Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Asteroid Cruises Past Earth ... With a Partner!

By Robert Roy Britt, Senior Science Writer

The asteroid 2008 BT18 is revealed to be a pair in this July 7 radar image. The larger object at top is thought to be spheroidal in shape. The shape of the smaller object (bright dot near bottom) is not known. Credit: NASA/JPL/Arecibo Observatory

A good-sized asteroid sailing past our planet right now turns out to be two giant rocks doing a celestial jig.

The setup, catalogued as 2008 BT18, was thought to be nearly a half-mile wide after its discovery by MIT's LINEAR search program in January. Nothing else was known about it.

Now seen as two objects orbiting each other, the pair will be closest to Earth on July 14, at about 1.4 million miles (2 million kilometers) away. That's nearly six times as far from us as the moon.

It will not strike the planet. But scientists want to learn more about binary asteroids because one day they might find one headed our way. Deflecting a binary off course could be considerably more challenging that altering the path of a single rock.

Radar observations from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on July 6 and 7 "clearly show two objects," said Lance Benner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The objects are estimated to be 1,970 feet (600 meters) and 650 feet (200 meters) in diameter. The larger one rotates upon its axis in 3 hours or less.

Additional observations from NASA's Goldstone radar in the Mojave Desert in California are expected to reveal more about the density, shapes and orbit of the pair.

Asteroids are often loose rubble piles rather than solid objects, and pairs are common. Scientists announced earlier this month that binaries can be created when energy from sunlight splits a loose asteroid in two.

While most asteroids roam in a belt between Mars and Jupiter, some are kicked or drawn inward and cross our path around the sun. Some 15 percent of these near-Earth asteroids are binaries. But few come so close.

Asteroid 2008 BT18 remains classified by NASA as "potentially hazardous" because its future orbits have not been fully determined.

Asteroids are known to change course over time, and in fact one big boulder, named Apophis, will alter course significantly during a close Earth flyby in 2029. Earth's gravity will bend the rocks' trajectory around the sun. Depending on how that interaction plays out, Apophis has a minor chance of hitting the planet in 2036. Scientists expect the odds of impact to diminish or evaporate after the first flyby, however.

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Scientists plan to bring back rocks - and perhaps even life - from Mars

James Randerson, science correspondent

The $8bn project would need funding and expertise from Nasa, the European Space Agency and other national space agencies

It would be the most audacious and technologically challenging space mission since the Apollo programme landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon in 1969. An international team of scientists has put together detailed plans for a mission to bring back samples of rock, and possibly microscopic life, from the surface of Mars.

To be successful the mission, which is proposed for launch between 2018 and 2023 and could cost up to $8bn, would require expertise and funding from both Nasa and the European Space Agency, as well as other national space agencies. "This is going to be extremely expensive and no one space agency can afford it," said Professor Monica Grady, at the Open University, who co-chaired the expert panel that wrote the mission proposal.

She said it was a vital next step before a possible crewed mission to the Red Planet. "If you can't bring a rock back you are not going to be able to bring people back. There's a real feeling that bringing samples back from Mars is absolutely essential if we are going to continue our Martian exploration programme."

Link to this audio
James Randerson discusses the plans

Sending people to Mars will probably not be possible before 2050, but if a crewed mission were ever to go ahead scientists and engineers would need to demonstrate that it is possible to land a craft on the surface of Mars and bring it back to Earth safely. There have been seven successful landings on the Red Planet since the US spacecraft Mariner 4 flew past Mars for the first time in 1965, but no lander has ever taken off from the surface again or brought anything back to Earth.

The mission proposal is the result of an eight-month study by 31 scientists from around the world.

Grady and her colleagues presented it to delegates at a conference of the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) in Paris last week. The group is made up of delegates from national space agencies and puts together plans for future missions. The heads of both Nasa and the ESA have received copies and the two agencies will decide in November whether to fund the mission's next planning stage. To hit the proposed timescale, technology development for the mission will need to begin by 2011.

Professor Colin Pillinger, at the Open University, who led Britain's unsuccessful Beagle II mission to Mars in 2003, said returning samples from the Red Planet would allow scientists to carry out much more sophisticated analyses on the rocks and permit a more detailed search for simple Martian life forms. "Everybody knows this is what you have got to do if you want to really get to the bottom of Mars," he said. But he said avoiding contamination would be extremely difficult.

"There's a big caveat when you start playing with Mars, and that's planetary protection. You have to be very careful not to bring anything back that might be harmful to Earth," he said. "Your mission has to be guaranteed, and I really mean guaranteed, to get into the Earth's atmosphere without damaging itself."

If Martian microbes do exist they must be extremely hardy, having survived the planet's freezing, desiccating surface and bombardment with UV radiation, so if the returning spacecraft blew up on re-entry scientists could not be sure that Martian life forms on board would be destroyed in the blast. It would also be impossible to know what they would do to life on Earth. Although samples have been returned successfully from space by robotic vehicles, the first attempt to bring samples from beyond the moon ended disastrously. The Genesis probe, which carried particles collected from the solar wind, crash landed in the Utah desert in September 2004.

