Monday, August 4, 2008

Rumors of Life on Mars are Greatly Exaggerated

For the past few days, rumors have been flying around the Internet that the White House was being briefed by NASA scientists about a “provocative” discovery that could indicate the potential for life on Mars. But today, a source close to the planet says it isn’t so. Details after the jump.

Aviation Week reported the briefing on Friday:

The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the "potential for life" on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability—the "potential" for Mars to support life—at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say.”

It also reported that these discoveries go beyond the recent confirmations of water on the planet:

“The other data not discussed openly yet are far more "provocative," Phoenix officials say.

In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made the findings was kept out of a July 31 news conference at the University of Arizona Phoenix control center. The goal was to prevent them from being asked any questions that could reveal information before NASA is ready to make an announcement, sources say.

The Bush Administration's Presidential Science Advisor's office, however, has been briefed on the new information that NASA hopes to release as early as mid August. It is possible an announcement would not come until September, to allow for additional analysis. That will depend upon the latest results still being analyzed from the spacecraft's organic oven and soil chemistry laboratories.

But the Twittering voice of the Phoenix, NASA news services manager Veronica McGregor, told tweeters they shouldn’t get too excited:

Heard about the recent news reports implying I may have found Martian life. Those reports are incorrect.

And what about that hush-hush meeting?

Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect.

And the Mars Phoenix wouldn’t lie to us, would she?

White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life [Aviation Week]
MarsPhoenix [Twitter]

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Finding Apollo

Forty years later, we’re about to see what the moonwalkers left behind.

  • By Tony Reichhardt
The shadow of their lander dominates a mosaic of the numbered photos Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took out their window before leaving the moon. The shadow of their lander dominates a mosaic of the numbered photos Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took out their window before leaving the moon.
(NASA/Panorama assembled by R. Farwell for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

The flag is probably gone. Buzz Aldrin saw it knocked over by the rocket blast as he and Neil Armstrong left the moon 39 summers ago. Lying there in the lunar dust, unprotected from the sun’s harsh ultraviolet rays, the flag’s red and blue would have bleached white in no time. Over the years, the nylon would have turned brittle and disintegrated.

Dennis Lacarrubba, whose New Jersey-based company, Annin, made the flag and sold it to NASA for $5.50 in 1969, considers what might happen to an ordinary nylon flag left outside for 39 years on Earth, let alone on the moon. He thinks for a few seconds. “I can’t believe there would be anything left,” he concludes. “I gotta be honest with you. It’s gonna be ashes.”

There are other signs of aging at Tranquillity Base. The shiny gold foil on the base of the lunar lander is shiny no more—it would have darkened and flaked away long ago. The once-white life support backpacks, tossed out unceremoniously after Armstrong and Aldrin made their brief spacewalks, have likely turned yellow. The TV camera, the seismometer, the discarded hammer—anything made of glass or metal—are probably okay. And the famous bootprints? They may still be as crisp as the day they were made. Or, they may have the thinnest coating of dust from small grains moving around continually on the lunar surface (see “Stronger than Dirt,” Aug./Sept. 2006).

The truth is, no one knows exactly what the Apollo landing sites will look like after four decades. Nobody thought it would take us this long to go back.

And now we are.

New cameras in orbit around the moon have begun returning photos of sights unseen in a generation. Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft, which arrived in lunar orbit in October, took a picture of the Apollo 15 landing site in February that clearly showed a tiny patch of white on the dark gray landscape—dust disturbed by Dave Scott and Jim Irwin’s rocket engine as they touched down in Mare Imbrium in July 1971. They and other Apollo moonwalkers routinely photographed the white patches when they looked back at their landing sites from lunar orbit before returning home. Kaguya’s best camera has a resolution, or ability to separate two objects, of 10 meters (33 feet)—just enough to make out the white patch of disturbed soil. The camera can’t quite resolve the squat, 30-foot-wide base of the Apollo 15 lander sitting in the middle of that patch. But the Kaguya photo shows a dark feature that may be the lander’s shadow.

Until Kaguya, there hadn’t been a camera good enough to spot Apollo artifacts on the moon since the last astronauts left, in 1972. Neither the U.S. Clementine nor the European SMART-1 moon probes, launched in 1994 and 2003, respectively, had enough resolution. (In case you’re wondering, even the best ground-based telescopes can’t make out Apollo hardware on the moon. They have the resolution—some produce sharper images than the Hubble Space Telescope—but the objects left by the astronauts aren’t bright enough to be seen.)

