss of one of two cooling loops July 31, ground controllers powered down and readjusted numerous systems to provide maximum redundancy aboard the orbiting laboratory. The International Space Station is in a stable configuration, the crew is safe and engineers continue reviewing data from the failed pump.

NASA - Bright Fireball Kicks Off Perseid Meteor Shower

A Perseid meteor skimming the Earth's atmosphere. Seen from UK's ancient Stonehenge.

A Perseid meteor -- about 1 inch in diameter and moving at a speed of 134,000 mph -- entered the atmosphere 70 miles above the town of Paint Rock, Ala.

At such a tremendous velocity, the meteor cut a path some 65 miles long, finally burning up 56 miles above Macay Lake, just northeast of the town of Warrior. The meteor was about six times brighter than the planet Venus and would be classified as a fireball by meteor scientists.

A map showing the path of a Perseid some 65 miles long from Paint Rock, Ala., to Macay Lake. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

The Perseid radiant was low in the sky when the meteor appeared --only 9.5 degrees elevation. Therefore, this meteor could be considered an “Earth grazer” because of its long, shallow path, with an atmospheric entry angle of only 12 degrees.

It’s a very good start to this year's Perseid meteor shower, which will peak on the night of Aug. 12-13 between midnight and dawn.

Particle Physics: TRIUMF Photowalk 2010

Click on the Image to view all the photos in Flickr

Friday, August 6, 2010

Smoke from Forest Fires close Moscow Airports

A dense smog shrouded Moscow on Friday, grounding flights at the city's international airports, seeping into homes and offices and stinging the eyes of residents as wildfires raged to the east and south.

Dozens of incoming flights were diverted from the capital's Domodedovo and Vnukovo airport hubs, as smog from blazes around the capital brought runway visibility down to 220 yards, airport officials reported.

All incoming flights to Moscow were being offered alternative airports at which to land, but the decision to divert was up to individual flight crews, Domodedovo spokeswoman Yelena Galanova said.

Moscow's other main airport, situated on the opposite side of the city from most of the blazes, freed up tarmac space to receive some planes. Other flights diverted to St. Petersburg and Kazan, a city 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Moscow, Irina Ivanova, a Vnukovo Airport spokeswoman, said.

Visibility in parts of the capital was down to a few dozen yards due to the smog caused by the fires, which carries a strong burning smell and causes coughing. Airborne pollutants such as carbon monoxide were four times higher than average readings — the worst seen to date in the Russian capital.

Kremlin spires and church domes disappeared into the dirty mist, which is forecast to hang in the air for days due to the lack of wind.

"It hurts my eyes," student Valeriya Kuleva said on a central Moscow street. "I'm wearing a mask, but nothing helps."

"It's just impossible to work," said Moscow resident Mikhail Borodin, in his late 20s, as he removed a mask to puff on a cigarette. "I don't know what the government is doing, they should just cancel office hours."

More than 500 separate blazes were burning nationwide Friday, mainly across western Russia, according to the Emergencies Ministry. Dozens of forest and peat bog fires around Moscow have ignited amid the country's most intense heat wave in 130 years of record-keeping.

"All high-temperature records have been beaten, never has this country seen anything like this, and we simply have no experience of working in such conditions," Moscow emergency official Yuri Besedin said Friday.

He added that 31 forest fires and 15 peat-bog fires were burning in the Moscow region alone.

At least 52 people have died and 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the blazes. Russian officials have admitted that the 10,000 firefighters battling the blazes aren't enough — an assessment echoed by many villagers, who said the fires swept through their hamlets in minutes.

To minimize further damage, Russian workers have evacuated explosives from military facilities and were sending planes, helicopters and even robots to help control blazes around the country's top nuclear research facility in Sarov, 300 miles east of Moscow.

4 feared dead after Indonesia eruption

One of Indonesia's most active volcanoes erupted Friday, sending lava and a searing gas cloud tumbling down its slopes.
At least four people were feared dead, officials said, and several others were seriously hurt.

"It happened so fast," said Surono, the director of the volcanology and mitigation agency. "There was no time for an evacuation." (Like many Indonesians, Surono has only one name.)

