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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Will Discovery of Mars Water Lead to Terraforming?

They've found water ice on Mars! If this is news to you then we're proud that the Daily Galaxy is the only science-feed you read, probably delivered on parchment to your Himalayan cave by carrier pigeon.

White material was uncovered by the Phoenix Lander remote robot digger arm, the most amazingly ultra-tech bucket and spade ever to exist. It disappeared over time and exposure to sunlight, meaning that it's either frozen liquid or David Copperfield has been teaching salt some of his act. NASA scientists are going for the former, in between high-fiving each other.

If a space-travel enthusiast was given a magic lamp with a genie by Father Christmas, he still wouldn't have dared to ask for news this good. Water is one of the most vital of natural resources - never mind how your puny fleshbag gets very whiny (then very silent) after a few days without: the computer you're using, the desk its on, even the electricity powering it - not one of those was made without massive water costs.

Every industry on Earth is based on an assumed infinite supply of water - an easy state to reach when seventy per cent of your planet is covered in the stuff. But while the life giving liquid is easy to find and easier to pour, getting it off planet needs a lot more than a big hose. The huge thrust (fuel) cost for every kilo of matter lifted off planet makes water the most expensive essential for human life.

Spacecraft are masterpieces of recycling, reducing the huge initial costs of getting enough of the stuff into space. As well as giving rise to one of the least-talked about aspects of space exploration: "boldly going where no one has gone before" gets a lot more press than "to boldly drink your own filtered urine." But the presence of heavenly H20 really changes the entire picture of planetary exploration.

Never mind survival or camp supplies - the word "terraforming" comes into play with this discovery. That is a very, very big word - in implication and incredibility - and all made possible by some white patches on a picture.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

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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 23

The International Space Station Expands Again
Credit: STS-124 Shuttle Crew, NASA

Explanation: The developing International Space Station (ISS) has changed its appearance again. Earlier this month, the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery visited the ISS and added components that included Japan's Kibo Science Laboratory. The entire array of expansive solar panels is visible in this picture taken by the Discovery Crew after leaving the ISS to return to Earth. The world's foremost space outpost can be seen developing over the past several years by comparing the above image to past images. Also visible above are many different types of modules, a robotic arm, another impressive set of solar panels, and a supply ship. Construction began on the ISS in 1998.

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NASA's new spacesuits are made for walking

The "default" version of the new suit will be worn during takeoff and landing of the Orion spaceship, which is due to replace the shuttle by 2015 (Image: NASA)

The US space agency yesterday placed an order for new spacesuits for the 2015 launch of the new Orion capsule, designed to replace the aging space shuttle and re-establish humans on the Moon as part of the Constellation Program.

US firm Oceaneering International won the contract worth up to $745 million, which involves design, testing, evaluation and production of a suit that can be worn in two different styles.

The "default" version (see image, right) is designed for use during launch and landing aboard Orion, trips to the International Space Station, and spacewalks for contingency operations.

It will also be used to protect astronauts against unforeseen circumstances like cabin leaks.

Walking boots

For expeditions on the lunar surface, though, astronauts will be able to replace certain parts of that suit with other components to create a version more suited for strolling (see image, lower right).

The suit will need to cope with a large number of moonwalks with minimal maintenance during the planned six-month lunar outpost expeditions.

The current spacesuits used by spacewalking astronauts were designed for weightless floating in space, not walking on the Moon, says, project manager for the spacesuit system at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, US.

"They were built to solve a completely different set of problems," he says. Astronauts on the Moon will need lighter-weight suits that can bend and be easily manoeuvred, he added.

Suits and the life-support systems that go with them will be needed for up to four astronauts on Moon voyages and as many as six space station travellers.

Images of Earth from Planetary Spacecraft

Lunar Orbiter sent back the first photo of Earth over the Moon, but it was the Apollo program that produced the first widely publicized views of Earth as a colorful marble floating in black space, images that revolutionized public perception of our fragile planet. At the same time, the Soviets were capturing similarly dramatic images from their Zond flyby craft. Later, Clementine reprised these views. As spacecraft began to launch on journeys to more distant planets, never to return, their mission controllers often commanded them to take departing views of Earth and the Moon. Mariner 10 and Voyager 1 both took such snapshots, as did Mars Odyssey and Venus Express. Other spacecraft traveling to eventual orbit around other planets required one or more gravity-assist flybys of Earth; a year or more after their launches, Galileo, Hayabusa, Rosetta, and MESSENGER returned to the neighborhood, shooting photos and even movies as they flew by. Some planetary travelers -- like Voyager 1, Mars Global Surveyor, Cassini, Deep Impact, and even the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit -- were even able to turn toward Earth and capture distant glimpses of their home planets from their eventual destinations. Now, with the dawning of an International Lunar Decade and multiple missions returning to the Moon, new views are coming from spacecraft like Kaguya.

Lunar Orbiter

First image of Earthrise over the Moon
Lunar Orbiter 1: First image of Earthrise over the Moon (1966)
Lunar Orbiter 1 was the first spacecraft to capture an image of Earth rising over the lunar limb. A higher-resolution version of this image can be downloaded from the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Lunar Orbiter Photo Gallery. Credit: NASA / LPI

Apollo Program

Earthrise over the lunar horizon
Apollo 8: Earthrise over the lunar horizon (December 24, 1968)
Earth rose over the lunar horizon as Apollo 8 completed the first manned trip behind the far side of the Moon. The mission also returned the first live television coverage of the lunar surface. Credit: NASA
View of Earth rising over Moon's horizon taken from Apollo 11 spacecraft
Apollo 11: Earthrise over the lunar horizon (July 16, 1969)
The lunar terrain as seen from Apollo 11 is in the area of Smuth's Sea on the nearside. Coordinates of the center of the terrain are 85 degrees east longitude and 3 degrees north latitude. Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)
Iconic view of Earth from Apollo 17
Apollo 17: Iconic view of Earth (December 7, 1972)
One of the most famous images of the twentieth century, this view of the fully lit globe of Earth was taken from Apollo 17 shortly after its launch. The full view was enabled by the fortuitous alignment of Earth, spacecraft, and the Sun. Credit: NASA

