Friday, June 20, 2008

Premiere for Europe: Jules Verne refuels the ISS

Jules Verne during Demo Day 2
Jules Verne successfully delivered 811 kg of refuelling propellant

ESA’s Jules Verne ATV was used for the first time yesterday to transfer in one step 811 kg of refuelling propellant to the International Space Station while the two vehicles orbited Earth at 28 000 km/h. With this premiere for Europe, Jules Verne becomes the first western spaceship to succeed in refuelling another space infrastructure in orbit.

It took less than half an hour to automatically transfer about 280 kg of the Russian UDMH (Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) propellant fuel and 530 kg of Nitrogen Tetroxide (N2O4), (which provides a source of oxygen so the fuel can ignite and burn in orbit) to the International Space Station's (ISS) own Russian-built propulsion tanks.

Because of the toxic and explosive characteristics of the hydrazine, the transfer is done through dedicated pipes located outside the pressurized structures of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Station. The fuel lines run from the ATV, through the docking mechanism to the Space Station's own plumbing.

View inside the ATV Control Centre

ATV was prepared for refuelling by the ATV Control Centre

The ISS crew was not involved in the refuelling operation – at the time they were busy preparing for a spacewalk scheduled for early July. ATV was prepared for refuelling operations by ATV Control Centre in Toulouse. After the necessary verifications to ensure no leakage was present in the complete ATV piping system, Moscow Control Centre initiated the automatic refuelling procedure sequence, with the active support of the small Engineering Support Team co-located in the Moscow Control Centre.

“We are impressed by this new achievement of Jules Verne ATV, which went without a hitch. And we really have to congratulate the teams of RSC Energia, Astrium and Thales Alenia Space for their years of efforts to integrate the Russian refuelling system in the ATV from the hardware and software point of view” said Massimo Cislaghi, ESA's leader of the Engineering Support Team.

During the refuelling operation, some 20 people were working on the ISS in the Moscow Control Centre, with 5 Russian ATV experts and 3 ESA ATV specialists who all are part of the Engineering Support Team located in Moscow. Meanwhile, 30 people were monitoring all ATV's critical functions at the ATV Control Centre in Toulouse where cheers and applause marked the end of the fuel transfer.

Scapemen wear special suits during fuelling operations
Tanks inside Jules Verne were loaded with Russian fuel ahead of the launch

Refuelling capabilities

The refuelling capabilities of ATV and the Russian Progress capsules are identical with a maximum fuel load of 850 kg. Even if ATV has about three times the payload capability of the Progress, they use exactly the same tanks and the same interface through the ATV docking mechanism with the Station. The Russian ISS service module is the only Station element to have a propulsion system which allows to reboost the whole Station in order to overcome the effects of residual atmospheric drag.

“We have now successfully performed all the nominal operations of Jules Verne, such as the ISS attitude control, the ISS reboost, the gas transfer of air, the water transfer, the dry cargo and now the refuelling. Only undocking and re-entry remain, which we hope to do in September,” said Hervé Côme, ESA's ATV Mission Director at the ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France.

Jules Verne ATV has successfully performed all nominal operations

One day after the transfer, on 18 June, the ATV teams in Moscow purged all the fuel lines which were used for the transfer between ATV and the Station. This eliminates the risk of toxic contamination from about 13 kg of fuel which could leak when Jules Verne ATV undocks from the International Space Station in September. Jules Verne ATV was launched from Kourou in French Guiana on 9 March 2008 and docked to the ISS on 3 April 2008.

“Today, Europe has gained a new space capability which represents a new step towards human spaceflights and advanced exploration programmes”, said Jean-François Clervoy, ATV senior advisor and a member of ESA's Astronaut Corps. “ATV is the only western vehicle able to refuel another spacecraft in complement to the Russian Progress. The successful automation of this function frees significant crew time for other ISS operations.”

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7 Expert Answers for How Big Business Will Spend Cash in Space

EADS suborbital space plane.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 June 19

The Star Streams of NGC 5907
Image Credit & Copyright: R Jay Gabany (Blackbird Observatory) - collaboration; D.Martínez-Delgado(IAC, MPIA),
J.Peñarrubia (U.Victoria) I. Trujillo (IAC) S.Majewski (U.Virginia), M.Pohlen (Cardiff),

Explanation: Grand tidal streams of stars seem to surround galaxy NGC 5907. The arcing structures form tenuous loops extending more than 150,000 light-years from the narrow, edge-on spiral, also known as the Splinter or Knife Edge Galaxy. Recorded only in very deep exposures, the streams likely represent the ghostly trail of a dwarf galaxy -- debris left along the orbit of a smaller satellite galaxy that was gradually torn apart and merged with NGC 5907 over four billion years ago. Ultimately this remarkable discovery image, from a small robotic observatory in New Mexico, supports the cosmological scenario in which large spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, were formed by the accretion of smaller ones. NGC 5907 lies about 40 million light-years distant in the northern constellation Draco.

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Bright Chunks At Phoenix Lander's Mars Site Must Have Been Ice

Dice-size crumbs of bright material have vanished from inside a trench where they were photographed by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander four days ago, convincing scientists that the material was frozen water that vaporized after digging exposed it.

"It must be ice," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice. There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can't do that."

The chunks were left at the bottom of a trench informally called "Dodo-Goldilocks" when Phoenix's Robotic Arm enlarged that trench on June 15, during the 20th Martian day, or sol, since landing. Several were gone when Phoenix looked at the trench early today, on Sol 24.

Also early today, digging in a different trench, the Robotic Arm connected with a hard surface that has scientists excited about the prospect of next uncovering an icy layer.

The Phoenix science team spent Thursday analyzing new images and data successfully returned from the lander earlier in the day.

Studying the initial findings from the new "Snow White 2" trench, located to the right of "Snow White 1," Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, co-investigator for the robotic arm, said, "We have dug a trench and uncovered a hard layer at the same depth as the ice layer in our other trench."

On Sol 24, Phoenix extended the first trench in the middle of a polygon at the "Wonderland" site. While digging, the Robotic Arm came upon a firm layer, and after three attempts to dig further, the arm went into a holding position. Such an action is expected when the Robotic Arm comes upon a hard surface.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft team at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver is preparing a software patch to send to Phoenix in a few days so scientific data can again be saved onboard overnight when needed. Because of a large amount a duplicative file-maintenance data generated by the spacecraft Tuesday, the team is taking the precaution of not storing science data in Phoenix's flash memory, and instead downlinking it at the end of every day, until the conditions that produced those duplicative data files are corrected.