Mount Karangetang, located on Siau, part of the Sulawesi island chain, burst just after midnight when heavy rains broke the volcano's hot lava dome, spitting out 1,110 degree Fahrenheit clouds of gas.

Ash and lava crashed down the mountain's western slope, destroying at least seven houses, said Priyadi Kardono, an official with the national disaster management agency.

NASA SDO Captures massive Solar event

On August 1, 2010, almost the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity.

This image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory of the news-making solar event on August 1 shows the C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (wave-like structure, upper right), multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more.

This multi-wavelength extreme ultraviolet snapshot from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun's northern hemisphere in mid-eruption. Different colors in the image represent different gas temperatures.

Earth's magnetic field is still reverberating from the solar flare impact on August 3, 2010, which sparked aurorae as far south as Wisconsin and Iowa in the United States.

Analysts believe a second solar flare is following behind the first flare and could re-energize the fading geomagnetic storm and spark a new round of Northern Lights.


Tattooing linked to higher risk of hepatitis C: UBC study — Science Blog

Young women, prison inmates and individuals with multiple tattoos that cover large parts of their bodies are at higher risk of contracting hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases, according to a University of British Columbia study.

The researchers reviewed and analysed 124 studies from 30 countries, including Canada, Iran, Italy, Brazil and the United States, and found the incidence of hepatitis C after tattooing is directly linked with the number of tattoos an individual receives. The findings are published in the current issue of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Tattoos have become increasingly popular in recent years. In the U.S., an estimated 36 per cent of people under 30 have tattoos. In Canada, approximately eight per cent of high school students have at least one tattoo and 21 per cent of those who don’t have one want one. During tattooing, the skin is punctured 80 to 150 times a second in order to inject color pigments.

“Since tattoo instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids, infections may be transmitted if instruments are used on more than one person without being sterilized or without proper hygiene techniques,” says lead author Dr. Siavash Jafari, a Community Medicine Resident in the UBC School of Population and Public Health (SPPH).

“Furthermore, tattoo dyes are not kept in sterile containers and may play a carrier role in transmitting infections,” says Jafari. “Clients and the general public need to be educated on the risks associated with tattooing, and tattoo artists need to discuss harms with clients.”

Other risks of tattooing identified by the study include allergic reactions, HIV, hepatitis B, bacterial or fungal infections, and other risks associated with tattoo removal.

The researchers are calling for infection-control guidelines for tattoo artists and clients, and enforcement of these guidelines through inspections, reporting of adverse events and record-keeping. They also recommend prevention programs that focus on youth — the population who are most likely to get tattoos — and prisoners — who face a higher prevalence of hepatitis C — to lower the spread of hepatitis infection. In Canada, 12 to 25 per cent of hepatitis C infections among prisoners are associated with tattooed individuals, compared to six per cent of the general population.

The chemical ingredients in tattoo dyes can include house paint, ink from computer printers, or industrial carbon. Toxic contents of some tattoo inks may be entering the kidney, lungs and lympth nodes through the circulatory system. The study also revealed a new trend among youth to get tattooed with glow-in-the-dark ink, the risks of which are not yet known.

Fires in British Columbia: MODIS Rapid Response System.

Several large forest fires burned in British Columbia, Canada on August 4, 2010. The fires are outlined in red in this true-color image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. The fires shown in this image are in the Cariboo region of the province, where 120 fires were burning on August 3.

Many of the large fires ignited in a lightning storm on July 28, and additional lightning-caused fires started on August 3, said the wildfire management branch of the forest service in British Columbia. More than 400 fires burned throughout British Columbia on August 3, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The large image is the highest resolution (most detailed) version of the image. The image is available in additional resolutions from the MODIS Rapid Response System.

Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport versus Dagger GT Supercar

An American car firm is hoping to leave the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport in its wake and produce the world's fastest production car.

Entitled the Dagger GT Supercar and built by Trans Star Racing, the 9.4 litre, twin turbo 2000 horse powered engine vehicle is expected to hit speeds in excess of 300mph.