So it’s a job for lunar orbiters. Next up is Chandrayaan, India’s first planetary science spacecraft, which is due to arrive at the moon this fall with a camera twice as sharp as Kaguya’s. That should be good enough to see more than smudges in the dirt, according to Mark Robinson, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University whose own high-resolution camera will fly on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in November. “I will be surprised if Chandrayaan can’t detect the [lunar landers],” says Robinson. The bases of the landers, six of which are still on the moon, will be only about two picture elements, or pixels, across in the five-meter-resolution images—not enough for clear identification. But in photos taken at low sun angles, says Robinson, the landers’ shadows should appear as dark streaks up to 10 pixels long. This technique has paid off in the past. Long before the first Apollo landing, scientists studying photos taken by the Lunar Orbiter 3 spacecraft noticed a shadow cast by the Surveyor 1 robot, which had landed on the moon eight months earlier.

If the Chandrayaan scientists are “really, really lucky,” says Robinson, they might also detect the shadows of the lunar rovers, the two-man buggies that astronauts left at the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 sites. The 10-foot-long rovers would be less than a pixel in size, but their shadows could be as long as four or five pixels, says Robinson.

His own instrument on the LRO will do a thorough job of “revisiting” the Apollo sites, beginning in early 2009. The narrow-angle camera can resolve details about the size of a microwave oven. As the LRO spacecraft orbits from pole to pole and the moon turns slowly beneath it, it will eventually get a look at all six Apollo landing sites. The resulting pictures should clearly show the landers and the rovers, says Robinson. Even some of the larger experiment packages left behind by the moonwalkers might be identifiable from their shadows. The LRO images should also show rover tracks and the dark areas where the astronauts scuffed up the lunar soil. The new information can then be used to refine maps of the moonwalkers’ historic traverses.

And that’s just Apollo. Some of the most fascinating pictures the LRO takes will show obscure spacecraft that nobody’s seen, or even thought much about, since they left Earth more than 40 years ago. Phil Stooke, a planetary geographer at the University of Western Ontario and author of The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration, has a list of targets he can’t wait to see, including two Russian spacecraft—Luna 9, which in 1966 made the first soft landing on the moon, and Luna 17, which in 1970 delivered the first geological rover, Lunokhod 1. Neither spacecraft’s location is precisely known, says Stooke. Nor are the exact locations of many of the craters made when orbiters and spent rocket stages crashed into the moon in the 1960s. Altogether, about 100 tons of junk is strewn across dozens of spots around the moon. Over the next two years, we’ll rediscover much of it.

Of course, the LRO’s mission is not finding old spacecraft. The orbiter is producing high-resolution maps for planning the next wave of lunar exploration. But since astronauts aren’t expected to head moonward until 2020 at the earliest, the initial users of the maps are likely to be surface-exploring robots, and the first of those could arrive as early as next summer, in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. An intense contest is under way among several groups vying for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first privately funded team that lands a rover on the moon, drives it at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile), and returns video and still images to Earth.

Just as the first X Prize spurred aircraft designer Burt Rutan to build a one-man rocketplane that flew to the edge of space and back (see “Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot,” June/July 2005), the Google prize is meant to encourage innovation in robotic exploration of the moon. So far, 13 teams have entered, from as far away as Romania and Malaysia.

The Rutan in this race is Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Whittaker, one of the world’s foremost roboticists. Whittaker-built rovers have explored volcanoes, deserts, and Antarctic ice fields. Last year one of his vehicles won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a road rally for autonomous robot cars, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Whittaker’s X Prize team, Astrobotic Technology, is loaded with experience, starting with project manager Tony Spear, the man who led the NASA mission that in 1996 landed the Sojourner rover on Mars. The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, currently operating the Phoenix spacecraft on Mars, is a partner. Astrobotic’s president is David Gump, a space entrepreneur who in 1989 started a venture called LunaCorp, which also planned to drive a rover around the moon and sell the video. Whittaker was to have built the robot. Although LunaCorp folded in 2003, Gump is betting that it was mostly because the company was ahead of its time.

Not that Astrobotic’s proposed “Tranquillity Trek” to the Apollo 11 site will be a cakewalk. For one thing, says Gump, the mission will cost about $100 million—far more than Google is paying in prize money. While he looks for financial backers, the technical team is working feverishly, trying to hold on to the possibility of a launch next year. Astrobotic claims that once it raises the money, it can be on the moon within 18 months.