"We now understand what happened, and we can fix it with a software patch," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. "Our three-month schedule has 30 days of margin for contingencies like this, and we have used only one contingency day out of 24 sols. The mission is well ahead of schedule. We are making excellent progress toward full mission success."

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Image of the Day Gallery

Light Echoes From a Red Supergiant

This Hubble Space Telescope image of the star V838 Monocerotis reveals dramatic changes in the illumination of surrounding dusty cloud structures. The effect, called a light echo, unveiled never-before-seen dust patterns when the star suddenly brightened for several weeks in early 2002.

A light echo is light from a stellar explosion echoing off dust surrounding the star that produces enough energy in a brief flash to illuminate surrounding dust. The star presumably ejected the illuminated dust shells in previous outbursts. Light from the latest outburst travels to the dust and then is reflected to Earth.

The phenomena is similar to that of a nova. A typical nova is a normal star that dumps hydrogen onto a compact white-dwarf companion star. The hydrogen piles up until it spontaneously explodes by nuclear fusion -- like a titanic hydrogen bomb -- exposing a searing stellar core with a temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.

By contrast, V838 Monocerotis did not expel its outer layers. Instead, it grew enormously in size. Its surface temperature dropped to temperatures that were not much hotter than a light bulb. This behavior of ballooning to an immense size, but not losing its outer layers, is very unusual and completely unlike an ordinary nova explosion.

The outburst may represent a transitory stage in a star's evolution that is rarely seen. The star has some similarities to highly unstable aging stars called eruptive variables, which suddenly and unpredictably increase in brightness.

V838 Monocerotis is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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NASA Mars Lander to Dig; Team Probes Flash Memory

TUCSON, Ariz. -- NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission generated an unusually high volume of spacecraft housekeeping data on Tuesday causing the loss of some non-critical science data. Phoenix engineers are analyzing why this anomaly occurred. The science team is planning spacecraft activities for Thursday that will not rely on Phoenix storing science data overnight but will make use of multiple communication relays to gain extra data quantity.

"The spacecraft is healthy and fully commandable, but we are proceeding cautiously until we understand the root cause of this event," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Usually Phoenix generates a small amount of data daily about maintaining its computer files, and this data gets a high priority in what gets stored in the spacecraft's non-volatile flash memory. On Tuesday, the quantity of this data was so high that it prevented science data from being stored in flash memory, so the remaining science data onboard Wednesday, when the spacecraft powered down for the Martian night after completing its 22nd Martian day, or sol, since landing, was not retained. None of that science data was high-priority data. Almost all was imaging that can be retaken, with the exception of images taken of a surface that Phoenix's arm dug into after the images were taken.

To avoid stressing Phoenix's capacity for storing data in flash memory while powered off for overnight sleeps, the team commanded Phoenix Tuesday evening to refrain from any new science investigations on Wednesday and to lower the priority for the type of file-housekeeping data that exceeded expected volume on Tuesday.

"We can continue doing science that does not rely on non-volatile memory," Goldstein said. Most science data collected during the mission has been downlinked to Earth on the same sol it has been collected, not requiring overnight storage, but on some sols the team has intentionally included imaging that yields more data than can fit in the afternoon communication passes. This has been done in order to take advantage of the capacity to downlink additional data during communications passes on the following Martian mornings. In the short term, while the root cause of the unexpected amount of housekeeping data is being determined, the science team will forgo that strategy of storing data overnight.

Meanwhile, extra communication-relay opportunities have been added to Thursday's schedule, so the science plan for the day will be able to generate plentiful data without needing overnight storage. Trench-digging, imaging and weather monitoring are in the plan.

The Phoenix mission is led by Peter Smith of the University of Arizona with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin, located in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; Max Planck Institute, Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. For more about Phoenix, visit: and

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How Much Does Animal Testing Tell Us?

A worker feeds white rats at an animal laboratory of a medical school on in Chongqing Municipality, China.

A worker feeds white rats at an animal laboratory of a medical school on in Chongqing Municipality, China.

Not a week goes by without news of a lab breakthrough using rats or mice. But of all the promising medical interventions that make it to animal trials, only a fraction seem to translate into major breakthroughs for humans. Frankie Trull, president of the non-profit Foundation for Biomedical Research (a promoter of responsible animal testing), explains the promise and the pitfalls of pre-clinical trials.

Q: What do animal trials really tell us about humans?

A: Animals are surrogates for humans. The basic reason for animal trials is to determine two issues before any new compound is introduced into a human: safety and efficacy, whether a compound is safe for human ingestion and also whether or not a product works for its intended purpose. Really that process begins way before we get to animals. But at some point in the process it is critical to understand how a compound, let's say, a hypertension medication, works in a whole living system. You can't just determine how it works on blood pressure or the heart. You need to know how it would affect all the organs. That really is the whole purpose of using a complex biological system known as an animal.

There is no question that, despite the excellent results that come out of lots of preclinical trials, the human is the ultimate animal model — and sometimes a potential downside to a new compound is not identified until it gets to a human. We often hear you can't give aspirin to cats because it's toxic to them, or you shouldn't give chocolate to dogs. Chocolate, which is very safe in humans, is not safe in dogs. But when you go back and look at how many compounds fail before they ever get to humans, [it's clear] animals do play a really important role in at least giving early signals — and it's a constantly evolving science.

Over the past 60 years, scientists have figured out what works best in what models. The vast majority of animal testing [today] is in rodents, either rats or mice. Rodents, particularly mice, have very short life spans, so you can see how a compound would react in a young animal, then in the same geriatric animal, and then in the next-generation animal, all in a time frame that is reasonable. Then if a product or a compound is determined to be safe in a rodent, another species is used. For example, if it's a neurological compound, oftentimes the cat is the preferred model because the neurological system of the cat more closely mimics that of a human. If it's a cardiovascular study, it might be a dog (although dogs are not used as frequently as they might have been a decade ago, since scientists have determined that pigs also serve as excellent models for some cardiovascular work). Scientists really do try to go that extra mile to find the species that will most accurately mimic how the compound would work in a human. We're focusing right now in one of our programs on the horse. It has very similar osteoarthritis conditions to humans, but it shows them in a much more compressed period of time. Many, many species [are used in trials].

Of course, science is always making progress. You read a lot about these very special rodents, animals we call "transgenic animals." [That means] if you're studying diabetes, the mice have diabetes, so you can go right to specific disease targets in a much more expeditious way that you could in the old days. In the old days you just hoped they got diabetes. Also, as the scientific community is understanding more and more about the genome, whether it's the human genome or the fruit fly genome, they're better able to identify gene markers, to target them and start developing compounds that point to those specific diseases.