The mission would involve the launch of two separate craft from Earth - a "lander composite" and an "orbiter composite". Both would make the trip to Mars, where the lander would touch down on the surface. It would then release a rover which would collect a variety of rock samples totalling around half a kilogram.

It would bring these back to the lander, where the rocks, plus a sample of Martian atmosphere, would be encased in a sealed pod within the so-called Mars Ascent Vehicle - part of the lander composite. This would then blast off from the surface and dock with the orbiter before transferring its precious cargo. The orbiter would then return to Earth, enter the atmosphere and land. At this point, scientists would rush in and transfer the samples to a top-level biosecurity lab, where they would be analysed for any possible signs of life.

Scientists have long fantasised about the possibility of bringing back rocks from the Red Planet. But the backing of IMEWG is a significant boost for the current plan.

They have also been emboldened by the success of several recent missions to Mars, including Nasa's Phoenix lander, which touched down in May. If the mission is to get off the ground, though, it will need strong political backing both in Europe and from the incoming US president, said Pillinger.

Martian chronicles: Previous missions

After a string of failures in the early 1960s by both the Soviet Union and the US, Mariner 4 in July 1965 became the first spacecraft to fly past Mars and send back images.

Following other successful flybys, Nasa orbited Mars in November 1971 for the first time with Mariner 9. The orbiter mapped 80% of the planet's surface by taking 7,329 images.

The Soviet Mars 3 mission was the first to successfully land on the planet in December 1971. It was severely damaged in a Martian dust storm, though, and sent back just 20 seconds of data.

Nasa's two Viking missions, which arrived at the Red Planet in 1976, landed successfully and transmitted more than 50,000 images. Nasa's Mars Pathfinder mission, pictured, which touched down in July 1997, was the first successful rover to probe the planet.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express mission reached Mars in December 2003 and is still operational. But its cargo, the British-led Beagle II lander, crashed on Christmas Day 2003 and failed to send back any data.

Nasa's successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers arrived on Mars in January 2004 and are still operating. The latest lander, Nasa's Phoenix mission, touched down in May this year.

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NASA Needs to Take Space Sex Seriously

The space station - long-period space missions can cause tension on board (NASA)
The US space agency needs to have better consideration for the sexual needs of their astronauts during long missions in space. Also, more research needs to be done to investigate human embryo development in zero-gravity or low-gravity environments, especially if NASA is serious about setting up a colony on Mars in the next 30 years. These warnings have been issued by a NASA advisor at a time when the agency doesn't have enough funds allocated for human space physiology. These concerns are by no means trivial, basic human needs and the ability to procreate beyond Earth may be critical for missions lasting years…

At a time when the question "Can we have sex in space?" is becoming more and more popular by the future space tourists hoping to become a member of the 100-mile high club, a serious issue is beginning to surface for our long-term presence in space. Humans have needs, and although the astronauts selected by NASA, ESA and the other international space agencies are highly professional individuals, Dr Jason Kring, a NASA advisor and assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, has pointed out that sexual desire is as potent as the need for water and food. "But the bottom line is that, like hunger and thirst, sex is a basic biological motive," he said in an interview with the UK's Sunday Telegraph. "The potential round-trip mission to Mars could take three years. It doesn’t make sense to assume that these men and women are going to have no thoughts of it for three years. Nasa and other space agencies should address this in their training and in crew selection." Kring suggests our future long-term space explorers should replicate what the early polar explorers did and take a colleague as a lover to minimize sexual frustration.

It is difficult to predict the stresses long-term missions into space and to other planets may cause, but there is a very practical reason for this worry. Heightened stress on a spaceship will create an increased risk of confrontations, lack of focus and mission failure. When considering a possible 3-year mission to Mars, mission scientists will want the crew to be as calm and stress-free as possible.

Kring adds that future manned spacecraft to the Moon and Mars should be designed to optimize the privacy of astronauts so relationships can be consummated. This basic human need was recognized by explorers here on Earth where South Pole expedition members took on "expedition spouses" as sexual partners for the duration. When the expedition was over, the explorers would return home to their families and spouses. Pairing up with a colleague therefore sidesteps the biological issues of the possibility of "going without" for months, or years at a time. There are obvious questions surrounding the psychological effect of taking on "expedition spouses" (especially the effect on the partners waiting here on Earth for the astronauts return!), but the biological question will at least have an answer.

The fact remains however, that we are naive of the effects of sex in space, let alone if it is even a pleasurable experience. The mechanics of "human docking procedures" (as described by tests carried out by the Russian space agency) are a lot more complicated when in zero gravity. NASA researchers have pointed out that additional problems include motion sickness, increased sweating and a drop in blood pressure - all of which are big problems for astronauts in space.

There are also huge ethical questions hanging over possible pregnancies in space. Zero-G tests on rat embryos produced decreased skeletal and brain development, the effects on a human embryo will remain a mystery. Also, even if astronauts are having sex for purely recreational reasons, the effectiveness of oral contraception has been brought into question, making the whole procedure highly problematic, risking accidental pregnancies (something no space agency is prepared for, especially during missions to the Moon or Mars).