Zond Program

Earthset from Zond 7
Earthset from Zond 7
Zond 7 flew past the Moon, taking this sequence of images of Earth setting behind the lunar limb, on August 9, 1969. The sequence actually consists of only three images; the second one was simulated from data in the others to even out the Earthset sequence. Credit: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk

Mariner 10

Earth and the Moon from Mariner 10
Mariner 10: Earth and Moon (November 3, 1973)
Within 12 hours of its launch, Mariner 10 turned on its cameras to capture several hundred high-resolution digital color pictures of the Earth-Moon system. In this view, Earth and Moon were imaged by Mariner 10 from 2.6 million kilometers (1.6 million miles). Two images were combined to illustrate the relative sizes of the two bodies. Credit: NASA / JPL

Voyager 1

Crescent Earth and Moon
Voyager 1: Crescent Earth and Moon (September 18, 1977)
This picture of a crescent-shaped Earth and Moon -- the first of its kind ever taken by a spacecraft -- was recorded by Voyager 1 when it was 11.66 million kilometers (7.25 million miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL
The Pale Blue Dot of Earth
Voyager 1: Pale Blue Dot (February 14, 1990)
This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. Credit: NASA / JPL
The Pale Blue Dot of Earth - Detail
Voyager 1: Pale Blue Dot - Detail
Credit: NASA / JPL


Antarctica Mosaic
Galileo: Antarctica Mosaic (December 8, 1990)
This color picture of the limb of the Earth, looking north past Antarctica, is a mosaic of 11 images taken during a ten-minute period near 5:45 p.m. PST Dec. 8, 1990, by Galileo's imaging system. Red, green and violet filters were used. The picture spans about 1,600 miles across the south polar latitudes of our planet. The morning day/night terminator is toward the right. The South Pole is out of sight below the picture; the visible areas of Antarctica are those lying generally south of South America. The violet-blue envelope of Earth's atmosphere is prominent along the limb to the left. At lower left, the dark blue Amundsen Sea lies to the left of the Walgreen and Bakutis Coasts. Beyond it, Peter Island reacts with the winds to produce a striking pattern of atmospheric waves. Credit: JPL / NASA
Global Images of Earth
Galileo: Global Images of Earth (December 11, 1990)
These images were taken during Galileo's first Earth flyby. In each frame, the continent of Antarctica is visible at the bottom of the globe. South America may be seen in the first frame (top left), the great Pacific Ocean in the second (bottom left), India at the top and Australia to the right in the third (top right), and Africa in the fourth (bottom right). The images were taken at six-hour intervals on December 11, 1990, at a range of between 2 and 2.7 million kilometers (1.2 to 1.7 million miles). Galileo's closest approach (960 kilometers, or 597 miles, above the Earth's surface) to the Earth was on December 8, 1990, 3 days before these pictures were taken. Each of these images is a color composite, made up using images taken through red, green, and violet filters. Credit: JPL / NASA
Earth rotates under Galileo
Galileo: Earth flyby animation (December 11-12, 1990)
As Galileo receded from its first flyby of Earth on December 11 and 12, it took images of Earth in six different filters almost every minute over a 25-hour period. The animation at leftincludes images taken once an hour, representing about a tenth of the full number of frames. Click here for a version of this movie at Galileo's full resolution with images taken every half-hour (Quicktime format, 1.1 MB). Credit: NASA / JPL / Doug Ellison
Earth - Moon Conjunction
Galileo view of an Earth-Moon conjunction
Galileo: Earth - Moon Conjunction (December 16 and 17, 1992)
Eight days after its second gravity-assist flyby of Earth, the Galileo spacecraft looked back from a distance of about 6.2 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) to capture this remarkable view of the Moon in orbit about Earth. The composite photograph was constructed from images taken through visible (violet, red) and near-infrared (1.0-micron) filters. The Moon is in the foreground; its orbital path is from left to right. Brightly colored Earth contrasts strongly with the Moon, which reacts only about one-third as much sunlight as our world. To improve the visibility of both bodies, contrast and color have been computer enhanced. At the bottom of Earth's disk, Antarctica is visible through clouds. The Moon's far side can also be seen. The shadowy indentation in the Moon's dawn terminator -- the boundary between its dark and lit sides -- is the South Pole-Aitken Basin, one of the largest and oldest lunar impact features. Credit: JPL / NASA

The animation includes 56 frames, each separated by 15 minutes, spanning 14 hours. Click here for a full-resolution version in Quicktime format (151 kb). Credit: JPL / NASA / Doug Ellison


Earth from Clementine
Clementine: Earth crescent (February 11, 1994)
Clementine snapped this photo from lunar orbit on February 11, 1994. India is visible toward the top of the image, with south toward the left. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory
Earth and the Moon from Clementine
Clementine: Earth over the Moon (March 13, 1994)
Clementine peered over the limb of the Moon on March 13, 1994 to view a distant, nearly full-disk Earth. The large crater at the bottom of the view is Plaskett at 82°N, 180°W. In the original image, Earth was much farther above the Moon; the image has been modified to make it better fit on a computer screen. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory

2001 Mars Odyssey

Earth and the Moon as seen from Mars Odyssey THEMIS
Earth as seen from Mars Odyssey THEMIS (detail)
Mars Odyssey: Earth and Moon in thermal infrared (April 19, 2001)
As 2001 Mars Odyssey receded from Earth, it captured a departing view of its home planet and the Moon. This view is in thermal infrared wavelengths, so brightness and darkness represents more or less heat being emitted from the globes. The dark spot on Earth is the cold south pole; the bright spot above it is the warm land surface of Australia. Mars Odyssey was more than 3.5 million kilometers (2.2 million miles) from Earth and the Moon when it took this photo, and achieved a resolution of about 900 kilometers. From this distance and perspective the camera was able to acquire an image that directly shows the true distance from Earth to the Moon. Earth's diameter is about 12,750 kilometers (7,922 miles), and the distance from Earth to the Moon is about 385,000 kilometers (239,000 miles), corresponding to 30 Earth diameters. Credit: NASA / JPL / U. Arizona