Increasingly scientists are also looking at non-animal models to provide more and more answers. That's not only going to decrease the number of animals used in certain experiments but, more important for many, speed up the [drug approval] process. It's everybody's hope [that one day we could replace animal trials entirely with computer modeling]. But I don't think it'll happen during my lifetime. People in the research community will be the first to tell you they still don't know enough about how the complex living organism works in order to duplicate it. Animals are not perfect. They're definitely not a perfect mimic of a human, but they're [still] as close as we're going to get without using a human.

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Mysterious Russian Cement Rain Causes Hole in Moscow House

By Matthew Simpson
Image by Hoyasmeg

Last Tuesday, seemingly out of nowhere, a huge lump of cement hurtling from the sky crashed through a suburban Moscow home, creating a large hole. But what was the cause? Why, it was the Russian Air force attempting to change the weather of course!

Yes, the relatively common practice of cloud seeding ended in an unfortunate yet hilarious example of how sometimes we shouldn’t mess with the weather. The Russians have been using cloud seeding as a way to prevent rainy weather during important national holidays. On June 12th, the Russian Air Force sent up 12 planes carrying silver iodide, liquid nitrogen and cement powder to seed clouds above Moscow and empty the skies of moisture.

“A pack of cement used in creating … good weather in the capital region … failed to pulverize completely at high altitude and fell on the roof of a house, making a hole about 80-100 cm (2.5-3 ft),” police in Naro-Fominsk told agency RIA-Novosti. Weather specialists said this is the first time in 20 years that this has occurred. The homeowner was not injured, but their pride was. They refused a $2,100 offer from the Air Force to fix the damage, but the home owner declined and stated she would sue for damages and compensation of moral suffering instead.

This wasn’t the first time that cloud seeding failed in some way. In 2006 during the G8 Summit in Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched fighter jets to seed the skies over St. Petersburg so that it wouldn’t rain on the city. Putin was hoping that the seeding would push the rain towards Finland instead, yet alas, the G8 Summit was drenched anyway. Organizers showed their lack of confidence by supplying rain coats beforehand, which proved popular when the rain came pouring down.

The United States also uses cloud seeding to increase precipitation in areas experiencing drought, to reduce the size of hailstones that form in thunderstorms, and to reduce the amount of fog in and around airports. Several countries have looked at cloud seeding as a way to increase snowfall on mountain ranges so that ski seasons can be more sustainable.

Silver iodide can cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury (e.g., chloroform) with intense or continued but not chronic exposure. However, studies by Sierra Nevada of California have shown that the exposure to silver iodide from cloud seeding is less dangerous than exposure from tooth fillings. Notwithstanding this, cloud seeding can be dangerous in other ways. The USAF proposed its use on the battlefield in 1996, although the U.S. signed an international treaty in 1978 banning the use of weather modification for hostile purposes. After the Chernobyl disaster, Russian military pilots seeded clouds over Belarus to remove radioactive particles from clouds heading toward Moscow. So while the current environmental impact is limited, cloud seeding can be used as a hostile measure.

While this method has proved successful in various roles, we should acknowledge that areas that would normally be receiving precipitation won’t because of man-made weather patterns. Using cloud seeding to increase precipitation in usually arid environments can change ecosystems and cause damage to the local habitat for a number of animals. While it is nice to spend the day outside in the sun, we also need those dreaded rainy days as well. I’d rather it rain water than cement on my house, how about you?

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Colossal construction: The world's nine largest science projects

A massive neutrino observatory deep underground near Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Some have been heralded as the largest undertakings since the building of the pyramids.

Others have been likened to a new set of wonders of the world.

From a science perspective at least, here are our picks for the largest projects on Earth: running, under construction, and on the drawing-board...

1. Large Hadron collider at CERN

Billed as the world's largest science project, the LHC was unveiled to unearth the so-called "God particle". Early blogs and articles surmised that the device wielded so much energy that it might create a black hole (though scientifically inaccurate, it hinted at the awesome energy waiting to be unleashed.)

Here's how it works: Two beams of subatomic particles called 'hadrons' (protons or lead ions) travel in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator, picking up more and more energy with every lap. Physicists from around the world will then use the LHC to recreate the conditions found just after the Big Bang by smashing the two beams head-on at very high energy and they analysing the collisions.

2. Next-stop, cold fusion?: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

This first-ever demo-level fusion reactor will be built in southern France and promises to deliver the world's first sustained fusion reactions; In layman's terms: more bang for your buck. And at a projected cost of CDN $14.4 billion, it better.

When the eight-year construction project is complete (scheduled for late 2015), ITER will generate 500 MW of fusion power for extended periods of time.

For those not in the physics know-how, fusion is exceptionally difficult to achieve - and is the subjects of many controversial experiments. That fusion reproduces our sun's energy, without the greenhouse gas emissions and radioactive waste of other methods. (more...)

3. The finished International Space Station, circa 2011

When completed in 2010 (though that will likely slip to 2011) the International Space Station will be the largest multinational engineering project of all time.

With an estimated final pricetag of a tenth of a trillion dollars, the finished structure - with its outstretched solar arrays - will be the size of a football field. A far cry from the Mir space station, which had interior space comparable to the space shuttle.

Though pundits have cast doubts in recent years over the ISS's ability to perform useful science experiments, the addition of the outpost's second major lab (the Japanese Kibo module, along with the U.S. Destiny lab) will allow a crew of 3-6 people to conduct experiments only possible from orbit that will benefit life on Earth, as well as serving as a jumping-off point for missions to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. (more...)

4. A 3,000-foot-tall "Solar tower" in the Australian outback

Dubbed the "Solar Mission Project", this scientific feat takes solar energy to new heights.

Solar tower technology employs the sun's radiation to heat a large body of air, which is then forced by laws of physics (hot air rises) to move in the form of a hot wind through large turbines to generate electricity.

When complete in the far western New South Wales region of the Australian outback, it will stand a full-kilometre (3,280 feet).

When fully-functioning, will generate up to 200 MW of clean emission-free electricity - enough to power about 200,000 homes. (more...)

5. The largest-scale climate-change simulator on Earth

Many studies and tests have been done to give the Earth a regular health checkup, including a comprehensive study of climate-change studies. The difference here is that, rather than sending out a research vessel to the High Arctic, or analizing data from remote sensing instruments amongst one or two teams, this project is using the idle computer time of thousands of volunteers to crunch climate-change data. Though the results are scary, the analysis is impressive in its scope, running on a set-up similar to the popular SETI@home screensaver program. (more...)