The fact remains that NASA continues to cut back biological research in favor of future Moon missions, so much about human sexuality in space will remain a mystery. This point is highlighted by a NASA spokesperson who stated, "We don't study sexuality in space."

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Star Wars-style laser technology to reach battlefield

By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent

The LADS laser air defence system, which has been developed by American defence company Raytheon
The LADS system will utilise the phalanx system and literally shoot incoming missiles and mortars out of the sky using a laser beam

Laser beam technology is being rushed into service to combat the threat of insurgent missiles and mortars raining down on British and American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After decades of delay and billions of pounds spent, it will be simple commercial lasers rather than the hugely expensive US Department of Defence technology that could be used to save hundreds of troops' lives.

In just 18 months the American defence firm Raytheon has turned a laser used in the car manufacturing industry into a weapon that can hit incoming rounds at the speed of light, melting the outer casing and detonating the explosive inside.

A laser has already been used in a test to destroy a 60mm mortar round and in September the company plans its first "shoot down" of a shell in flight in a test to be conducted with the US military. If successful it could be used on battlefields as early as next year.

The Ministry of Defence is also already in discussions with the company for the new weapon that will be mounted alongside the current Phalanx Gatling gun system that uses thousands of 20mm bullets to shoot down missiles physically.

During one attack when The Daily Telegraph was present at Basra airbase in February two out of four 107mm rockets hurtling towards the accommodation area were shot down. But one of the two that penetrated the defences landed on a shower block killing a RAF serviceman.

With the new laser technology it is hoped that all bombs fired at the base will be shot down before they get a chance to inflict damage.

"This is a huge enhancement of Phalanx. It will have accuracy to shoot down these targets," said Raytheon's chief of directed energy weapons, Mike Booen, speaking at the Farnborough Air Show.

"When you trade photons for bullets you have an unlimited magazine you can shot forever as long as you have electricity,"

Protecting commercial aircraft from the threat of terrorist missiles has also become a major concern for airlines and airports.

It will cost an estimated $30 billion (£15 billion) to install effective defensive devices on board all America passenger jets if one was shot down.

Terrorists have already fired SAMs at an Israeli jetliner in Kenya in 2002 and a freight jet in 2003 outside Baghdad.

The Vigilant Eagle system will create a "dome of protection" around a major airport protecting all aircraft at the most vulnerable phases of take-off and landing.

It shoots electromagnetic energy that disrupts the missile's circuit boards diverting it away form the aircraft.

"This is not just restricted to US airspace because any terrorist with a shoulder-launched missile can use them," said Mike Booen. "If a commercial aircraft got shot at tomorrow we would have an order for 10 of these immediately."

Energy beams have also been developed that can fire a laser with pinpoint accuracy to drive away potential suicide bombers, rioters or hostage takers.

The Silent Guardian system fires millimetre wave beam at individuals that cause an excruciating burning sensation without causing any damage.

The beam travels at the speed of light, penetrating the skin and causing an intolerable burning sensation causing suspects to flee.

With dozens of helicopters being destroyed by Taliban and Iraqi insurgent missiles, technology advances have seen a device that has been shrunk from the size of a football to a tennis ball that will fire lasers to confuse infra-red guidance inside a missile.

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The Dilemma of 'Virginity' Restoration

Dr. Marc Abecassis talks with a 23 year old French girl of north-African origin, following hymen reconstruction surgery Muslim virginity france paris
Dr. Marc Abecassis, who does two to four hymen restorations a week, speaks with a patient in Paris, France.

Once lost, virginity can never be replaced — but modern medicine now offers women a near-perfect physical simulation of their lost innocence. Hymenoplasty, the surgical reconstruction of the hymen broken during a women's first experience of intercourse, or, increasingly, during demanding exercise or as a result of a collision or fall by women who've never had sex, has prompted a growing number of young betrothed women in France to make a last-ditch attempt to avoid the humiliation, repudiation, and possibly violence that could result from husbands and families discovering from blood-free bridal sheets that their wedding night had not been their first sexual experience.

Hymenoplasty has generated renewed attention here in the wake of a court ruling last month in the northern city of Lille, which annulled a marriage on the basis of a husband's complaint that his wife had falsely promised that she was a virgin — a confession he obtained after furiously waving the new couple's spotless bedclothes before still-celebrating wedding guests. Though the decision made no mention of religion, the fact that the couple were Muslim sparked complaints that France's strictly secular state is being undermined by traditional Arab cultural strictures. The court ruling also infuriated feminists, who saw its acceptance of prior sexual experience as grounds for annulment as tantamount to treating marriage as the equivalent of a commercial transaction in which the buyer had discovered a hidden flaw in his purchase. Many Muslim leaders were also outraged, insisting that Islam does not demand virginity as a precondition for marriage, and claimed that the ruling belied the judge's archaic misunderstanding of the faith and its tenets.