After landing, Astrobotic’s rover will have just 14 days—a lunar day—to reach the Apollo 11 site and take pictures. Equipping the robot to withstand the frigid, two-week lunar night would have complicated the engineering and driven up the cost. So this will be a short, focused sprint to Tranquillity Base. The rover moves at “about a human walking pace,” says Gump, and will have to reach its destination before nightfall, so success requires a precision landing. The team expects to come down about half a mile from its target, with a precision measured in meters—unprecedented accuracy for a robotic planetary lander.

This is where another Astrobotic partner, Raytheon, comes in. The company built the Navy missile that intercepted and destroyed a military reconnaissance satellite falling from orbit last February. Astrobotic will license the Raytheon “digital scene matching” technology used in cruise missiles—which compares real-time pictures of the looming target with photos stored in an onboard computer—to ensure precise navigation.

Another serious contender to win the Google prize is Quantum3, based in Vienna, Virginia, and led by NASA veterans including Courtney Stadd, the agency’s former chief of staff, and Liam Sarsfield, its former deputy chief engineer. Quantum3 is counting on a new method of landing that Stadd says is different from what other teams are using. Then, instead of rolling on wheels, the lander will “hop” around the surface with small rocket blasts. The price tag, says Stadd, is much lower than $100 million, but is still more than the Google prize money. Like Astrobotic, Quantum3 is heading for the Apollo 11 site. As of May, Stadd still hoped his team could make it there by the 40th anniversary, in July 2009.

All the proposed traffic around Tranquillity Base makes some in the space community worry that the historic Apollo sites will get trampled. Beth O’Leary, a New Mexico State University anthropologist who has led a campaign, so far unsuccessful, to declare the Apollo 11 site a national historic landmark, is concerned that the robots could inadvertently destroy a priceless artifact. Despite the best intentions of the X Prize teams, she says, “it’s untried technology.”

So far, it’s a controversy without much argument. “Our top priority is protecting Apollo 11 from any disturbance,” says Gump. “We’re not rolling over any footprints.” Astrobotic’s rover will stay outside the perimeter of Armstrong and Aldrin’s farthest travels, he says. Pictures of the lander will be taken from a “respectful distance” with a telephoto lens.

Gump hasn’t given much thought to what the pictures will show. But he looks forward to the adventure playing out on live TV, “like opening Al Capone’s vault.”

Might the photos, like the vault, prove disappointing? There’s a chance—a very remote one—that the lander has been destroyed by a meteoroid. We know of at least one Apollo artifact that’s still intact, though, right where Aldrin left it on July 21, 1969. Tom Murphy and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego still interact with it regularly. Every few nights, they point a laser at a quartz prism on the surface. Then the scientists time the beam that bounces back, a measurement useful for gravitational physics studies. In the two years he’s been pinging the Apollo retro-reflectors, Murphy has become increasingly puzzled. Despite the exquisite sensitivity of his instrument on Earth, the signal that bounces back from the moon is 10 times weaker than it should be. After ruling out other explanations, Murphy has come up with a tentative theory: The reflectors left on the moon have degraded over time. Maybe, he thinks, they have been lightly etched by all those sharp dust grains bouncing around for years on the lunar surface. If so, the once-pristine glass may now be frosted, which would explain the loss in signal strength.

It’s the kind of thing NASA engineers planning the next lunar outpost would love to know. The rest of us just want to find out what happened to the flag. We may not have long to wait.

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Launch of Private Rocket Fails; Three Satellites Were Onboard


A privately funded rocket was lost on its way to space Saturday night, bringing a third failure in a row to an Internet multimillionaire’s effort to create a market for low-cost space-delivery business.

The failure occurred a little more than two minutes after launch, about the time of first stage separation, and the vehicle appeared to be oscillating before the signal was lost.

“We are hearing from the launch control center that there has been an anomaly on that vehicle,” said Max Vozoff, a launch commentator for the company, on a Webcast of the event soon after the live video feed from the rocket went dead.

The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket was manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, based in Hawthorne, Calif.

Elon Musk, an Internet entrepreneur, founded the company, known as SpaceX, in 2002 after selling his online payment company, PayPal, to eBay for $1.5 billion. The company, which has been hailed as one of the most promising examples of an entrepreneurial “new space” movement, now has 525 employees.