6. James Webb Space Telescope

What's after Hubble? Around when NASA is ready to retire one of the most successful science instruments of all time, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch into an ultra-high orbit 1.5 million km from Earth (compare that to the 500 km Hubble orbits above our world.) Out there in the cool vacuum, protected from the sun by a tenis-court-sized shield, the JWST will to try and find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe. JWST will also be able to peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System.

With a large mirror, 6.5 meter (21.3 feet) diameter mirror the $5 billion+ JWST will launch folded up inside the space shuttle and then unfold to its full-size - several times that of Hubble. (more...)

7. The Svalbard "Doomsday" Seed Vault

Known to some as the "Doomsday Vault" or "Noah's Ark for Seeds", this seed bank just might deliver us (and the seeds) from extinction should disaster strike in some not-too-distant future.

The goal of the project is to preserve an organic specimen of nearly every food crop in the world, preserving them for a time when they may no longer exist naturally.

Carved deep into the side of an icy mountain on Norway's remote arctic island, Svalbard, the vault is designed to respond to two concerns: global warming, and rising sea levels. The region's cold climate ensures the seeds will be kept cool - and by nature at that. In addition, Svalbard is remote enough (picture hungry roaming polar bears) to ensure protection from prying evil-doers. (more...)

8. Space elevator

Simply put, this project aims to take space-bound human travels to new heights - into orbit to be precise.

Astronauts and cargo would no longer need to rely on cumbersome shuttles to reach their work site. These hyper-elevators would take the willing some 100,000 kilometres up on a robot attached to a tether. The goal is to provide cheap and safe transport into outer space. While some experts say this will not be possible for at least another decade, zealous inventors are already thinking up ways how to turn this lofty ambition into a reality.

In the meantime, the technology might yield an additional advantage to those who wish to remain earthbound a little longer: High-speed wireless internet access. (more...)

9. The ANTARES underwater neutrino detecting array

In short, ANTARES (Astronomy with a Neutrino Telescope and Abyss environmental RESearch project) and its counterpart to South Pole neutrino telescopes AMANDA and IceCube Neutrino Detector is a telescope designed to look down while its more-traditional star-gazing cousins look up. Don't think there's much to see? Think again.

Neutrino telescopes are capable of detecting radiation produced by high energy muons (an elementary particle with a negative charge) that is the result of Earth-core-penetrating neutrinos (an elementary particle with zero charge and zero mass) that enter our planet's southern hemisphere.

Adding to its all-around neatness, ANTARES is built at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Toulon, France. It will compliment the research of its counterparts in the South Pole, neutrino telescopes AMANDA and IceCube Neutrino Detector.

The primary aim of the experiment is to use neutrinos as a tool to study particle acceleration mechanisms. It just might revolutionize the way we see and think about what's beneath our feet, and how it relates to what's above our heads: the universe. (more...)

Honorable mention: Canadian connection - Canadian Light Source Synchrotron
This stadium-sized particle-accelerator-like device is the only such facility here in Canada and one of only a handful in North America. After it sucks up a good percentage of the equivalent power consumption of nearby Saskatoon (a city of about 200,000 in Saskatchewan) this generation-3 synchrotron shoots tungsten atoms through a booster ring to nearly the speed of light, then diverts that energy into a larger storage ring to produce specially-"tuned" light that can do everything from scan fetuses inside live animals in unparalleled detail to machining gears the width of an ant's leg. The technology may soon lead to new agricultural science breakthroughs and electronics advances such as cell phone antennas so small they can double as the phone's outer casing. (more...)

Honorable mention: Trans-Atlantic Mag-lev
More a technology project than a science experiment, this one's such a sexy idea, we had to mention it here. Imagine being able to go from New York to London underwater, in a electro-magnetically-levitated train that can travel through a vacuum at close to 10,000 km/h. Though this project isn't actually on the drawing board, it's been suggested by researchers at MIT. What will it cost to send you from the East Coast of North America to Europe in about 55 minutes? One fifth of a trilllion dollars. The researchers say such an uber-freeway is possible - but suggest that a tunnel across Lake Ontario would be a more realistic start. (more...)

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Why are NASA Astrobiologists Investigating a Remote Canadian Lake?

Pavilion Lake in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, is considered a “spiritual place” by the native Tskwaylaxw people of Pavilion. Overlooking the lake is a limestone formation that they believe is a “Transformer Stone” meaning that in First Nations legend it was created by the actions of the “Transformers”, a group of supernatural beings who traveled around the country putting things to right by changing things into stone.

They call the formation “K'lpalekw”, which means in their tongue of Secwepemc'tsn "Coyote's Penis". The lake, the canyon and this structure all have special spiritual significance to the nearby native communities, but NASA isn’t interested in the spiritually of the place, they believe that what lies under the lake could help answer the question of the origins of life itself.

At first glance, the remote lake and the surrounding landscape is not a place where you’d expect to find anything NASA would be interested in, but they’ve been studying the area for over a decade now. What is it they are after?

Greg Slater, an environmental geochemist in the Faculty of Science at McMaster University, is a part of the latest exploration effort at the lake. He says the objects of interest are far down below the surface. Unique carbonate rock structures, known as microbialites are are covered with microbes. These mysterious long, red fingers stand like sentinels at the bottom of the mysteriously deep Pavilion Lake, B.C. Are they life forms? An international team of researchers that includes NASA astronauts and a multi-disciplinary team of other scientists, want to answer that question, and by doing so they hope to unlock secrets useful for the search for life on Mars. The unique growths are home to a thriving population of various kinds of bacteria. The researchers are trying to determine whether bacteria built the structures, and if so, how. How are single-celled organism able to build impressively sized structures, and could single-celled organisms be doing the same thing on other planets as well?

"Are they the result of biological or geological processes? Why are there different microbes living on them and how long have these microbial communities been preserved? These are some of our big questions," says Slater, part of an international team researching these strange specimens.

This has been an ongoing mystery for scientists. They didn’t know what they were when they were first discovered in 1997, and they still don’t know exactly what they are and how they formed.

"These unique and rare microbialite formations are important to NASA's astrobiology effort because they are big, macroscopic evidence of microscopic life," said Dr. Chris McKay, a scientist with the NASA Astrobiology Institute said back in 1998 when NASA first started exploring the lake. "They are helping us understand one of the big astrobiology questions how early life took hold and began to flourish on Earth. These fossils are like seeing a billion-year-old footprint in the sand and comparing it to a modern human foot.”

Now mini-subs called “single person submersibles” that are manned by only person at a time, have been called in to help scientists retrieve samples of the deepest microbialites specimens that may hold vital clues to the history of life on Earth, and on other planets as well.