Though an appeal by France's Justice Ministry resulted in the Lille ruling being overturned, the storm it provoked has focused media attention on young Muslim women who turn to hymenoplasty to avoid the fate of the repudiated Lille bride. News reports have featured traumatized patients discussing the reaction they'd have faced on their wedding night or following virginity examinations frequently required prior to traditional marriages. Some admit they've paid as much as $5,250 to have their hymens reconstituted in private French clinics; others go to cities in Tunisia, Algeria, or Morocco, where the procedure is even more common, and costs as little as $300. Though the number of Muslim women in the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and France undergoing the procedure is unknown, there's a consensus among doctors that hymenoplasty is increasingly common. Ironically, as some commentators note, the increase in the procedure reflects the growing emancipation of women from tradition-rooted communities, but also the ongoing male oppression signified by the obsession with female virginity.

"French Muslim women are increasingly defying the restrictions and repression men try to enforce, and leading full, modern lives — including sexually," says Dounia Bouzar, whose recent book Allah, My Boss, and Me explores Islam in the French workplace. "The one time they feel obliged to make a concession to outdated attitudes is with the marital requirement of virginity — a purely macho tradition that has no basis in Islam, and is certainly nothing courts should be respecting. This surgery is unfortunate, though it is a way for women who have insisted on living their own lives to avoid punishment under a backward custom."

Even then, there's plenty of anguish and surrender involved. Doctor Stephane Saint-Leger, head of the Children and Women's Ward at the Robert Ballanger Hospital in the ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, agrees the social and sexual differences between young Muslim and non-Muslim women in France are shrinking — including a trend of marrying later in life. That trend has generally reduced the likelihood of women of any faith marrying as virgins. But Saint-Leger says the pressure and intimidation evoked by the Muslim women who come to him for help as their traditional weddings loom frequently threaten their physical and psychological well-being. For that reason, he says, he often agrees to perform hymenoplasties, even though it's the kind of indirectly coerced act he considers ethically objectionable.

"They represent young Muslim women surrendering to unnecessary medical intervention due to unacceptable pressure," Saint-Leger says. "With this, its pressure from the traditional people. But elsewhere, women also surrender to unnecessary medical intervention to change their breasts, noses, lips, or entire face due to unacceptable pressure of the beautiful people."

Though the overturning of the Lille verdict removes the risk non-virgin Muslim brides could find themselves dragged to court on fraud charges by infuriated husbands, the cultural pressures some face remain sufficiently great that many will continue turning to hymenoplasty to restore the semblance of chastity. Many times, however, the ruse may all be for naught: Saint-Leger notes notes that 30% to 40% of both original and reconstructed hymens fail to produce the virginity-confirming bleeding when ruptured by penetration, anyway.

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Hunger Can Make You Happy

By Robin Nixon, Special to LiveScience

Contrary to the moans of many dieters, being hungry may make you happy. Or, at least, it can be a serious motivator whose evolutionary intent was to help you find dinner instead of becoming dinner.

When our bodies notice we need more calories, levels of a hormone called ghrelin increase. Ghrelin is known to spur hunger, but new research suggests this may be a side effect of its primary job as a stress-buster.

Researchers manipulated ghrelin levels in mice through a variety of methods, including prolonged calorie restriction, ghrelin injection and a genetic modification rendering the mice numb to ghrelin’s effect.

Mice who had limited ghrelin activity seemed depressed. If pushed into deep water they made no effort to swim. When introduced to a maze, they clung to the entryway. And when placed with other mice, they tended to keep to themselves. (These behaviors were reversed when the mice were given a low-dose antidepressant commonly prescribed to humans.)

In contrast, mice with high levels of ghrelin swam energetically in deep water, looking for escape. They eagerly explored new environments. And they were much more social.

Mice are thought to be good analogues for humans in tests like these. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and other organizations, is detailed in the July 2008 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

In the wild

The researchers think that hunger-induced happiness is an adaptive measure. Getting food, especially in the wild, requires concentration, clear-headed perception and often cooperation.

If hunger made us walk around in a funk, we’d likely become someone else’s dinner. Instead, ghrelin motivates and focuses us on getting some F-O-O-D! Stat!

Hunger is not the only stressor that causes ghrelin to rise. Social anxiety can stimulate it as well. When mice were exposed to an older “bully” mouse (think, overbearing boss), ghrelin levels rose and stayed high for weeks.

Elevated ghrelin could be why some people overeat when under pressure. If the stress-induced snack is avoided, the research suggests, ghrelin levels will remain high and help us confront the stressor in a calm, effective way.

Possibly addictive

What about when we are actually hungry? Surely, there is nothing fun about that!

“You don’t really see an [antidepressant] effect until you have lost, say, 10 to15 percent of your body weight,” said lead researcher Michael Lutter of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. But once you are getting regular boosts from ghrelin, it could become addictive – which may explain why anorexics have such a difficult time recovering.

It could also explain the Calorie Restriction (CR) movement. CR devotees are motivated, at least at first, by animal studies that show eating 20 to 30 percent less than considered adequate extends life span (even if it also, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in March 2007, results in bone and muscle wasting, fatigue, constipation, dizziness and other signs of poor health).

While CR’s anti-aging effect is likely operating through a different mechanism, Lutter wouldn’t be surprised if the prolonged diet also gives CR followers a mood boost.