Mars Global Surveyor

Earth and Moon from Mars
Mars Global Surveyor: Earth and Moon from Mars (May 8, 2003)
This is the first image of Earth ever taken from another planet that actually shows our home as a planetary disk. Because Earth and the Moon are closer to the Sun than Mars, they exhibit phases, just as the Moon, Venus, and Mercury do when viewed from Earth. As seen from Mars by Mars Global Surveyor on May 8, 2003 at 13:00 GMT (6:00 AM PDT), Earth and the Moon appeared in the evening sky. The Earth/Moon image has been specially processed to allow both Earth (with an apparent magnitude of -2.5) and the much darker Moon (with an apparent magnitude of +0.9) to be visible together. The bright area at the top of the image of Earth is cloud cover over central and eastern North America. Below that, a darker area includes Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. The bright feature near the center-right of the crescent Earth consists of clouds over northern South America. The image also shows the Earth-facing hemisphere of the Moon, since the Moon was on the far side of Earth as viewed from Mars. The slightly lighter tone of the lower portion of the image of the Moon results from the large and conspicuous ray system associated with the crater Tycho. Credit: NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science Systems

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

Earth as Seen from Mars' Surface
Spirit: Earth as Seen from Mars' Surface, March 7, 2004
This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover's navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover's panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see. The inset shows a combination of four panoramic camera images zoomed in on Earth. The arrow points to Earth. Earth was too faint to be detected in images taken with the panoramic camera's color filters. Credit: NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M


Earth from Hayabusa
Hayabusa: Earth flyby (May 18, 2004)
Japan's Hayabusa snapped this image of Earth during its flyby on May 18, 2004 at 15:00 UTC. Four of Earth's continents are clearly visible -- North America at left, South America at the bottom, Africa on the right, and eastern Europe above it. Credit: ISAS / JAXA / Emily Lakdawalla


Rosetta's view of Earth
Rosetta: Receding Earth (March 7, 2005)
Rosetta snapped this view of Earth through its Navigation Camera as it was flying away from the Earth having completed the closest-ever fly-by performed by an ESA mission on the previous day. At the bottom, Antarctica can be seen on the right, below South America. Credit: ESA
Crescent Earth
Tosetta: Crescent Earth (November 13, 2007)
This unusual photo of a crescent Earth was taken by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on Rosetta about two hours before closest approach on its second Earth flyby. Antarctica lies at the bottom of the crescent. Credit: ESA © 2005 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA


Earth in true and false color as seen by MESSENGER
MESSENGER: Earth in true and false color (August 2, 2005)
This pair of images represents the same viewpoint on Earth through two different sets of filters on the MESSENGER spacecraft. On top, three filters in red, green, and blue wavelengths were combined to make an image that approximates what the human eye would see. The green mass at the center is the Amazon jungle of South America. The deserts of West Africa are just visible on the edge of the Earth's disk below and to the right of South America. The bottom image is "pushed" into the near infrared; instead of red, green, and blue, it is composed of images taken through near-infrared, red, and green filters. Chlorophyll, the green pigment in plant leaves, is very strongly reflective at near infrared wavelengths, much more so than it is in red or green wavelengths, so the vegetated parts of Earth burst into bright red color. The spacecraft was 102,918 kilometers (63,950 miles) away from Earth when the images were taken. At full resolution, they represent only 1/10 the level of detail that MDIS will achieve in its global, multispectral mapping of Mercury. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL
MESSENGER's receding view of Earth (movie)
MESSENGER: Receding movie of Earth (August 2, 2005)
As MESSENGER retreated from its gravity-assist flyby of Earth, it captured a full day's worth of images of Earth's receding crescent, which were assembled into a movie. This animation contains only 17 of the 358 frames captured by MESSENGER; you can download the full (5-Megabyte) animation at the MESSENGER website. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL

Venus Express

Venus Express views Earth and the Moon
Venus Express: Earth and Moon (November 2005)
Shortly after launch, Venus Express turned to Earth to perform preliminary commissioning of its instruments. These images were captured by VIRTIS, Venus Express' high resolution imaging system. This sequence of four images of Earth and the Moon was designed to obtain the best signal possible from the Moon, so Earth is overexposed. The brightest image (upper right) is in a visible wavelength; the image below it is in ultraviolet; and the two left pairs are in infrared wavelengths. Credit: ESA / MPS


Cassini Captures a View of 'Home'
Pale Blue Orb
Cassini: Earth and Moon as a distant dot (September 15, 2006)
Not since Voyager 1 saw our home as a pale blue dot from beyond the orbit of Neptune has Earth been imaged in color from the outer solar system. Now, Cassini casts powerful eyes on our home planet, and captures the pale blue orb of our Earth -- and a faint suggestion of our Moon -- among the glories of the Saturn system. Earth is captured here in a natural color portrait made possible by the passing of Saturn directly in front of the Sun from Cassini's point of view. At the distance of Saturn's orbit, Earth is too narrowly separated from the Sun for the spacecraft to safely point its cameras and other instruments toward its birthplace without protection from the Sun's glare. The Earth-Moon system is visible as a bright blue point on the right side of the image above center. Here, Cassini is looking down on the Atlantic Ocean and the western coast of north Africa. A magnified view of the image taken through the clear filter (monochrome) shows the Moon as a dim protrusion to the upper left of Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Kaguya (SELENE)

Earth from Kaguya
Earth from Kaguya
Kaguya took this photo of Earth using its HDTV camera from a distance of 110,000 kilometers (68,000 miles). It is the farthest that any HDTV camera has ever traveled from Earth. This is a still image, but it was taken as part of a test of the camera's ability to shoot video. Credit: JAXA / NHK
Earthrise over the Moon
Earthset over the Moon
Kaguya Earthset sequence
Earthset over the lunar south pole
Earthrise and Earthset from Kaguya
Kaguya took these photos of Earthrise and Earthset using its wide-angle (upper left) and telephoto (all other images) HDTV camera from lunar orbit on November 7, 2007. The spacecraft's polar orbit takes it from south to north behind the lunar farside, giving it an Earthrise every orbit as it rises above the north pole and an Earthset half an orbit later as it sinks behind the south pole. When these images were taken Kaguya's wide-angle HD camera was pointed forward along the orbit to capture the Earthrise; the telephoto camera faced backwards, to see Earthset. Credit: JAXA / NHK / animation by Emily Lakdawalla
Earthset from Kaguya
Earthset from Kaguya
Kaguya captured this movie of a full Earth setting behind the lunar limb with its high-definition camera on April 5, 2008. A Flash version of the movie may be viewed here. Credit: JAXA / NHK
Crescent Earthrise
Crescent Earthrise
Kaguya shot this lovely view of a crescent Earth, its thin atmosphere backlit by the Sun, on April 19, 2008. Credit: JAXA / NXK