Hitting 0-60mph in 1.5 seconds, the Dagger GT is still only on the drawing board at the moment, but the first prototype is expected to be ready for a crack at the Veyron's 267.8 mph Guinness World Record in April 2011.

A snip at £315,000 compared to the Veyron which costs £800,000, only ten production units will be available after prototype testing in the second half of 2011

A Robot that Climbs Walls

The ROCR Oscillating Climbing Robot developed by University of Utah mechanical engineer William Provancher and colleagues can climb carpeted walls efficiently using two hook-like claws, a motor and a tail that swings like a grandfather clock's pendulum.

Weighing only 1.2 pounds and measuring 12.2 inches wide by 18 inches long, it has potential uses for surveillance, inspection, maintenance, teaching engineering and even as a toy. Credit: William Provancher, University of Utah.

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The Perseid radiant: Meteorite Shower

Looking northeast around midnight on August 12th-13th.

The red dot is the Perseid radiant. Although Perseid meteors can appear in any part of the sky, all of their tails will point back to the radiant

The show begins at sundown when Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction.

All four heavenly objects will fit within a circle about 10 degrees in diameter, beaming together through the dusky colors of sunset. No telescope is required to enjoy this naked-eye event.

The planets will hang together in the western sky until 10 pm or so. When they leave, following the sun below the horizon, you should stay, because that is when the Perseid meteor shower begins.

From 10 pm until dawn, meteors will flit across the starry sky in a display that's even more exciting than a planetary get-together.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the huge comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel.

When Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet-stuff hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and disintegrate in flashes of light. These meteors are called Perseids because they fly out of the constellation Perseus.

Swift-Tuttle's debris zone is so wide, Earth spends weeks inside it. Indeed, we are in the outskirts now, and sky watchers are already reporting a trickle of late-night Perseids.

The trickle could turn into a torrent between August 11th and 13th when Earth passes through the heart of the debris trail.

2010 is a good year for Perseids because the Moon won't be up during the midnight-to-dawn hours of greatest activity. Lunar glare can wipe out a good meteor shower, but that won't be the case this time.

As Perseus rises and the night deepens, meteor rates will increase. For sheer numbers, the best time to look is during the darkest hours before dawn on Friday morning, Aug. 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour.

Diving Robot Discovers Life In Slow Lane

A deep-diving robot exploring the depths of the world's deepest water-filled sinkhole has found an amazing diversity of microbial life, even down where sunlight can't reach. The discovery re-affirms life's resilience and ability to thrive in extreme environments on Earth, and possibly on other planets as well, scientists say.

The robot, named DEPTHX, dove about 900 feet (275 m) deep toward the bottom of the Zacaton sinkhole in northeastern Mexico. Over almost 50 dives, the craft retrieved samples of water and microbes lining the limestone sinkhole.

Among these samples, researchers were able to identify more than 100 types of microbes, including three new phyla of bacteria never before discovered. The scientists also used data gathered by the robot's 54 onboard sonars to create high-resolution three-dimensional maps of the underground hole, which had never before been explored to such depths.

Sinkholes are depressions in the ground that are thought to be formed by the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks, leaving behind a void that can fill up with water or air.

The Zacaton sinkhole is about 344 feet (105 m) across, and is filled with water that stays about 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) throughout the year. The water contains sulfuric compounds that serve as a food source for some of the life within.

"It's a vertical column that goes straight down into the Earth," said researcher John Spear of the Colorado School of Mines. "We didn't know how deep before we went down."

Diving Robot Discovers Life In Slow Lane

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Video: Visionary Mission to Venus

Click to play the Video

Vital Space Station Repairs delayed

NASA has delayed the start of major repairs on the International Space Station until Friday to give engineers more time to plan two spacewalks required to fix the outpost's ailing cooling system.

Space station managers had hoped to be ready to begin replacing a faulty ammonia pump in half of the space station's U.S. cooling system by Thursday, but the results of an underwater practice session by astronauts on Earth forced a delay.

The complicated spacewalk repairs are now targeted for
Friday and Monday.