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If You Can Read This, You Might Be An Alien Abductee

A few days ago, the Weird Universe blog dug up a 1993 report on a UFO abduction survey, investigated by sociology professor Ted Goertzel at Rutgers University. The report was checking into a previous study's claim that 3.7 million Americans were suffering from "UFO abduction syndrome." While the Goertzel report largely debunked the idea that millions of Americans are actual abductees, you might still be in some danger — especially if you live in South Jersey.

Goertzel's study first reviewed an existing UFO abduction survey, which asked about five major experiences that could indicate a possible abduction:

1. "Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room."
2. "Experiencing a period of time of an hour or more, in which you were apparently lost, but you could not remember why or where you had been."
3. "Feeling that you were actually flying through the air although you didn't know why or how."
4. "Seeing unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them."
5. "Finding puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else remembering how you received them or where you got them."

Survey respondents would qualify as "abductees" if they recognized four out of five of those experiences. Goertzel published percentages of those respondents, both nationally and locally in South Jersey: It turns out people in South Jersey are 1.7 times more likely to be "abductees."

This early study may have been flawed, however — Goertzel and his team refined it, adding several more questions, with the goal of getting deeper and more detailed information on those Americans who apparently were former abductees. When they did, they found some ambiguity.

In this case, there are at least two alternative theories which can explain why the measure is internally consistent. One is that the respondents are consistently reporting on similar experiences as UFO abductees. The other is that the individuals who score high on the scale share a psychological tendency to have false memories. Flournoy (1911) referred to this phenomenon as cryptomnesia. Psychologist Robert Baker (1992: 78) states that this phenomenon of "seeing complex visual images in one's head that you cannot remember ever having seen before or...suddenly hearing voices from unknown and unrecollected sources is not only a much more common occurrence than is generally known but is also one of the more interesting and intriguing anomalies in the field of 'normal' human behavior."

To investigate the cryptomnesia phenomenon, Goertzel mapped out the correlation between the various survey responses and the reports of unusual personal experiences. People who believe that high government officials were involved in the Kennedy assassination, for example, had a 21% correlation with those supposed "abductees." There was a 20% correlation between "abductees" and those who think the Air Force is hiding evidence of flying saucers. But the most overlap occurred with two separate groups of survey respondents: Those who admitted to feeling that others were conspiring against them, and those who said they enjoyed "reading books about UFOs and other strange phenomena."

Well, if that's the case, it looks like quite a few io9 readers might be suffering from cryptomnesia. So if you find yourself freaking out about that moving white light in your bedroom, just ask yourself: What would Agent Scully say?

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The Truth About Plastic


If you know where to find a good plastic-free shampoo, can you tell Jeanne Haegele? Last September, the 28-year-old Chicago resident resolved to cut plastics out of her life. The marketing coordinator was concerned about what the chemicals leaching out of some common types of plastic might be doing to her body. She was also worried about the damage all the plastic refuse was doing to the environment. So she hopped on her bike and rode to the nearest grocery store to see what she could find that didn't include plastic. "I went in and barely bought anything," Haegele says. She did purchase some canned food and a carton of milk--only to discover later that both containers were lined with plastic resin. "Plastic," she says, "just seemed like it was in everything."

She's right. Back when Dustin Hoffman received the most famous one-word piece of career advice in cinema history, plastic was well on its way to becoming a staple of American life. The U.S. produced 28 million tons of plastic waste in 2005--27 million tons of which ended up in landfills. Our food and water come wrapped in plastic. It's used in our phones and our computers, the cars we drive and the planes we ride in. But the infinitely adaptable substance has its dark side. Environmentalists fret about the petroleum needed to make it. Parents worry about the possibility of toxic chemicals making their way from household plastic into children's bloodstreams. Which means Haegele isn't the only person trying to cut plastic out of her life--she isn't even the only one blogging about this kind of endeavor. But those who've tried know it's far from easy to go plastic-free. "These things are so ubiquitous that it is practically impossible to avoid coming into contact with them," says Frederick vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri.

Vom Saal is a prominent member of a group of researchers who have raised worrisome questions in recent years about the safety of some common types of plastics. We think of plastic as essentially inert; after all, it takes hundreds of years for a plastic bottle to degrade in a landfill. But as plastic ages or is exposed to heat or stress, it can release trace amounts of some of its ingredients. Of particular concern these days are bisphenol-a (BPA), used to strengthen some plastics, and phthalates, used to soften others. Each ingredient is a part of hundreds of household items; BPA is in everything from baby bottles to can linings (to protect against E. coli and botulism), while phthalates are found in children's toys as well as vinyl shower curtains. And those chemicals can get inside us through the food, water and bits of dust we consume or even by being absorbed through our skin. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 92% of Americans age 6 or older test positive for BPA--a sign of just how common the chemical is in our plastic universe.

Scientists like vom Saal argue that BPA and phthalates are different from other environmental toxins like lead and mercury in that these plastic ingredients are endocrine disrupters, which mimic hormones. Estrogen and other hormones in relatively tiny amounts can cause vast changes, so some researchers worry that BPA and phthalates could do the same, especially in young children. Animal studies on BPA found that low-dose exposure, particularly during pregnancy, may be associated with a variety of ills, including cancer and reproductive problems. Some human studies on phthalates linked exposure to declining sperm quality in adult males, while other work has found that early puberty in girls may be associated with the chemicals.