Deep Impact

Deep Impact view of Earth and the Moon
Deep Impact view of Earth and the Moon
Deep Impact took this photo of Earth and the Moon together as a part of its EPOXI extended mission, a search for extrasolar planets. The color image was snapped from nearly 50 milion kilometers (30 million miles) away on May 29, 2008 at 06:40 UTC, at a time when the Moon was transiting Earth as seen from Deep Impact. Credit: NASA / JPL / UMD / GSFC

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Microbes eating away at pieces of history

Angkor Wat.
(Andy Eames/The Associated Press)

At Angkor Wat, the dancers' feet are crumbling.

The palatial 12th-century Hindu temple, shrouded in the jungles of Cambodia, has played host to a thriving community of cyanobacteria ever since unsightly lichens were cleaned off its walls nearly 20 years ago. The microbes have not been good guests.

These bacteria (Gloeocapsa) not only stain the stone black, they also increase the water absorbed by the shale in morning monsoon rains and the heat absorbed when the sun comes out. The result, says Thomas Warscheid, a geomicrobiologist based in Germany, is a daily expansion and contraction cycle that cracks the temple's facade and its internal structure. Warscheid, who has studied Angkor Wat for more than a decade, said in an interview that these pendulum swings had broken away parts of celestial dancer sculptures on the temple walls.

"It is getting worse — up to 60 or 70 percent of the temple is black," he added.

Once chalked up to weathering, the damage at Angkor Wat is now seen as the result of a much more complex dynamic: the interaction of micro-organisms with the chemical and physical properties of the temple.

In various places around the globe, from Easter Island to the Acropolis, microscopic organisms are accelerating the deterioration of monuments and historic landmarks. Scientists and conservators have only recently begun to understand the role that common bacteria and fungi play in destroying cultural sites and how — if at all — they can be stopped. This growing recognition is inspiring new techniques to combat microbial damage.

"Our heritage is disappearing," said Ralph Mitchell, a biology professor at Harvard. "Whether it's Angkor Wat or the Mayan sites in Mexico or the Native American archaeological sites in the West of this country, they are all under threat. And the question is, can we preserve them?"

From bacteria that feed on hydrocarbons to endolithic fungi that eke out an existence within porous rock, monument-damaging microbes thrive because they survive in environments inhospitable to other flora and fauna.

"One of the recent discoveries that is of concern is that increased air pollution can sometimes increase biodeterioration," said Eric Doehne, a scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute. Some bacteria feed on chemicals found in pollutants, excreting an acid that eats away at stone, metal and paint.

Microbes pose a serious risk to the monuments at the Acropolis in Athens, including the golden-proportioned Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike, said Sophia Papida, conservator for the Acropolis Restoration Service.

Bacteria penetrate the veins of the marble, attract water and expand, cracking the monuments' faces and pillars, Papida said. Lichens burrow circular holes in the marble, a phenomenon known as honeycomb weathering, and exfoliate sculptural friezes that tell the stories of gods and goddesses.

Microbes also thwart painstaking efforts to restore the monuments. Acropolis stones can crumble into thousands of pieces, leaving a near-inscrutable jigsaw puzzle. "Our work is attacked by micro-organisms and we have to go back, remove the micro-organisms and put it back together," Papida said. "The bacteria which are there, they are having a good time, actually."

For decades, researchers struggled to grow laboratory cultures of bacteria that thrive on monuments. Today, genetic techniques allow scientists to better identify micro-organisms, but that does not always mean they can reverse the damage.

"We can use DNA analysis to identify who's there, but it doesn't mean that they cause the problem," said Robert Koestler, director of the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian.

Some efforts to preserve monuments become the very cause of the problem. Biodegradable polymers used to consolidate the stones of Mayan ruins in Mexico, for example, created conditions ripe for damaging microbes .

An added complication is that the organisms sometimes protect monuments, such as the volcanic rock formations known as the Cappadocian "fairy chimneys" of southeastern Turkey. Just as lichens once kept Angkor Wat from absorbing too much water and heat, scientists discovered that lichens on the chimneys prevented them from taking in too much water, keeping them intact longer.

"It's not always a bad-news story," Doehne said. He is optimistic about scientists' ability to manage microbial attacks. "We are seeing a burst of knowledge coming to the fore, really in the last 20 years."

At Angkor Wat, Warscheid developed a biocide called "mélange d'Angkor" that will be used to whiten parts of the temple. The chemical solution changes the ability of the cyanobacteria to produce their black-staining byproduct. There is no point, he says, in applying the biocide to the whole temple. After 10 years, the bacteria will adapt to it. "In certain places," he said, "where there are carved stone scriptures, you can provide the manpower to do this cleaning on a regular basis."

At the Acropolis, University of Athens researchers are working with Papida to test a biocide, a quaternary ammonium compound that she hopes will get the restoration back on track.

Fighting off microbes is a matter of "vigilant and routine maintenance," said Mark Weber of the World Monuments Fund. People often deal with "stone-eating organisms," as if they are singular events, he added, rather than as adaptive beings.

Another emerging solution is to starve the microbes. Conservators did this to kill off cotton-candylike fungi on flooded African artifacts housed in a university building in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, Koestler said. The fungi thrive on oxygen; they created an anoxic environment by flushing the objects with argon.

The method is easier, of course, indoors. Outdoors, combating microbes can mean cutting off their water source. "You want to catch it early — just like you diagnose a disease," said Mitchell of Harvard. Once a biofilm, a community of bacteria like the slimy coating that forms on your teeth, develops, any effort may be futile.

In Warscheid's view, protecting monuments, while important, is delaying the inevitable. "We have to accept that at some moment they will disappear," he said. "But we know a lot about how to conserve them for the next 20, 30 years."