The failed pump shut down over the weekend due to a tripped a circuit breaker caused by a power spike. It is a critical malfunction since the cooling system, which pushes liquid ammonia through plumbing lines, is vital to keep the space station's systems from overheating. [Graphic: Space Station's Cooling System Problem Explained]

American astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson will perform the two emergency spacewalks to replace the faulty ammonia pump with one of four spares stored on the space station's exterior. Two other astronauts are performing several practice dives at NASA's massive spacewalk rehearsal pool in Houston to help plan the complicated repair job.

'Gigantic' pump repair ahead

Caldwell Dyson said Monday that the ammonia pumps are "gigantic" and about the size of a laundry dryer box. It weighs 780 pounds (353 kg) and is 5 1/2 feet long (69 inches) by 4 feet wide (50 inches). They are about 3 feet tall (36 inches), making them very bulky and difficult to move.

"We're going to split up and one of us is going to take the failed one out and the other is going to prep one in a different location and then we're going to join up, swap one out for the other," Caldwell Dyson told the World Class Rockers, a band that was visiting Mission Control at the time. Caldwell Dyson is a lead singer for the all-astronaut rock band Max Q.

The first spacewalk is set to begin just before 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) on Friday, NASA officials said.

Caldwell Dyson said the first spacewalk is dedicated to just swapping out the failed pump with a new one. On Monday, she and Wheelock will physically hook up the electrical and liquid ammonia lines, she added.

"That's, in a nutshell, what we're going to do," Caldwell Dyson said.

Plastiki: The boat made of plastic bottles

WDCS International - Whaling Feature

Every year in the Faroe Islands, a territory of Denmark, hundreds of pilot whales and other species including bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and northern bottlenose whales, are hunted for their meat.

The techniques used are intensely stressful and cruel. Entire family groups are rounded up out at sea by small motor boats and driven to the shore. Typically, once they are stranded in shallow water, blunt-ended metal hooks are inserted into their blowholes and used to drag the whales up the beach, where they are killed with a knife cut to their major blood vessels.

Many of you visiting this site will have seen the graphic images of whales being slaughtered, and are deeply concerned. You might well have received an email from a friend or colleague, asking you to forward a petition. Please be careful in how you deal with such e-mail petitions.

At least one that has been circulating contains no contact information, nor a way to make sure that your signature is being forwarded to anyone who could have an impact. In particular, if the email you received contains a web address imprinted on the photos, please consider carefully whether to visit the site. There have been concerns raised about potential malicious software and/or high risk off-site links from that site.

WDCS International - Whaling Feature

Chandra Image:: Antennae Galaxies

A new composite image from NASA's Great Observatories presents a stunning display of the Antennae galaxies.

X-ray data from Chandra (blue), optical data from Hubble (gold and brown), and infrared data from Spitzer (red) are featured.

Supernova explosions are enriching the intergalactic gas with elements like oxygen, iron, and silicon that will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets

NASA - North Polar Layers of Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The north polar layered deposits are layers of dusty ice up to 2 miles thick and approximately 620 miles in diameter.

We can see the layers exposed on the walls of troughs and scarps cut into the deposits, such as the trough wall imaged here.

The bright region at the top is the flat surface above the trough wall; it is higher than the terrain underneath. The wall exposing these layers has a vertical relief of about 1970 feet.

It is thought that the north polar layered deposits likely formed recently (i.e., millions of years ago) as rhythmic variations in Mars' orbit changed the distribution of water ice around the planet. As ice moved to and from the polar region in response to a changing climate, layers of ice and dust built up at the poles. By studying the history of these deposits, we hope to understand how the Martian climate has changed, similar to how scientists on Earth study ice cores from the North and South Poles.

Three things are immediately apparent about the layers exposed on this trough face. First, individual layers have different surface textures, which some scientists believe could reflect changing physical properties (such as dust content or ice grain size) of the underlying layer. Second, there are several unconformities, or places where one layer is interrupted and overlain by another layer. These unconformities are due to periods where layers were eroded or removed, followed by times when new layers were deposited. Mapping the locations of unconformities can tell us how the deposit shrank and grew over time, and tell us where large changes in climate occurred, causing water ice to be removed from the polar regions. Finally, the dark and bright streaks are due to recent winds blowing surface frost around, and can tell us about wind patterns in the current polar climate.