The rocket was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific shortly after 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, after several hours of delays and one aborted launch attempt.

The first Falcon 1 launch, in March 2006, failed about a minute into its ascent because of a fuel line leak. A second rocket, launched in March 2007, made it to space but was lost about five minutes after launching because it began rolling uncontrollably.

On this flight, the Falcon carried three small satellites for the Department of Defense and NASA.

The company is also developing a larger rocket, the Falcon 9, with nine engines in the first stage. That vehicle is intended to provide cargo services to the International Space Station under a contract for NASA after the shuttle program winds down in 2010.

SpaceX performed a successful test firing of that rocket at its facilities in McGregor, Tex., last week. The company has further Falcon 1 launches in the works.

Charles Lurio, an independent space consultant, said that it should not be surprising to lose single-use rocket vehicles in the early stages of development, because their design does not allow test flights.

“It’s all or nothing once it leaves the pad,” he said. “But I hope SpaceX keeps trying. They’re very competent people.”

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Beautiful Video of a Solar Eclipse Taken From an Airplane

Now this, this is cool. This is a video shot from an airplane of the recent total solar eclipse, showing the moon passing in front of the sun. This video shows the entirety of the eclipse — they're quick — and you can see just how the sky is changed and darkened by the shadow of the moon. Remarkable stuff. [Canards]

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The White House is Briefed: Phoenix About to Announce "Potential For Life" on Mars

Written by Ian O'Neill

The surface zones where samples have been excavated by Phoenix (NASA)

The surface zones where samples have been excavated by Phoenix (NASA)

It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more "provocative" than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet's surface, new data appears to indicate the "potential for life" more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge

So why is there all this secrecy? According to scientists in communication with Aviation Week & Space Technology, the next big discovery will need to be mulled over for a while before it is announced to the world. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made these undisclosed findings were kept out of the July 31st news conference (confirming water) so additional analysis could be carried out, avoiding any questions that may have revealed their preliminary results. They have also made the decision to discuss the results with the Bush Administration's Presidential Science Advisor's office before a press conference between mid-August and early September.

Although good news, Thursday's announcement of the discovery of water on Mars comes as no surprise to mission scientists and some are amused by the media's reaction to the TEGA results. "They have discovered water on Mars for the third or fourth time," one senior Mars scientist joked. These new MECA results are, according to the Phoenix team, a little more complex than the water "discovery." Scientists are keen to point out however, that this secretive news will in no way indicate the existence of life (past or present) on Mars; Phoenix simply is not equipped make this discovery. What it can do is test the Mars soil for compounds suitable to support life. The MECA instrument does have microscopes capable of resolving bacterial-scale life forms however, but this is not the focus of the forthcoming announcement, sources say.

This new MECA discovery, combined with TEGA data will probably expose something more compelling, completing another piece of the puzzle in the search for the correct conditions for life as we know it to survive on Mars. Critical to this search is to understand how the recently confirmed water and Mars regolith behave together under the Phoenix lander in the cold Martian arctic.

The MECA instrument had already made the landmark discovery that Mars "soil" was much like the soil more familiar on Earth. This finding prompted scientists to indicate that the minerals and pH levels in the regolith could support some terrestrial plants, indicating this would be useful for future Mars settlers.

What with the discovery of water, and the discovery that Mars soil is very much like the stuff we find on Earth, it is hard to guess as to what the MECA's second soil test has discovered. What ever it is, it sounds pretty significant, especially as NASA and the University of Arizona are taking extraordinary steps to avoid any more details being leaked to the outside world. I just hope were not getting excited over something benign…

So what will this compelling discovery be? Leave your guess below…

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Queen's Guitarist Publishes Astrophysics Thesis

Dr Brian May CBE was confirmed as the new Chancellor for Liverpool John Moores University following a unanimous decision by the University's Governing Body in November 2007. The image includes Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Board, Sir Malcolm Thornton , LJMU's new Chancellor Dr Brian May and Vice Chancellor Professor Michael Brown. Credit: LJMU

The founder of the legendary rock band Queen has completed his doctoral thesis in astrophysics after taking a 30-year break to play some guitar.

Brian May's thesis examines the mysterious phenomenon known as Zodiacal light, a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the western sky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise. Casual observers, if they live under very dark rural skies, can best see the light two to three hours before sunrise as they look east, and many people have been fooled into seeing it as the first sign of morning twilight. A Persian astronomer who lived around the 12th century referred to it as "false dawn" in a poem.