"It's going to help us develop a baseline of understanding about life on our planet," says Slater. "As amazing as it sounds, the bottom of a lake can answer lots of questions about life on Earth. And how we explore this Lake will lay the groundwork for how we will explore Mars."

Astronaut Dave Williams, also a professor at McMaster, has been trained as a Deepworker pilot. He says that this new advanced underwater exploration technology will “enable investigators to study previously inaccessible specimens."

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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The essence of happiness

cake and happinessIt's easy to see why food makes us happy; other motivations are more complex.

Why does payday feel good? You can’t eat money, and it can’t have your babies — so how did that 'ker-ching!' feeling become so sweet?

Working with rats, neuroscientists have gained an insight into how the brain comes to take pleasure in abstract rewards. Animals, they suggest, have a reward system that focuses on specific outcomes — what an action would achieve — which in turn plugs into a more general system that lets us know what feels good.

Understanding how these two systems interact could help us understand what happens when they go wrong, such as in drug addiction or in general failures of willpower. The results are reported in Nature 1.

It’s hard to explain why people work for things that are not intrinsically gratifying, says neuroscientist Geoffrey Schoenbaum of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “People are not normally working for primary rewards, such as food or sex, but for proxies, such as money.”

And, he says, they are able to plan their behaviour with distant goals in mind. “You work harder when you want a certain thing, like a new car.”

Sound and light

Separating the cognitive (goal-oriented) and general (emotional) systems is difficult, because achieving your goal makes you feel happy. Schoenbaum and his colleagues achieved it by using an ingenious variation on classical pavlovian conditioning.

First, the researchers taught rats to associate one light with a grape-flavoured sucrose pellet, and a different light with a banana-flavoured pellet. Such conditioning makes the lights gratifying on their own — animals will work to experience the cue, even if they don’t get a pellet.

Then, the team played sounds along with the lights. The ‘grape’ light with a sound still delivered a grape pellet. In this situation, animals tend to ignore the extra information and do not learn to associate the sound with food.

But the ‘banana’ light plus a sound led to a different reward – a grape-flavoured pellet. So in this case, the sound adds information. The light means something nice is coming and the sound tells you what flavour it will be.

Rats like the two flavours equally, so the sound says nothing about the treat’s value, only its details.

Separating desires

The team next tested the rats on sounds and lights alone. The animals, they found, will press a bar to obtain either the light or the sound on its own, even if no food pellet follows on. The generalized reward of the treat and the abstract property of its flavour were equally strong motivations.

But rats with damage to an area of their brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is thought to be involved in decision-making, would work to see the treat-associated light, but not to hear the grape-associated sound. That is, they will work for a cue associated with positive emotions, but not one linked only to a specific outcome.

It’s a bit like separating Homer Simpson’s “Mmm… donuts”, into a generalized expression of pleasure (“Mmm”), and the specific object of his desire (the "donuts"), and working out the brain regions responsible for each thought.

“It’s quite a brilliant experiment,” says Trevor Robbins, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK. “It’s a very clever dissection of the learning mechanisms by which the stimuli that are associated with rewards also become rewarding.”

The brain police

Schoenbaum suggests that the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies at the front of the brain, just above the eyes, is the home of the brain’s cognitive reward system. It acts as a forecaster, predicting the value of different behaviours, learns which ones are ultimately rewarding, and triggers a corresponding emotional response.

“The orbitofrontal cortex is the apex of the brain’s reward system,” says Robbins.

Normally the two systems will give the same 'answer'. But the orbitofrontal cortex could also act as a kind of policeman, says Schoenbaum, diverting the pursuit of immediate gratification in favour of longer-term goals.

Sometimes, however, cues override goals, as when the paraphernalia of drug-taking can trigger cravings in addicts. “Addicts can become euphoric just from putting a needle in their arm, before the drug hits the brain,” says Robbins. In a milder form, our eyes might see the golden arches of McDonald's and our feet march us up to the counter, despite our resolution to cut down on milkshakes.

Next, Schoenbaum hopes to go after the brain regions that provide the emotional reward. Ultimately, he says, we may be able to “manipulate and correct” the two systems when they get dangerously out of balance.

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f You Can't Take the Height, Get Off the Mountain

Picture of Himalayan subjects

Taking a breather.
Himalayan subjects suck in oxygen as part of the study.

Credit: Otto Appenzeller

By Andrea Lu

Life at high altitudes isn't easy. The thin mountain air can cause a slew of health problems, even for people who have lived at elevation for centuries. Some groups fare better than others, however, and researchers now think they've found one reason: varying expression levels of a gene called PDP2, which codes for a protein that helps transform food to fuel.

Many groups have adapted to low oxygen levels at high altitudes by boosting their production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the body's tissues. The strategy comes at a cost: All of those cells can thicken the blood and impede its flow, leading to headaches, fatigue, insomnia, and memory impairment. Susceptibility to the condition, known as chronic mountain sickness (CMS), varies among populations. A team of researchers led by neuroscientist Otto Appenzeller of the New Mexico Health Enhancement and Marathon Clinics Research Foundation wanted to find out why.

The researchers focused on three groups: East African highlanders, who dwell on the Ethiopian plateau 3600 meters above sea level; Peruvians of the Andes, who live at 4300 meters; and Himalayans who live on the Tibetan plateau at 4500 meters. Ethiopian highlanders rarely show signs of CMS; the disorder appears more frequently in the Tibetans and even more frequently in the Andeans. Scientists suspect that the difference may be evolutionary: The Ethiopians and the Tibetans ascended their respective mountains earlier than their Andean peers, giving them a head start in adapting to life up high.

The team focused on a handful of genes, all of which had been implicated in adaptation to low-oxygen environments. For each region, the researchers compared gene expression levels in white blood cells, which respond quickly to changes in oxygen levels, in high-altitude subjects with CMS with those without the disease.

Of the three groups, Ethiopians displayed the highest expression levels of the oxygen-adaptation genes, followed by Tibetans and then Andeans. One of these genes, PDP2, linked strongly to CMS. Individuals with CMS had significantly lower PDP2 expression than those without the condition, regardless of ethnic group, suggesting that the gene helps individuals acclimatize to poor oxygen levels. That matches up well to the incidence of CMS observed in these populations, says author and molecular biologist Guo-Qiang Xing of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

The researchers believe that PDP2 helps people adjust to poor oxygen levels by promoting aerobic cellular respiration. This metabolic pathway uses oxygen to covert glucose to cellular energy and thus obviates the need to make more red blood cells.

The finding might eventually help people who dwell at sea level. The inability of cells to access oxygen has been linked to multiple diseases including cancer, asthma, and Alzheimer's. Any connection between these conditions and PDP2 is speculative, Appenzeller admits, but he believes that "we can learn from this experiment of nature" in the mountains.