This was imaged by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE is the most powerful camera of its kind ever sent to another planet. Its high resolution allows us to see Mars like never before and could help other missions choose a safe spot to land for future exploration.

ESA Portal - Ariane 5’s third launch of 2010 - images

On 4 August 2010, an Ariane 5 launcher lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on its mission to place two telecommunications satellites, Nilesat-201 and Rascom-QAF1R, into geostationary transfer orbits.

Liftoff of flight V196, the 52nd Ariane 5 mission, took place at 22:59 CEST (20:59 GMT; 17:59 French Guiana).

The target injection orbit had a perigee altitude of 250 km, an apogee altitude at injection of 35 919 km and an inclination of 2ยบ.

The satellites were accurately injected into their transfer orbits about 28 minutes and 32 minutes after liftoff, respectively.

Since the Shuttle retirement, Ariane 5 is now the only launcher that can reliably uplift and inject two satellites into orbit around the Earth. Thus, giving Europe and ESA and big competitive advantage in space transportation and uplift.

NASA - Solar Storm Latest Images

NASA - Solar Dynamics Observatory

NASA ASTER Image: Flooding in Pakistan

Though many areas in northwest Pakistan were bracing for heavy rain and additional flash flooding on August 4, 2010, the city of Kheshgi, in northwest Pakistan, had clear skies.

This image, taken by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite reveals a city awash in flood water.

Thick with mud, the Kabul River is pale green in this false color image. Clearer water is dark blue. The river flows through its usual channel, but in places, water seeps over the channel and across the landscape. The buildings and roads of Kheshgi are silver. Spots of turquoise blue—shallow, muddy water or water-logged ground—covers several sections of the city.

On the south side of the Kabul River, water flows down the hills, washing over neighborhoods. The bare ground in the hills is brown and tan. Plant-covered land, red in this image, is divided into long, narrow rectangles, pointing to agriculture. Geometric shapes under the water near the river are probably submerged fields of crops. Thousands of acres of crops had been lost in floods throughout Pakistan, said the United Nations.

Kheshgi is in the Nowshera district in the Khyber Pakhutnkhwa province. As of August 2, Khyber Pakhutnkhwa was the hardest hit province in Pakistan, said the United Nations, and Nowshera was the most impacted district in the province. Nowshera reported 500,000 people displaced with 161 dead, said the Government of Khuber Pakhtunkhwa.

Coronal Mass Ejection Headed For Earth

Recently Earth orbiting satellites detected a C3-class solar flare. The origin of the blast was Earth-facing sunspot 1092.

C-class solar flares are small (when compared to X and M-class flares) and usually have few noticeable consequences here on Earth besides aurorae.

This one has spawned a coronal mass ejection heading in Earth's direction.

Coronal mass ejections (or CMEs) are large clouds of charged particles that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours and can carry up to ten billion tons (1016 grams) of plasma.

They expand away from the Sun at speeds as high as a million miles an hour. A CME can make the 93-million-mile journey to Earth in just three to four days.

When a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth, it interacts with our planet's magnetic field, potentially creating a geomagnetic storm.

Solar particles stream down the field lines toward Earth's poles and collide with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, resulting in spectacular auroral displays.

On the evening of August 3rd/4th, skywatchers in the northern U.S. and other countries should look toward the north for the rippling dancing "curtains" of green and red light.

The Sun goes through a regular activity cycle about 11 years long. The last solar maximum occurred in 2001 and its recent extreme solar minimum was particularly weak and long lasting.

These kinds of eruptions are one of the first signs that the Sun is waking up and heading toward another solar maximum expected in the 2013 time frame

NASA Reveals Key To Unlock Mysterious Red Glow In Space

NASA scientists created a unique collection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) spectra to interpret mysterious emission from space.

Because PAHs are a major product of combustion, remain in the environment, and are carcinogenic, the value of this PAH spectral collection extends far beyond NASA and astronomical applications.