Does that mean even today's minuscule exposure levels are too much? The science is still murky, and human studies are few and far from definitive. So while Canada and the Democratic Republic of Wal-Mart are moving to ban BPA in baby bottles, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that BPA products pose no danger, as does the European Union. Even so, scientists like Mel Suffet, a professor of environmental-health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, say avoiding certain kinds of plastics is simply being better safe than sorry.

As researchers continue to examine plastic's impact on our bodies, there's no doubt that cutting down on the material will help the environment. Plastic makes up nearly 12% of our trash, up from 1% in 1960. You can literally see the result 1,000 miles (1,600 km) west of San Francisco in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic debris twice the size of Texas. The rising cost of petroleum may get plastic manufacturers to come up with incentives for recycling; current rates stand at less than 6% in the U.S. But the best way to reduce your plastic impact on the earth is simply to use less.

Here's how. You can avoid plastic bottles and toys labeled with the numbers 3 or 7, which often contain BPA or phthalates, and steer clear of vinyl shower curtains and canned foods--especially those with acidic contents like tomatoes. Vom Saal counsels that the cautious should also avoid heating plastic in microwaves. But get rid of the stuff altogether? "It's hard to go all the way," says Haegele, who, 10 months into her experiment, is leading a mostly plastic-free life. Although she still uses a plastic toothbrush, she's experimented with her own toothpaste (made of baking soda, cinnamon and vodka; for the recipe, go to her blog, She has used vinegar for conditioner and is searching for a decent shampoo that doesn't come in a plastic bottle. She has tried soaplike bars of shampoo, but they make her hair feel sticky. Plus, they sometimes come wrapped in--you guessed it--plastic.

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7,000 SF Home Has Zero Carbon Footprint

The Eco House in Spain aims to be the first zero carbon footprint home in Andalusia and it sure looks damn pretty.

The most apparent feature of the house is the roofline that sits wing-like above the building line. The shape of the roof and its distance from the building is key. The position of the angle holds the solar panels in the right position to maximize energy capture while also hiding them from view. The shape also allows less heat transmitted into the house as the space between the two rooflines allows air to pass over the building adding to the cooling effect. Adjustable louvered vents located just below the building’s roofline lets in the cooler air to pass through rooms while the accumulated hot air floats up and out of the house.

The main living area hovers above a 12-inch-deep canal of water, which again contributes to cooling the house so air conditioning isn’t needed. A rainwater reclamation system will be installed so gray water can be recycled from holding tanks located in the basement. The pool won’t need those nasty pool chemicals because it will be filled with saline water. Solar panels will supply electricity to run a radiant heating system within the floor and geo-thermal energy will provide a back-up cooling and heating system.

The design of the home, at nearly 7,000 square feet, is built with two-thirds less waste than traditional models and operate 80% more efficiently than similar sized home. It’s high-end luxury, but hey, if you can afford to build a home like this, there’s no reason to skimp on doing it as green as possible. The designers Diseño Earle hope to have the house available for purchase sometime in 2009.

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Carbon capture needed

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are very much needed to reduce one-third of the world's global carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group.

"CCS technology offers substantial benefits, but high cost and uncertainty have been a major roadblock so far in applying it. A carbon market price of €30 ($47.8) per ton, combined with worldwide subsidies, could offset the cost. Because of the long-term payback, private companies and government authorities need to begin promoting the development of CCS today."
The consulting group said an initial subsidy of €100 billion would proceed CCS development as the carbon price stabilized.

The effort for CCS technology development has just begun, according to BCC Research. The market research firm estimated the market for CCS technologies last year was worth $88.7bn.

BCC estimated the market to increase to over $236.3bn by 2012 with compound annual growth rate of 22%.

"By 2025 more than 10 billion metric tons of CO2 will need to be captured each year and CO2 emissions will still continue to grow. A global infrastructure that will ultimately cost more than $15 trillion will need to be installed over the next century to accomplish that ever increasing annual task."

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Living Our Lives Without Chocolate?


Future generations may never have a sweet tooth to feed. John Mason, the executive director and founder of the Ghana based organization Nature Conversation Research Council (NCRC) believes that in 20 years times, chocolate will be much like caviar today.

"[Chocolate] will become so rare and so expensive that the average joe won't be able to afford it."chocolate bars

This fate of chocolate is terrifying news for two parties. The chocoholics of the world, but more importantly the producer countries that depend greatly on the sale of the cocoa beans as a portion of their GDP.

The main cause for the decline in cocoa bean growth is unsustainable farming in Ghana and other nations known for their cocoa plants. Also cocoa is naturally a rainforest plant that grows in shady conditions surrounded by a high biodiversity, until recently. Now, hybrid varieties have been grown on cleared land as mono-cultures and in full sun.

Although this hybrid seeds fills the demand for the short term, the soil quickly becomes degraded and the lifespan of plants can be cut from 75 or 100 years, to 30 or less. When the trees die and the land is exhausted, farmers must move on and clear more rainforest to plant cocoa.