Robert Roach, a physiologist at the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine in Aurora, calls the research a "fantastic preliminary study." He believes that it will inspire many follow-up studies, which he says "could reveal tremendous insights on how humans adapt to a changing environment."

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Secrets of James Bond's success with women unravelled

The secrets of what makes James Bond so irresistible to women have been unravelled by scientists.

Men like James Bond have more success with women

According to a new study, men who are narcissistic, thrill-seeking liars and all round "bad boys" tend to have the greatest success finding more sexual partners.

Scientists believe that the root of their good fortune is simply that they try it on with more women, therefore by the law of averages are likely to ensnare more.

They say these type of men adopt a more predatory, scatter gun approach to conquests and have more of a desire to try new things which helps when it comes to meeting women, according to the study highlighted by New Scientist magazine.

However, the study shows that women who share the same personality traits do not enjoy the same success with the opposite sex.

Scientists have long speculated why famous "bad boys" like Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty appear to have more success with women.

Researchers at New Mexico State University tested 200 university students for three characteristics which when taken together have been dubbed the "dark triad" by psychologists.

These are a tendency to lie and manipulate others, the selfishness associated with narcissism and impulsive behaviour that gives little thought to consequence.

The scientists then asked the students about their attitudes to sex, including how many partners they had had and whether they desired short-term sexual encounters.

The result of the study, presented at the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society conference in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month, found that those who were ranked highest for "dark triad" characteristics also tended to have the largest number of sexual partners.

Peter Jonason, from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, who led the study, said that many of the traits were those seen in Ian Fleming's fictional spy and could explain James Bond's success with women.

"He's clearly disagreeable, very extroverted and likes trying new things – killing people, new women," he said.

Mr Jonason believes that their link to a higher number of sexual partners could explain why these traits have survived over generations, despite their negative social connotations.

He said: "We have some evidence that these three traits are really the same thing and may represent a successful evolutionary strategy."

However, he believes that if the traits were more common across the population then their link with sexual success would decline, because women would become more guarded.

Another study by David Schmitt, from Bradley University, Illinois, also presented at the Kyoto meeting, suggested that the link between these characters traits and an increase in the number of sexual partners was true across different countries and different cultures.

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Spinnaker Tower Stairs to Generate Electricity

by Jorge Chapa

Imagine being able to collect the energy of every person walking up and down the stairs from the Spinnaker Tower viewing platform in Portsmouth, UK. That is the proposal being put forward by David Webb, from the British consultancy of Scott Wilson. His hope is to install miniature “heel-strike” generators underneath the stairs that would capture the power generated by a person as they walk down the tower. His ultimate goal is to install them in every rail station, shopping center and even in your shoes!

The idea behind the technology is remarkably simple. Everything moves, and everything that moves is expending some form of energy - kinetic energy to be precise. Some of this energy generally goes to waste, after all if you hit your foot on the ground, very little will actually happen. But thanks to advances in technology, it is now possible to recover some of that energy and turn it into electricity. The two most common technologies are piezoelectric materials, and heel strike generators.

According to Webb, if these generators were to be installed at the Victoria Underground Station in central London, the power generated by the 34,000 people moving around would be able to power approximately 6,500 lightbulbs. The technology also has application beyond the small steps. Plans are afoot to look into installing these devices in the tower itself, to harness energy from the swaying movement of the building!

Kinetic energy is looking more and more promising, particularly as a way to create small amounts of energy for individual devices. Expect to hear more about this field in the coming months.

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Water Restoration Act May Lead to Privatization of Water Supply

(NaturalNews) The fate of the nation's water supply is under debate as hearings in the House and Senate begin on the Water Restoration Act of 2007. Opponents claim this Act threatens to greatly expand the Federal Government's roll in water management. This Act would define waters of the U.S. as "all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams) mudflats, sand flats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing". In other words, this bill will give the federal government total control of the most basic of all commodities necessary to life on this earth.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers currently have authority over all waters considered navigable in the U.S. The Code of Federal Regulations 33 CFR 329.4 defines navigable waters as "those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce."

The Water Restoration Act, a bipartisan bill lead/sponsored by Congressman Oberstar, is an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act. Since major amendments were enacted in 1977, the Clean Water Act protected all of the nation's waters as Congress intended, until 2003, when the Bush administration gave in to pressure form corporate polluters and redefined the meaning of water. This happened through a bureaucratic device called a 'guidance', whereby the EPA instructed federal environmental law enforcers to back off from holding many polluters accountable.

Proponents of the Clean Water Restoration Act see it as restoring what was Congress's original intent, that the Clean Water Act protect all of the nation's waters. They see water quality and quantity issues as needing examination this spring, and believe now is the time for getting legislation to protect the water supply in order with the passage of this Act. They see the Act as offering needed protection from water pollution, from terrorists, and being in the interests of national security.

Is water a basic human right or a commodity?

Under the Public Trust doctrine, the government is prohibited from converting something such as water to the status of a commodity. Water is considered a basic human right that must remain in the public trust, meaning that it is so important to our survival that it should never be reclassified as a commodity. Many believe that the Water Restoration Act lays the foundation for removing water from the Public Trust and facilitating it to fall under the ownership and control of corporations as a commodity. This is similar to how seeds have fallen into corporate control when they were once viewed as part of the Public Trust under the assumption that all people have a right to seeds with which to grow food for themselves.

Commodity owning corporations can now sue the government if it acts in any way to prevent them from making profits they believe they are entitled to. This ability to sue for impaired profit making can be the result of environmental regulations, of Federal laws which may prevent the corporations from hiring illegal workers, or issues of eminent domain in which an individual's land stands in the way of corporate earnings, and the courts have not acted to protect the interests of the corporation.

All the corporation has to do to supersede federal law is claim 'trade illegal' provisions of NAFTA and CAFTA. Federal laws and regulations are then put aside, along with property rights. CAFTA goes a long way in establishing the privatization of water supplies, including in-land navigated waters and the right to use and access the water supplies.

Federal control over all water may lead to its privatization

If the federal government is unable to gain total control of all water from whatever source, it is highly unlikely that water can be taken from the status of Public Trust and changed to that of commodity. If in fact the Water Restoration Act allows for the complete control of the federal government over all water in the country, as it opponents claim, water can loose its status as part of the Public Trust, and become a commodity available for corporate ownership.

The Water Restoration Act federalizes all inland and coastal waters from any source. This Act is needed to set the stage for the corporate privatization guaranteed under CAFTA, and would effectively convert the entire water supply from any source into the status of a commodity.