Astronomers now know that Zodiacal light represents reflected sunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near the sun. The millions of particles range in size from tiny asteroids to microscopic dust grains, and extend outward beyond the orbit of Mars.

May's work focuses on an instrument that recorded 250 scans of morning and evening Zodiacal light between 1971 and 1972. The Fabry-Perot Spectrometer is located at the Observatorio del Teide at Izana in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands.

The completed thesis appears as the book "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud" (Springer and Canopus Publishing Ltd., 2008).

"I have thoroughly enjoyed my years playing guitar and recording music with Queen, but it's extremely gratifying to see the publication of my thesis," May said. "I've been fascinated with astronomy for years, and I was happy to finally complete my Ph.D. last year and record my studies of the Zodiacal Light in this book."

May officially received his doctorate on Aug. 24, 2007, from the Imperial College in London. He also gained the appointment of chancellor for Liverpool John Moores University in November of that year, showing that he's not just any guitar hero.

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Yes, There Is Water on Mars -- But You Can't Drink It

Though NASA has been reporting for years that there is water ice on Mars, today the US space agency held a press conference to announce definitively that the Phoenix Lander has found traces of water ice on the red planet. As Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy points out, today's announcement was really about the continuation of the Phoenix mission, which was scheduled to sunset in the next few weeks. Now that the cool lander is scooping up hunks of ice in the sticky Martian dirt (plastered into the bottom of Phoenix's scoop, above), NASA has poured enough money into the project to keep it going at least through September. But pretty much every single news source reporting the Martian water story has neglected to tell you the most important thing about this "water ice." It's probably not drinkable.

Nobody seems to be asking the most important question: What exactly is the chemical composition of this so-called water? Partly this is because it was only yesterday that scientists got a big enough chunk of the stuff inside Phoenix's ovens, where it can melt the ice and figure out its molecular composition using a mass spectrometer. So we won't know the exact composition of Martian water for a while. But mostly calling the stuff "water ice" vagues out the truth, which is that this ice is only technically water. No creature on Earth could drink it. In fact, as planetary scientist Andrew Knoll said at the AAAS meeting earlier this year, water on Mars is probably so salty and acidic that it would be essentially poison.

So if you are totally freaking out about how all this water on Mars means we can set up colonies there right away, and meet the aliens who live on the stuff in vast underground aquifers, sorry. We're not going to be able to zoom up there and start ice mining to support our colonies. We'll need to pour a lot of resources into de-salinating the stuff, and sucking all the acid out, before it's potable.

One of the interesting side-effects of this water discovery, however, is that it may re-awaken the scientific community's interest in searching for extraterrestrial life. As Eric Sofge argues on Popular Mechanics, Water is usually considered a precursor for living things, and now that we know water exists under the ground on our close planetary neighbor, it's becomes more statistically likely that water could exist elsewhere too. Or that life could exist on Mars.

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First Stars Were Brutes, but Died Young, Astronomers Say


The first stars in the universe were short-lived brutish monsters, and they changed the nature of the cosmos forever, blazing away a dark fog that had smothered space for 300 million years and beginning to enrich the cosmos with the stuff of life.

P. A. Navratil, Texas Advanced Computing Center; J. L. Johnson, T. H. Greif, V. Bromm, University of Texas at Austin

An image from a computer simulation depicting the universe 300 million years after the Big Bang. The first stars blew bubbles of ionized radiation (blue) into the surrounding primordial gas (green).

That is the news from a new computer simulation of the early years of the universe, performed by a group of astronomers led by Naoki Yoshida of Nagoya University in Japan.

The calculations show how small lumps in the distribution of matter and energy could draw in more matter by gravity, heat up, shrink and become the first “cosmic objects” — tiny seeds or proto-stars one one-hundredth the mass of the Sun. In a mere 10,000 years or so, by sucking in surrounding clouds of gas, they probably grew into giant stars at least 100 times as massive as the Sun.

Poetically, those first stars would have blazed brightly and died young, burning out in only a million years, which means that such computer simulations are the only telescopes through which these original stars can be observed.

“The simulations offer a very clear picture of how the first stars formed,” Dr. Yoshida said, in a telephone news conference Wednesday. He and his colleagues reported their findings in a paper published in Science on Friday.