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Natural 'Invisible' Gold Found In Nanoparticles

Scanning electron microscope image of the gold triangles showing their well defined crystal shape (Credit: CSIRO)

Nanoparticles of gold too small to be seen with the naked eye have been created in laboratories, but up until now, have never been seen in nature.

The search for these natural but ‘invisible’ nanoparticles is important. If they can be proved to exist, the knowledge will help give us a deeper understanding of how gold can be transported and deposited by geological processes, and therefore help explorers to find new gold deposits in Australia.

Now, hard evidence that gold nanoparticles have finally been seen in nature is presented in a paper published in GEOLOGY and authored by CSIRO Scientists from the Minerals Down Under National Research Flagship and CRC LEME, in collaboration with scientists from Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

Lead author, CSIRO’s Dr Rob Hough, explains that the particles were discovered in Western Australia. “In the southern areas of the State, groundwater is very salty and acidic. This water dissolves primary gold and re-deposits it as pure gold crystals on fracture surfaces and in open pore spaces,” he says.

“On investigation of these crystals, there appeared to be a dark band across them. However, high magnification imaging showed the band was in fact, a mass of gold nanoparticles and nanoplates. These are identical to those being manufactured in laboratories around the world for their unique properties.”

Clays from the fracture surface were then analysed. There was no gold visible, but analysis showed the clays contained up to 59 parts-per-million of gold. The research team concluded that the nanoparticles of gold they had imaged represented the ‘invisible’ gold in the clay, and that this nanosized gold was common in similar environments.

“The gold nanoparticles have not been identified earlier because they are transparent to electron beams and effectively invisible,” Dr Hough says. “However, they are probably a common form of gold in this type of natural environment worldwide, where saline water interacts with gold deposits. They also provide the first direct observation of the nanoscale mobility of gold during weathering.”

With gold fetching around (AU) $950 an ounce and expected to rise, this research is good news for Australia’s gold explorers.

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MIT unlocks mystery behind brain imaging

Star-shaped brain cells shown to play key role

Deborah Halber, Picower Institute

In work that solves a long-standing mystery in neuroscience, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have shown for the first time that star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes--previously considered bit players by most neuroscientists--make noninvasive brain scans possible.

Imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have transformed neuorscience, providing colorful maps of brain activity in living subjects. The scans' reds, oranges, yellows and blues represent changes in blood flow and volume triggered by neural activity. But until the MIT study, reported in the June 20 issue of Science, no one knew exactly why this worked.

"Why blood flow is linked to neuronal activity has been a mystery," said study co-author Mriganka Sur, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. "Previously, people have argued that the fMRI signal reports local field potentials or waves of incoming electrical activity, but neurons do not connect directly to blood vessels. A causal link between neuronal activity and blood flow has never been shown."

Of the two major cell types in the brain, glia outnumber neurons nine to one. Astrocytes--the most common type of glia--extend their branching tendrils both around synapses--through which neruons communicate--and along blood vessels.

Using a cutting-edge technique, Sur and colleagues found that astrocytes receive signals directly from neurons and provide their own neuron-like responses to directly regulate blood flow. They are the missing link between neurons and blood vessels, he said. When astrocytes are shut down, fMRI doesn't work.

"Astrocytes are implicated in many brain disorders and express a very large number of genes that are in the brain," Sur said. "Their role is crucial for understanding brain dysfunction as well as for developing potential therapeutics."

The MIT study shows that, contrary to prevailing belief, astrocytes influence complex neuronal computations such as the duration and selectivity of brain cell responses to stimuli. But their chemical signals had rendered them invisible to traditional brain research methods that monitor electrical activity.

"Electrically, astrocytes are pretty silent," said study co-author James Schummers, Picower Institute postdoctoral associate. "A lot of what we know about neurons is from sticking electrodes in them. We couldn't record from astrocytes, so we ignored them."

When astrocytes were imaged with two-photon microscopy, "the first thing we noticed was that the astrocytes were responding to visual stimuli. That took us completely by surprise," Schummers said. "We didn't expect them to do anything at all. Yet there they were, blinking just like neurons were blinking. We didn't know if the rest of the world would think we were crazy."

"This work shows that astrocytes--which make up 50 percent of the cells in the cortex but whose function was unknown--respond exquisitely to sensory drive, regulate local blood flow in the cortex and even influence neuronal responses," Sur said. "What's more, astrocytes are arranged in orderly feature maps, exquisitely mapped across the cortical surface in sync with neuronal maps."

Two-photon microscopy uses two infrared photons to emit fluorescence that enables imaging of living tissue up to 1 millimeter deep. Previously, researchers could only see astrocytes in dyed, thin slices of dead brain tissue.

The next step, Schummers said, is to explore exactly how astrocytes work on neurons.

In addition to Sur and Schummers, postdoctoral associate Hongbo Yu is a lead author of the study.

This work is supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation.

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From the egg, baby crocodiles call to each other and to mom

For the first time, researchers have shown that the pre-hatching calls of baby Nile crocodiles actually mean something to their siblings and to their mothers. The calls—which are perfectly audible to humans and sound like "umph! umph! umph!"—tell the others in the nest that it's time to hatch, according to the report in the June 23rd issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. Those cries also tell the mother croc to start digging up the nest.
The new findings, made from a series of "playback" experiments, confirm what had only been suspected on the basis of prior anecdotal observation, according to the researchers Amélie Vergne and Nicolas Mathevon of Université Jean Monnet in France.

The researchers said that the calling behavior is probably critical to the early survival of the young crocodiles.

Although it has not yet been clearly shown, "We can well suppose that hatching synchrony can be of vital importance for crocodiles," Mathevon said. "Indeed, most mortality occurs early in life and hatching vocalizations might well attract predators. Therefore, adult presence at the nest and its response to juvenile vocalizations may offer protection against potential predators. In this sense, it is important for all embryos in the nest to be ready for hatching at the same time so that they all receive adult care and protection."

Crocodilians were known to make sounds within the egg shortly before hatching, the researchers said. To find out what those calls might mean in the new study, the researchers divided crocodile eggs that were due to hatch within 10 days into three groups. One of those groups was played recordings of pre-hatching calls, one was played recordings of noise, and the last was left in silence until they hatched.