As it stands now, any corporate agriculture business operating in any area is allowed to bypass water treatment plants, sewage treatment, and tap directly into underground aquifers even if it depletes the water supply to the surrounding communities. GMO seeds require up to three times the normal amount of water to activate and grow, but efforts to limit use or regulate disposal have been unsuccessful. The corporate rights are seen to exceed those of the individual and community as CAFTA clearly claims priority for "investor protections".

Opponents of the Water Restoration Act see the World Bank along with the United Nations as active in the effort to use NAFTA as well as CAFTA to convert the world's water supply to commodity status, to be controlled by private investors via global trade and investment agreements. Water will no longer be a community or individual right and resource if they are successful. Water will become a globally traded commodity subject to markets and the ability to pay, just like oil has.

If the World Trade organization is able to convert water to the status of a tradable commodity, it will be subject to international trade policies favoring only the giant corporation and investors. When corporations have sought to overturn domestic environmental laws or regulations, the laws have been declared null under the 'trade illegal' provisions of both NAFTA and CAFTA which declare that the right of the corporation cannot be superseded or infringed upon by laws or regulations that hinder the amount of profit they estimate can be attained.

Privatization may lead to abuse

Under a currently established World Bank system, credit or loans will not be issued to Third World countries and others unless they agree to allow foreign investors access to privatize their water supply. It required mass demonstrations in Bolivia to force out a subsidiary of Bechtel that had privatized the water supply, increased costs three-fold initially, dispensed with system upkeep, and left a quarter of the rural homes without access to water.

England privatized their water system, resulting in a 45% overnight increase in costs. Maintenance levels dropped and the quality of the water deteriorated significantly.

Several people became ill and one died from an E. coli contamination in a Canadian town after the water supply was privatized. The owner of the water knew of the contamination but did not notify the public until people became ill.

In a meeting at the Hague, water executives stated that as long as water was coming out of the tap, the public had no right to any information as to how it got there or its quality.

In the U.S. private investors have already succeeded in taking over some community water supplies. In other places the communities have fought against the sale of publicly held supplies realizing that this most important element of human survival should never be in the control of private corporations whose one and only duty is to produce ever increasing profits for investors.

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Greenland ice core analysis shows drastic climate change near end of last ice age

The North Greenland Ice Core Project camp.
Click here for more information.

Information gleaned from a Greenland ice core by an international science team shows that two huge Northern Hemisphere temperature spikes prior to the close of the last ice age some 11,500 years ago were tied to fundamental shifts in atmospheric circulation.

The ice core showed the Northern Hemisphere briefly emerged from the last ice age some 14,700 years ago with a 22-degree-Fahrenheit spike in just 50 years, then plunged back into icy conditions before abruptly warming again about 11,700 years ago. Startlingly, the Greenland ice core evidence showed that a massive "reorganization" of atmospheric circulation in the Northern Hemisphere coincided with each temperature spurt, with each reorganization taking just one or two years, said the study authors.

The new findings are expected to help scientists improve existing computer models for predicting future climate change as increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere drive up Earth's temperatures globally.

The team used changes in dust levels and stable water isotopes in the annual ice layers of the two-mile-long Greenland ice core, which was hauled from the massive ice sheet between 1998 to 2004, to chart past temperature and precipitation swings. Their paper was published in the June 19 issue of Science Express, the online version of Science.

The ice cores -- analyzed with powerful microscopes -- were drilled as part of the North Greenland Ice Core Project led by project leader Dorthe Dahl-Jensen of the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Neils Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen. The study included 17 co-investigators from Europe, one from Japan and two from the United States -- Jim White and Trevor Popp from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"We have analyzed the transition from the last glacial period until our present warm interglacial period, and the climate shifts are happening suddenly, as if someone had pushed a button," said Dahl-Jenson.

According to the researchers, the first abrupt warming period beginning at 14,700 years ago lasted until about 12,900 years ago, when deep-freeze conditions returned for about 1,200 years before the onset of the second sharp warming event. The two events indicate a speed in the natural climate change process never before seen in ice cores, said White, director of CU-Boulder's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research.

"We are beginning to tease apart the sequence of abrupt climate change," said White, whose work was funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs. "Since such rapid climate change would challenge even the most modern societies to successfully adapt, knowing how these massive events start and evolve is one of the most pressing climate questions we need to answer."

Both dramatic warming events were preceded by decreasing Greenland dust deposition, indicating higher tropical temperatures and significantly more rain falling on the deserts of Asia at the time, said White. The team believes the ancient tropical warming caused large, rapid atmospheric changes at the equator, the intensification of the Pacific monsoon, sea-ice loss in the north Atlantic Ocean and more atmospheric heat and moisture over Greenland and much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

"Here we propose a series of events beginning in the lower latitudes and leading to changes in the ocean and atmosphere that reveal for the first time the anatomy of abrupt climate change," the authors wrote. White likened the abrupt shift in the Northern Hemisphere circulation pattern to shifts in the North American jet stream as it steers storms around the continent.

"We know such events are in Earth's future, but we don't know when," said White. "One question is whether we can see the symptoms before big problems occur. Until we answer these questions, we are speeding blindly down a narrow road, hoping there are no curves ahead."

Each yearly record of ice can reveal past temperatures and precipitation levels, the content of ancient atmospheres and even evidence for the timing and magnitude of distant storms, fires and volcanic eruptions, said White. The cores from the site -- located roughly in the middle of Greenland at an elevation of about 9,850 feet -- are four-inch-diameter cylinders brought to the surface in 11.5-foot lengths, said White.

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Driving Less, Americans Finally React to Sting of Gas Prices, a Study Says

HOUSTON — As the price of gasoline quadrupled over the last decade, American drivers seemed to defy the laws of economics by pumping more into their vehicles year after year.

But this is the year American drivers appear to be finally succumbing to price shock at the pump, according to a new report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm affiliated with IHS Inc. It says the slowdown in the economy and soaring gasoline prices have finally persuaded Americans to drive fewer miles in fewer gas-guzzling vehicles.

“U.S. gasoline demand will likely decline in 2008 for the first time in more than 17 years,” says the report to be released Thursday. “For the first time since the 1970s and early 1980s the number of miles driven by Americans has clearly begun trending downward.”

The Transportation Department reported on Wednesday that Americans drove 1.8 percent fewer miles on public roads in April 2008 compared with the same month last year, the sixth consecutive month of driving mileage declines.

The Cambridge Energy report cites some fundamental shifts in consumer behavior that suggest the beginning of an enduring trend. The report noted that in California, where gasoline prices have historically led the rest of the country, gasoline consumption has declined for two consecutive years and hybrid vehicle sales are rising.