For years, scientists have been studying a mysterious infrared glow from the Milky Way and other galaxies, radiating from dusty regions in deep space. By duplicating the harsh conditions of space in their laboratories and computers, scientists have identified the mystifying infrared emitters as PAHs. PAHs are flat, chicken-wire shaped, nano-sized molecules that are very common on Earth.

"PAHs in space are probably produced by carbon-rich, giant stars. A similar process produces soots here on Earth," said Louis Allamandola, an astrochemistry researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

"Besides astronomical applications, this PAH database and software can be useful as a new research tool for scientists, educators, policy makers, and consultants working in the fields of medicine, health, chemistry, fuel composition, engine design, environmental assessment, environmental monitoring, and environmental protection."

To manage the research data, NASA built a database that now can be shared over the internet. It's the world's largest collection of PAH infrared data, and the website contains nearly 700 spectra of PAHs in their neutral and electrically charged states.

NASA probe closing in on Mercury

A NASA probe heading for Mercury is already making valuable observations although still months away from entering an orbit about the planet, scientists say.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's MESSENGER mission will establish an orbit around Mercury next March to start creating the most detailed maps ever made of the planet, reports.

As it heads toward orbit after three flybys of the planet, the probe has already beamed back views of the cratered world providing a fresh look into its volcanic past.

"Mercury is not what we thought it was even 2 1/2 years ago," principal mission investigator Sean Solomon said.

MESSENGER is the first spacecraft to examine Mercury up close since NASA's Mariner 10 mission in the mid-1970s.

In addition to new global maps, scientists hope the mission will reveal new clues to how Mercury was formed and how it evolved.

"We're trying to learn how a planet very near its host star differs from others that are more far out and more massive," Solomon said. "Exploring the inner part of our solar system is to understand our place in the solar system."

Russia To Launch Moon Probe In 2012

Russia's Federal Space Agency Roscosmos will launch a probe bearing a neutron generator to study the moon's surface in 2012, a leading space researcher said on Tuesday.

"Roscosmos plans to send to the moon a spacecraft bearing a neutron generator developed by our institute to study lunar surface," said Yevgeny Bogolyubov, deputy chief designer of the Automation Engineering Scientific Research Institute.

He also said the generator would be used to study the surface of Mars.

"The IGN-10K impulse neutron generator is designed to study the surface of Mars to determine the content of water in the soil by nuclear-physical methods. The generator will be installed on board a NASA Mars lab that is slated for launch in 2011," he said.

UA-Operated Stereo Camera Selected For Mars Mission

The UA's High Resolution Stereo Color Imager, or HiSCI, features an innovative rotation drive for three-dimensional imaging.

As the instrument orbits the Red Planet, it snaps pictures once a feature of interest on the surface below comes into view.

HiSCI then swings around and takes more pictures of the feature as it passes overhead.

NASA and the European Space Agency, or ESA, have embarked on a joint program to explore Mars in the coming decades and have selected five science instruments - including one from the University of Arizona - for the first mission.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2016, is the first of three joint robotic missions to the Red Planet. It will study the chemical makeup of the Martian atmosphere with a 1,000-fold increase in sensitivity over previous Mars orbiters.

The mission will focus on trace gases, including methane, which could be potentially geochemical or biological in origin and be indicators for the existence of life on Mars. It also will serve as an additional communications relay for Mars surface missions beginning in 2018.

A stereo camera called the High Resolution Stereo Color Imager, or HiSCI, operated by the UA, will be a part of the orbiter.

"The HiSCI camera will provide us with the very best color and stereo imaging of Mars we have ever seen, so we can find and study surface changes," said Alfred McEwen, a professor of planetary science at the UA who leads the HiSCI project.

HiSCI will be operated by the same team at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab, or LPL, that has been acquiring images from Mars in stunning detail using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera that is orbiting Mars.

HiSCI's color images will be much wider (more than 5 miles) than those of HiRISE (less than 1 mile), which will allow researchers to see much more of the Martian surface and changes that are occurring there.

Having the three-dimensional and color information from HiSCI also will add to the value of existing high-resolution images from HiRISE, according to Shane Byrne, assistant professor at LPL and deputy principal investigator on the HiSCI project.