The eggs played the pre-hatch sounds more often answered back, they report. Many of the eggs in that group also moved. Finally, all of the eggs in the pre-hatch group hatched during the playback or within 10 minutes of it. Only once did the eggs hearing noise hatch, and the rest hatched at least five hours after the last test.

The researchers then tested the mothers' responses to the calls. "In the zoo where we did the experiments, eggs are removed [from the nest] within a few days following the laying date," the researchers explained. "In spite of this, females continue to guard the nest."

At the end of the incubation period, the researchers hid a loudspeaker underground near the empty nest. They then played pre-hatching calls interspersed with noise to ten mothers. The adults more often turned their heads or moved after egg sounds than after noise, they showed, and eight of the mothers responded to the recorded calls by digging.

The behavior may have a long history, the researchers said.

"As birds also produce embryonic vocalizations that induce parental care, such acoustic communication at an early stage of development may be a shared behavioral feature of past and present Archosaurs," an ancient group of reptiles now represented by modern birds and crocodiles.

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Safety report: latest collider at CERN won't end the world

Physicists around the world are waiting with excitement as the final preparations for CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) take place in advance of the start of operations this summer. Others, however, are much less enthused, as they worry about the prospects for cataclysmic forces to be released through the exotic forms of matter that will appear in the debris of the collisions that take place within the LHC's detectors. Those worries sparked a lawsuit intended to block the LHC's operation. Physicists are aware of the concerns, however, and CERN sponsored a safety report back in 2003. Now, with final preparations for operation under way, they've issued a followup safety evaluation, updated in light of the progress physics has made in the intervening time. The report's conclusion is that, if the LHC were capable of destroying the earth, nature would have beaten us to the punch.

The LHC Safety Assessment Group, which prepared the report, has provided both a fully referenced analysis and a version targeted for the general public (both PDFs). Those looking for a really condensed reason not to worry can find reassurance in the fact that, "each collision of a pair of protons in the LHC will release an amount of energy comparable to that of two colliding mosquitoes."

Those looking for more sophisticated reasoning will find plenty of it. At its most basic level, the safety assessment boils down to a probability calculation. The collisions in the LHC will have an energy content that's equivalent to that of a cosmic ray hitting the earth with an energy of 1017eV. We've measured cosmic rays hitting the earth with energies of up to 1020eV, meaning that we're really doing nothing new.

Of course, it's possible that the frequency of collisions in the LHC is so high that we might unmask an extremely low-probability event. Based on the frequency of high energy cosmic rays, however, the authors calculate that, "nature has already conducted the equivalent of about a hundred thousand LHC experimental programmes on Earth already—and the planet still exists." Those numbers go up when one considers the sun, which is a much larger target for cosmic rays. Backing out even further, to the entire visible universe, the calculations suggest that every second, there are the equivalent of 3 x 1013 times the total number of collisions expected over the lifetime of the LHC. If any of these resulted in the sort of cataclysms people are worrying about, we'd be seeing the explosions.

The LHC's collider ring covers several miles near the Swiss Alps

The report also looks specifically at some of the exotic species that are proposed for bringing about global destruction. Patches of lower vacuum energy are ruled out by the cosmic ray analysis, as, were they possible, "bubbles of new vacuum would have expanded to consume large parts of the visible universe several billion years ago already." Magnetic monopoles have also been mentioned, but calculations show that the dangerous ones are too heavy to be created by the LHC; anything light enough to be within reach of the collider would only destroy a total of one microgram of matter before leaving the earth.

Microscopic black holes are another popular source of doom, but the report lists a whole lot of issues with them. For starters, Relativity suggests that gravity is simply not potent enough to overcome all the other forces acting on particles during these collisions, and even if that weren't the case, Hawking radiation should cause any black holes of this size to evaporate immediately. The only possible exception comes through some forms of String Theory, but even those have problems. In any versions of the theory with greater than seven dimensions, the black holes would draw in matter so slowly that we'd have several billion years to worry about them; less than seven, and we would already have observed neutron stars and white dwarfs exploding.

One last problem comes from quantum mechanics. Any object formed through quantum effects can decay through exactly the same pathway, meaning that these black holes aren't actually black in the traditional sense; they should decay back to the particles that formed them quite rapidly. All in all, black holes seem to be pretty seriously ruled out.

Last up in the report's list of things not to lose sleep over are strangelets, atoms that, instead of the normal up and down quarks, contain some strange quarks. A strange quark outside of a nucleus has a half life on the order of nanoseconds, but there are some hypothetical strange atoms that might be relatively stable. In a hypothetical once-removed, these might convert other normal atoms to strange matter, setting off a chain reaction. Fortunately, there is no way to get this to actually work in a collider.

Strange quarks are only produced at high energies, but atomic nuclei can't form at these energies. The time it takes to cool down to the point where they could form is longer than the lifetime of a strange quark. As a result, "the likelihood of strangelet production in relativistic heavy-ion collisions can be compared to the likelihood of producing an icecube in a furnace." The continued inability of Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to bring about the end of the earth is cited as further evidence.

Overall, it's hard to read this report and not wind up viewing the apocalyptic fears as simply being poorly thought through. It was striking how clearly the worries over the LHC have parallels to the fears over biotechnology, which came up during our recent interview with Carl Zimmer. There too, billions of years of natural experiments and decades' worth of scientific experiment should be informing our view of safety; for at least some segment of the public, that's not happening.

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McCain proposes $300M prize for new auto battery

Republican presidential candidate John McCain R-Ariz., speaks during a campaign event at Fresno State University Monday, June 23, 2008 in Fresno, Calif. McCain is hoping to solve the country's energy crisis with cold hard cash. The presumed Republican nominee on Monday proposed a $300 million government prize to whoever can develop an automobile battery that far surpasses existing technology.  (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
AP Photo: Republican presidential candidate John McCain R-Ariz., speaks during a campaign event at Fresno State University...

FRESNO, Calif. - Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday that the search for alternatives to the country's dependence on foreign oil is so urgent that he's willing to throw money at it.

The Arizona senator proposed a $300 million prize for whoever can develop a better automobile battery, and $5,000 tax credits for consumers who buy new zero-emission vehicles. The latest proposal is in addition to his support for overturning the federal ban on offshore oil drilling.

"In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success," McCain said in a speech at Fresno State University.