Now the rest of the country seems to be following. Sales of pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles have fallen below 50 percent of new passenger vehicle sales this year for the first time since 2001, the report says, as consumers turned to smaller vehicles in favor of fuel economy.

“It’s kind of stunning,” said Aaron F. Brady, a co-author of the report. “It was over 50 percent as late as February and by May it fell under 44 percent. It’s like falling off a cliff.”

Drivers, meanwhile, are becoming more prudent in their driving habits, either by using public transportation, carpooling or just cutting down on unnecessary trips, the two authors said in an interview. “Public transit ridership is surging all over the country,” said Samantha Gross, the other author.

While total vehicle miles Americans traveled grew by nearly 3 percent a year from 1984 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed suddenly in 2005 and 2006 and has declined since then.

The last time gasoline consumption declined for a prolonged period was during the oil shocks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when annual United States consumption declined by 12 percent. Fast-rising oil prices, a deep recession and improved fuel efficiency standards drove down demand for gasoline.

The same situation is beginning to emerge today, according to the report, and basic home economics explains the trends. Since the 1980s, demand for gasoline has climbed fairly steadily, except in late 1990 and 1991 because of a sharp price increase related to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and a recession. That is because spending on gasoline became a smaller percentage of family income, especially through the 1990s.

Americans spent about 4.5 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels in 1981, according to Global Insight, a forecasting firm. As gasoline prices dropped and family incomes rose, that percentage dropped to 1.9 percent in 1998. Today, it is back to 4 percent or more.

The national price for unleaded gasoline would need to average $4.23 a gallon “to create the same economic pain as in 1981,” the Cambridge Energy report said. “Once unthinkable, such a level is now within view.” On Wednesday, gasoline averaged nearly $4.08 a gallon.

It would take a sizable decline in consumption to get back to the levels of gasoline use only a generation ago.

National gasoline consumption has grown over the last 25 years by 40 percent because of the growing popularity of sport utility vehicles and minivans as well as longer commutes to work from the suburbs. Low gasoline prices made the growth relatively painless, until the last three years or so.

The Cambridge Energy report said gasoline demand growth slowed significantly from 2005 to 2007 and peaked last year. Demand in the first quarter of 2008 declined by 1.3 percent from the first quarter in 2007.

Even if consumers start driving more, the report predicts that the efficiency of the American vehicle fleet will continue to improve. “New fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles (scheduled to phase in starting in 2011) by themselves have the potential to begin reducing U.S. gasoline demand within the next decade,” the report said.

If gasoline prices remain high, motorists may well “accelerate their preference shift toward more fuel-efficient vehicles,” the report concluded. “If these trends hold, then 2007 could stand as the peak year for U.S. gasoline demand.”

The authors said they thought gasoline consumption would continue to ease even if gasoline prices went down, unlike in the 1980s and 1990s when consumption sprang back up as prices went down.

“With climate change concerns now, it’s very likely that fuel efficiency will be at the forefront for the foreseeable future,” said Ms. Gross, “and it’s unlikely we will go back to not caring about fuel efficiency the way we did in the late 1980s.”

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20 Things You Didn't Know About... The Summer Solstice

Galileo was forced to recant his astronomical theories on the summer solstice of 1633.

by Dean Christopher

1 Summertime, and the tiltin’ is easy. Summers are hot not because Earth is closer to the sun, but because the tilt of the Earth’s axis lets rays of sunlight hit one hemisphere more directly.

2 During the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, we’re actually farthest from the sun, receiving 7 percent less sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere does during its summer.

3 The summer solstice—June 20 this year—is the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day, with 24 hours of unbroken sunlight north of the Arctic Circle.

4 For obsessive-compulsives: The site maintains a second-by-second countdown to each solstice.

5 Supporters of Seattle’s Solstice Parade, an annual fixture of the city’s artsy Fremont neighborhood, proclaim that it will “cast a spell of joy, hope, and rebirth that spreads from Fremont to the entire universe.”

6 Helping cast the spell are the Painted Cyclists, a clothing-optional group of bike riders who wear intense body makeup.

7 Watch out for those solstice rays: The Painted Cyclists’ organizers instruct participants to slather on the sunscreen, encouraging newbies to “ask Rob about his plaid sunburn from Solstice 2002.”

8 Modern-day druids, taking a more traditional approach, gather at England’s Stonehenge to mark the summer solstice. Many still don Celtic attire, even though a civilization known as the Beaker People finished Stonehenge a millennium before the Celts turned up.

9 The Tropic of Cancer—the latitude on Earth where the sun is directly overhead at noon on the summer solstice—got its name because when the ancients established it, the sun appeared in the constellation Cancer.

10 Oops. Due to subsequent shifting of Earth’s axis, the Tropic of Cancer is now misnamed. On the current June solstice, the sun actually appears in the constellation Taurus.

11 Worse than the full moon? On the solstice of June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates killed her five children. Three years before that (June 18, 1999—also near the solstice) she tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills.

12 Galileo was forced to recant his theory that Earth revolves around the sun on the summer solstice of 1633.

13 Other planets have solstices too. By cosmic coincidence, this year Mars and Earth have solstices that fall within a few days of each other, with the Martian solstice occurring on June 25.

14 Stock up on DVDs and fire up the sunlamp: Uranus’s axis of rotation is nearly aligned with the plane of its orbit, meaning that each pole on Uranus experiences a 42-year-long summer of steady sunshine—followed by a depressing 42 years of winter darkness.

15 At the other extreme, Venus’s and Jupiter’s poles are almost exactly perpendicular to their orbits. Because of that, their solstices—hence their seasons—are barely noticeable.

16 Then again, you would have difficulty noticing any kind of season on Venus because you would be simultaneously suffocated, crushed, and cooked at 870 degrees Fahrenheit. On Jupiter it would be worse: You would be killed by radiation long before you got close.

17 Even without seasons, changes in the sun affect the planets. Sunspots wax and wane on an 11-year cycle; at times of peak sunspot activity, such as the year 2000, the sun is 0.07 percent brighter than during periods of low activity.

18 And the sun keeps getting brighter. Models of stellar evolution estimate that the sun is about 40 percent more luminous today than it was when the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago.

19 No more summer beach vacations. Some 1 billion to 3 billion years from now, the sun’s increasing intensity will boil away Earth’s oceans, turning our planet into an endless desert.

20 So maybe the ancient Greeks had the right idea, pulling out all the stops for the winter solstice instead. On the festival of Lenaea, according to legend, a band of women would seize a man representing Dionysus (the god of wine-fueled revelry), rip him to shreds, and eat him.

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