The decline in West African cocoa is not only a problem for farmers and chocolate producers, one of which is Cadbury who uses 100 percent of West African cocoa beans to produce their chocolate, but environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the destruction of the rainforest for short-term gain.

These three groups soon realized they were all fighting the same issue, and with the help from the international environmental charity, Earthwatch, a new program has been implemented to help the cocoa plant. Earthshare combines the efforts of Cadbury and the NCRC with continual support from Earthwatch. Earthshare a scientific research project that aims to explore ways of creating sustainable cocoa farming. Currently it works with 60 farms with negotiations underway to increase the initiative.

Earthshare is addressing two problems faced by cocoa farming. One being the ever degrading unsustainable soil and other habitat issues. Intensively farmed landscapes need a lot of inputs, such as water and chemical fertilizers and their fertility tends to degrade rapidly. So Earthshare has advised another plan where a mixed farming landscape, where other flora can shade the cocoa trees and provide habitats for the birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates that both eat pests on the cocoa and help pollinate the crop, not only increases biodiversity, it reduces the need for inputs and retains its fertility.cocoa beans

The second issue is the declining number of people wanting to be cocoa farmers. "They're coming at sustainable supply from two angles," says Mark Harper, Program Manager for Earthwatch. "It's not just about increasing yields; it's also about decreasing the number of farmers leaving the business.

"They are focused on making it a more attractive crop by improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers, whether that's by providing better sanitation, improved access to markets to get a better price for their crop, or helping establish new revenue streams, such as eco tourism."

With these two issues being investigated by all the parties involved in Earthshare, John Mason feels that the cocoa crop can be avoided. "The funny thing is we can reverse this," he says. "It will cost, certainly, but we can do it." Action is the way to save the cocoa plant and to know for certain that future generations can enjoy the richness of pure chocolate.

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Off shore wind farm locations found via satellite

With oil and energy prices skyrocketing, more people around the world are starting to look at green and renewable energy sources. Wind power, which was found to be a true green alternative to fossil fuels, has gotten a recent boost thanks to a bet by oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens. His company, Mesa Power, is planning a $2 billion investment in what will be the world's largest wind farm ever built, set to be located in west Texas. According to Pickens, if the US were to take advantage of what he calls the wind corridor that runs from western Texas to the Canadian border, the country could have 20 percent of its energy supplied by wind power.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

20 percent is not bad, but where else could large scale wind farms be built? A Publication in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters by a team of scientists from NASA's JPL uses satellite data to measure the surface stresses over the oceans. Recent technological advances have made floating wind farms possible, but the key is putting them in the right locations. The article examined eight years of data from the QuikSCAT data to determine the energy distribution over the world's ocean. The research identified three causes of regional variations in the power carried by the winds: "land mass deflection of the surface flow, the gap wind channeled by land topography, and surface stress variation produced by atmospheric buoyancy driven by ocean front."

From the data, the researchers found that high wind areas over the ocean could be used to harness between 500 and 800 W/m2. That's less than solar power can generate under ideal conditions, which is 1000 W/m2, although ideal solar conditions are rare. Given the higher efficiency of wind power over solar, however, the cost per kWh of electricity produced would be less. The research identified a host of locations where the winds blow continually almost year round due to various combinations of geographical and physical effects. High wind areas highlighted by the JPL were Cape Mendocino off the coast of northern California, the seas around Tasmania and New Zealand, in the south Pacific, and off Tierra del Fuego in South America.

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Forests to fall for food and fuel

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Biodiesel pump
Demand for biofuels will add to pressure on forests, the report warns

Demand for land to grow food, fuel crops and wood is set to outstrip supply, leading to the probable destruction of forests, a report warns.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) says only half of the extra land needed by 2030 is available without eating into tropical forested areas.

A companion report documents poor progress in reforming land ownership and governance in developing countries.

Both reports were launched on Monday in UK government offices in London.

Supporters of RRI include the UK's Department of International Development (DfID) and its equivalents in Sweden and Switzerland.

The dual crises of fuel and food are attracting significant land speculation
Andy White, RRI

"Arguably, we are on the verge of a last great global land grab," said RRI's Andy White, co-author of the major report, Seeing People through the Trees.

"It will mean more deforestation, more conflict, more carbon emissions, more climate change and less prosperity for everyone."

Rising demand for food, biofuels and wood for paper, building and industry means that 515 million hectares of extra land will be needed for growing crops and trees by 2030, RRI calculates.

But only 200 million hectares will be available without dipping into tropical forests.

Forest focus

The report foresees demand increasing further into the century.

Market stall selling food in Senegal

It cites studies suggesting that "...if the current plateau in productivity continues, the amount of additional agricultural land required just to meet the world's projected food demand in 2050 would be about three billion hectares, nearly all of which would be required in developing countries."

According to UN figures, the world currently has about 1.4 billion hectares of arable land and about 3.4 billion hectares of pasture.

Some academics place their hopes in agricultural technologies including genetic engineering to boost crop yields.