Afterward, McCain distanced himself from comments in which top adviser Charlie Black said another terrorist attack this year on U.S. soil would benefit his candidacy against Democrat Barack Obama.

Black, who has been in the spotlight for his past work as a lobbyist, is quoted in the coming July 7 edition of Fortune magazine as saying such an attack "certainly would be a big advantage to him."

Black also was quoted as saying the "unfortunate event" of the assassination of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto "helped us."

McCain was startled by the attack comment when asked about it during a news conference after the speech.

"I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true," the senator said. "I've worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear."

Citing his work to create a commission to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as well as his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain added: "I cannot imagine it, and so, if he said that — and I don't know the context — I strenuously disagree."

Black, who was interviewed by reporters as he stood outside the fundraiser, said he wanted to apologize.

"I deeply regret the comments. They were inappropriate," Black said. "I recognize that John McCain has devoted his entire adult life to protecting his country and placing its security before every other consideration."

McCain's energy speech built off of one last week in which he proposed ending a decades-old federal ban on offshore oil drilling. McCain said gasoline prices of more $4-a-gallon makes it imperative the country consider a host of alternatives, including nuclear power and, if the host state approves it, offshore oil drilling.

The $300 million battery bounty amounts to $1 for every man, woman and child in the country. He said such a device should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs and have "the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."

McCain said he could envision foreign automakers such as Honda and Toyota being eligible for the prize, since the Japanese companies have large manufacturing plants in the United States.

As for how he would come up with the prize money, the senator said: "I could pay for it by canceling three pork-barrel projects that are unnecessary and unwanted."

McCain also proposed a so-called Clean Car Challenge to encourage U.S. automakers to develop zero-emission vehicles by offering consumers the incentive of a $5,000 tax credit when they buy one.

The proposal comes as skyrocketing gasoline prices have boosted the price of virtually all goods and services, sent commuters flocking to public transportation and increased tensions between the U.S. and its Middle Eastern oil suppliers.

Last week, Obama said he opposes offshore oil drilling, arguing it was not a short-term solution to high prices. On Sunday, Obama announced he would strengthen government oversight of energy traders whose futures speculation he blames in large part for the rising price of oil.

After the speech and news conference, McCain attended a fundraiser in Fresno and then headed for another in Santa Barbara. Both were part of a money push that helped the senator raise a personal record of $21 million last month, and left him with $31 million cash on hand at the end of May.

McCain was spending at least part of Tuesday in California talking about energy and the environment. He was to be joined by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposes lifting the ban on oil drilling in coastal waters.

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Scientists grow date palm tree using ancient seed found at Masada site

By Randolph E. Schmid, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Just over three years old and about one metre tall, Methuselah is growing well.

"It's lovely," Dr. Sarah Sallon said of the date palm, whose parents may have provided food for the besieged Jews at Masada some 2,000 years ago. The little tree was sprouted in 2005 from a seed recovered from Masada, where rebelling Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman attackers.

Radiocarbon dating of seed fragments clinging to its root, as well as other seeds found with it that didn't sprout, indicate they were about 2,000 years old: the oldest seed known to have been sprouted and grown.

Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, updates the saga of Methuselah in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

One thing they don't know yet is whether it's a boy or girl. Date palms differ by sex, but experts can't tell the difference until the tree is six or seven years old, Sallon said.

She hopes there's a chance to use it to restore the extinct Judean date palm, once prized not only for its fruit but also for medicinal uses.

The researchers have had a look at the plant's DNA, however, and found it shares just over half its genes with modern date cultivars.

"Part of our project is to preserve ancient knowledge of how plants were used," Sallon said in a telephone interview. "To domesticate them so we have a ready source of raw material."

Her Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant Project is working to conserve and reintroduce plants to the region where they once lived.

"Many species are endangered and becoming extinct. Raising the dead is very difficult, so it's better to preserve them before they become extinct," she said.

The oldest documented seed to be grown previously was a 1,300-year-old lotus, Sallon said.

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Zebra's Stripes, Butterfly's Wings: How Do Biological Patterns Emerge?

A zebra's stripes, a seashell's spirals, a butterfly's wings: these are all examples of patterns in nature. The formation of patterns is a puzzle for mathematicians and biologists alike. How does the delicate design of a butterfly's wings come from a single fertilized egg? How does pattern emerge out of no pattern? (Credit: iStockphoto/Ismael Montero Verdu)

A zebra’s stripes, a seashell’s spirals, a butterfly’s wings: these are all examples of patterns in nature. The formation of patterns is a puzzle for mathematicians and biologists alike. How does the delicate design of a butterfly’s wings come from a single fertilized egg? How does pattern emerge out of no pattern?

Using computer models and live cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a specific pattern that can direct cell movement and may help us understand how metastatic cancer cells move.

“Pattern formation is a classic problem in embryology,” says Denise Montell, Ph.D., a professor of biological chemistry at Hopkins. “At some point, cells in an embryo must separate into those that will become heart cells, liver cells, blood cells and so on. Although this has been studied for years, there is still a lot we don’t understand.”

As an example of pattern formation, the researchers studied the process of how about six cells in the fruit fly distinguish themselves from neighboring cells and move from one location in the ovary to another during egg development. “In order for this cell migration to happen, you have to have cells that go and cells that stay,” says Montell. “There must be a clear distinction — a separation between different types of cells, which on the surface look the same.”

Previous work identified a specific signal necessary for getting these fly egg cells to move; the problem is that this signal is “graded.” Like drops of ink spreading out on wet paper, this signal travels in between surrounding cells, gradually fading away as it moves outwards. But clear lines are required for pattern formation — there is no grey area between a zebra’s black and white stripes, between heart and liver cells and, in this case, between migrating cells and those that stay put.

How are graded signals converted to a clear move or stay signal? By examining flies containing mutations in different genes, the researchers discovered that one gene in particular, called apontic, is important for converting a graded signal. “When apontic is mutated, the distinction between migrating and nonmigrating cells is fuzzy,” says Michelle Starz-Gaiano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biological chemistry. “In these mutants, we see a lot of cases where migrating cells do not properly detach from their neighbors but instead drag them along as they move away.” This showed that the graded signal alone was not sufficient to kick-start the proper number of cells, but instead needed help from apontic.

Once the team discovered that apontic is important for getting these cells to move, they set out to figure out how apontic works. Collaborating with mathematician Hans Meinhardt, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, they designed a computer model that could simulate how graded signals are converted to commands that tell cells to move or to stay.

By making certain assumptions about each gene and assigning functions to each protein, the team built a simple circuit that can predict a cell’s behavior using the graded signal, apontic, and another previously discovered protein called slbo (pronounced “slow-bo”). The computer model shows that in a cell, the graded signal turns on both apontic and slbo. But apontic and slbo work against and battle each other: when one gains a slight advantage, the other weakens, which in turn causes the first to gain an even bigger advantage. This continues until one dominates in each cell. If slbo wins, the cell moves but if apontic wins, the cell stays put; thus a clear separation between move or stay is achieved.

“Not only is this a new solution to the problem of how to create a pattern out of no pattern, but we have also discovered that apontic is a new regulator of cell migration,” says Montell.

Cell migration likely underlies the spreading of cancer cells beyond an original tumor to other areas of the body. Understanding and therefore being able to manipulate the cell migration pathway could potentially prevent the development of these new tumors. At this stage, Montell says, “it’s more about just understanding what the positive and negative regulators of cell migration are.”

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Bizarre Lightning Storms Spawn 840 California Wildfires

By Marcus Wohlsen, The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — More than 840 wildfires sparked by an "unprecedented" lightning storm are burning across Northern California, alarming the governor and requiring the help of firefighters from Nevada and Oregon.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was told late Sunday evening that the state had 520 fires, and he found it "quite shocking" that by Monday morning the number had risen above 700.

Moments later, a top state fire official standing at Schwarzenegger's side offered a grim update. The figure was actually 842 fires, said Del Walters, assistant regional chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. All but a couple were in the northern part of the state.

"This is an unprecedented lightning storm in California, that it lasted as long as it did, 5,000 to 6,000 lightning strikes," Walters said. "We are finding fires all the time."

Two of the state's biggest fires had each charred nearly 6 square miles. One in Napa County quickly moved into Solano County, and threatened about 250 homes about 40 miles southwest of Sacramento, said Kevin Colburn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was 60 percent contained.

The other, in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest about 160 miles north of Sacramento, threatened about 1,200 homes.

Out-of-state assistance, mostly firefighting aircraft, arrived from Nevada and Oregon in response to weekend requests. Schwarzenegger said he had enlisted the help "because you can never prepare for 500 or 700 or 800 fires all at the same time."

Part of the reason for the swelling number of wildfires was that local and state officials were still counting after fierce thunderstorms Friday night touched off the blazes.

"We didn't get real lucky with this lighting storm," Walters said. "It wasn't predicted — which often happens with these storms that come in off the Pacific, there's no history of the weather as it approaches the shore — and so we got hammered."

In Mendocino County alone there were 110 fires, with just 17 contained.

Along the coast in Los Padres National Forest, a 2,000-acre wildfire burning south of Big Sur since Saturday forced the evacuations of 75 homes and businesses, destroyed one house and threatened hundreds of others.

It also led to an emergency airlift Sunday of eight endangered California condors. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters transported the seven juveniles and one adult bird from a wildlife center to the Monterey Airport.

A second fire in Los Padres burned more than 57,000 acres and has injured nine firefighters.

In New Mexico, crews dropped 11,500 chemical balls injected with antifreeze to try to ignite unburned vegetation and halt a blaze that has charred more than 49,000 acres, largely on grazing allotments on federal land.

Lightning sparked the fire Tuesday in the Lincoln National Forest about 20 miles southwest of Hope. It was not threatening any structures.

"The ranchers have already moved a lot of the cattle that were out there," U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Deanna Younger said. The grazing areas "will be the main loss," she said.

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The Future of Commercial WhalingGreenopolis Founder

The International Whaling Commission gathered in Santiago, Chile on Monday for their week long meeting to discuss the future of commercial whaling. Some member countries are strongly opposed to whale hunting (Australia is a leader in this camp). Other nations, such as Japan, strongly support commercial whaling.

In 1986, the commission imposed a worldwide moratorium on all commercial whaling. One loophole was included: A 'small' number of whales could be killed for research purposes. Japan has used this loophole liberally, sponsoring government research groups that kill over 1000 whales a year, and then sell the meat commercially for a profit.

Many other countries, such as Iceland, Norway, Russia, Canada and some Caribbean nations have objected to the ban and thus ignore it entirely. On the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, the whale hunt is a celebrated yearly event in which everyone participates. Pilot whales are herded into the harbor and then slaughtered en masse. The killing is so great that the harbor water literally turns red.

Japan remains technically compliant with the ban because the United States has threatened trading sanctions with Japan if they resume full-scale whaling. However, Japan threatens to leave the IWC if the moratorium is not lifted this year.

In 2006 the IWC nearly voted to remove the moratorium entirely, and some fear that this could in fact happen in 2008.

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Dyson Plans Solar Powered Car

Solar financier SunRun pulls in money

Posted by Martin LaMonica

SunRun, a company that offers solar-electricity financing, announced Tuesday that it has raised $12 million from Foundation Capital.

The San Francisco-based start-up is one of handful of new companies looking to make solar panels an easier purchase for consumers through financing.

Solar electric panels have a hefty up-front cost--between $20,000 and $35,000-- depending on the size, before rebates.

Although buyers will generally recoup the initial outlay in lower electricity bills in about 15 years, the high cost has restricted solar electricity to a niche audience, say solar industry executives.

Rather than buy the panels, SunRun customers buy the electricity the panels generate. This model, called a power purchase agreement (PPA), is commonly used in large corporate renewable energy installations.

Customers pay a "minimal" up-front fee and then lock into an electricity rate that is lower than the retail utility rate. The arrangement makes most sense in places where there are high electricity rates and relatively good incentives, like California.

SunRun owns the panels and provides maintenance. The company benefits from solar rebate incentives, which help finance the contracts.

Meanwhile, as these solar financing options take hold, the cost of solar panels is dropping regularly.

Experts forecast the cost of electricity from home solar panels will be the same as retail electricity rates--called grid parity--in many places in the U.S. within three to five years.

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