But since the spectacular successes of the Green Revolution, advances have been slow. In some areas, yields are falling - a trend which is likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

However, eating into tropical forests to create extra agricultural land would, in turn, exacerbate climate change, with deforestation currently accounting for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Reform call

One of RRI's main conclusions is that reform of land ownership is crucial, if large-scale pillage of tropical forests is to be avoided.

The conclusion have been supported by DfID, whose minister Gareth Thomas was one of the speakers at the launch event.

"These new studies should strengthen global resolve to protect the property rights of indigenous and local communities who play a vital role in protecting one the most outstanding natural wonders of the world," he said.

DfID runs programmes in West Africa aimed at helping forest dwellers acquire the legal right to manage their land.

Drawing maps of forest areas in mud in Bandundu Province, DRC
Many indigenous peoples need help in acquiring rights to the land they live on

"It is clear that the dual crises of fuel and food are attracting significant new investments and great land speculation," said Andy White.

"Only by protecting the rights of the people who live in and around the world's most vulnerable forests can we prevent the devastation these forces will wreak on the poor."

But the second RRI report - From Exclusion to Ownership? - says progress in reforming ownership has been slow, with only a few countries such as Brazil, Cameroon and Tanzania handing over significant tracts to local communities.

Moves to curb climate change by preserving forests in developing countries could help, RRI concludes. But it also raises the question of who owns rights to the trees - the rich Western countries that want to fund carbon sequestration, or the people who live in the forest areas?

Sorting out ownership could not only help on the environmental front, but also remove reasons for conflict. RRI calculates that about two-thirds of the world's current violent conflicts are driven by land tenure issues.

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Argentina Will Produce Massive Wind Power Turbines

The Atomic Age Enters a New Dawn

By Michael Sauga

Germany may still be debating whether to abandon its nuclear phase-out plans, but the rest of the world is already moving full steam ahead into expanding the use of nuclear technology. SPIEGEL ONLINE examines a glowing comeback, from Switzerland to China.

It was seen as risky, dangerous and uneconomical. Less than 10 years ago nuclear energy was still being treated as yesterday's news.

After the devastating Chernobyl reactor disaster, hardly any countries were interested in placing their bets on nuclear technology, and not even the energy companies believed that electricity from nuclear power plants had much of a future.

Today the sinister technology, still more unpopular than almost any other, is experiencing an unexpected comeback. Thirty-six new reactors are currently being built worldwide, while another 81 are in the planning stages. And it has not escaped the attention of Germans that new nuclear power plants are not just being planned in the emerging nations of Asia and Eastern Europe, but are also back on the drawing board in the United States and Great Britain.

Two fundamental developments are fueling the nuclear energy comeback. The international effort to combat climate change favors power generation technologies that involve relatively low emissions of carbon dioxide. This includes nuclear reactors, which emit only a fraction of the amount of CO2 into the environment that comes from a coal-fired power plant, for example.

Rising oil prices are also a boost for nuclear energy. Until recently, it was considered especially cost-effective to produce electricity in small and flexible natural gas power plants. Gas was relatively cheap, and the plants were significantly less expensive to build than a nuclear power plant.

But for months now, gas prices have followed the steep rise in oil prices, and it is becoming increasingly clear to Western nations that the world's gas reserves are primarily in countries that are not necessarily considered the most political stable on earth, such as Libya and Russia. Many Western politicians now fear that those who choose to turn their backs on nuclear power could very well be putting themselves at the mercy of arbitrary dictators and autocrats.

In light of these new realities on the energy markets, many are now once again seeing nuclear energy as the lesser evil.

Seven examples of the global nuclear renaissance:

Prefab Reactors and Longer Lives
No nuclear reactors have been built in the United States since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. But that is about to change. Dozens of new reactors are on the way. more...

Nuclear Power in the Earthquake Zone
Turkey has long been wary of relying too much on Russia and Iran for its energy needs. Now, it wants to build two nuclear power plants. But in a country prone to earthquakes, is it safe? more...

Putting Nuclear to the Vote
Switzerland may expand its nuclear power lineup from five to eight reactors. There is still little resistance to the new reactors among the Swiss, who have come to accept nuclear power. more...

The British Atomic Green Revolution
Jahrelang For years, nuclear energy was seen as an "unattractive option" in Great Britain, and the country's nuclear phase-out was in fact a done deal. But in light of soaring oil prices, the British government is rethinking its position, even praising nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative. more...

The Monologue of Nuclear Power
Russia plans to build up to 40 new nuclear reactors in the near future. But experts warn that may not be possible. The country lacks experts, skilled personnel and a clear idea about what to do with the waste. more...

An Archipelago of Staunch Nuclear Supporters
Hardly any other country is as committed to atomic energy as Japan, with the island nation deriving a large share of its energy from nuclear plants. Even a large number of incidents and the ever-present risk of earthquakes have not deterred the Japanese from the costly expansion of their nuclear facilities. more...

An Energetic Newcomer
China is expanding its use of nuclear energy faster than almost any nation in the world, with plans for 19 new nuclear reactors by 2020. But is there a Chinese debate over the consequences of nuclear expansion? Hardly. more...

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