Volker Bromm, an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not part of the team, said that Dr. Yoshida’s work had taken simulations of the early universe to a new level, although much work remained to be done. “The ultimate goal of predicting the mass and properties of the first stars is now within reach,” he wrote in a commentary that accompanied the Science paper.

Lars Hernquist of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a member of Dr. Yoshida’s team, described the calculations as an attempt to fill a gap in cosmological knowledge.

Astronomers have a good idea of what the universe was like at an age of 400,000 years from studying a relict haze of microwaves left over from the Big Bang, and they know what it is like today. “This study is designed to understand how objects came into the universe,” he said, “and how they affected what came afterwards.”

The emergence of the first stars, about 300 million years after the Big Bang, was an epochal event for two reasons. First, they lighted up a universe that had been dark since shortly after the Big Bang fires had cooled. Through thermonuclear fusion, they also got the ball rolling on the alchemical transformation of the cosmos, from being composed essentially of pure hydrogen and helium to being littered today with heavier elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and iron.

More massive stars burn hotter and faster and produce heavy elements more copiously than less massive ones. So Dr. Yoshida’s result would mean that this process of enrichment got off to a fast start, which astronomers could test by looking at the abundances of such elements in the lowest-mass and thus oldest stars around.

These massive stars would also have been prodigious producers of ultraviolet radiation needed to ionize hydrogen, which filled the universe like an opaque fog after the Big Bang cooled, and make it transparent to visible light, thus ending what cosmologists call the “dark ages.”

Astronomers have long reasoned that the first stars would have been massive, because without the heavy elements, which astronomers call metals, clouds of helium and hydrogen, the primordial gases, can’t easily cool off. So as the lumps compress under the pressure of incoming material, they heat up and push back. Only for very large amounts of gas can gravity overcome the pressure and the star start to form.

Astronomers have been using computers for decades to simulate the motions of cosmic particles coming together under gravity, but they typically have had to stop when the agglomerations became dense and hot enough for other forces — radiation, heat and gas dynamics — to complicate things. Dr. Yohsida said that his simulations were the first to be able to follow the complex interactions of gas and radiation that dominate evolution of the protostar.

Dr. Yoshida said his computer program, “like a piece of art,” had been seven or eight years in development. The simulations, performed on a network of 70 computer processors, begin with the universe as a nearly smooth mixture of hydrogen, helium and the mysterious dark matter— perhaps clouds of as-yet-unidentified elementary particles — whose gravity shapes the distribution of matter in the universe.

As time goes on, small ripples in the dark matter cause ordinary matter to puddle, heat up, lose energy by radiation and then shrink, eventually forming stable seeds about one one-hundredth the density of water and about one one-hundredth the mass of the Sun. For now that is as far as the rigorous calculations go.

The seeds, however, are surrounded by huge amounts of gas, from which they are likely to grow. By how much depends on further calculations.

Significantly, the computations did not show the gas fragmenting into smaller clumps on the way to becoming the protostar. If the material had fragmented, Dr. Hernquist explained, the first stars would have been closer to the Sun in their masses and life histories and how they died. “It is vitally important to decide in the end exactly how massive these stars are,” he said. That would help astronomers deduce what might have happened to them. Were they scattered to the heavens in supernova explosions or did they perhaps collapse into black holes?

“We don’t know how they die,” said Dr. Hernquist.

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Is there a worst way to die?

by Josh Clark

Browse the article Is there a worst way to die?

Is there a worst way to die?

Anna Gosline's recent article in New Scientist, entitled "How Does It Feel To Die?" got our hearts pumping here at HowStuffWorks. Gosline interviewed experts to find out what it's like to drown, fall from a tall building and ride the electric chair, among other terrible ways to die. This got us to thinking: Is there a worst way to die?

Buddhist monk burning alive
Courtesy Keystone/Getty Images
Immolation is one of the most painful ways to die -- which makes this Buddhist monk's protest of the Vietnam War by publicly burning himself to death all the more significant.

As it turns out, determining which mode of death is the worst way to go is subjective. There are impromptu polls on sites around the Internet (burning has a high ranking). But there's no consensus among professionals like physicians or funeral directors about which method is the least desirable way to exit this mortal coil. A person's fears may factor into his own personal worst way to die. The thought of falling to one's death from a tall building, for example, would probably scare the daylights out of someone who is afraid of heights, but wouldn't qualify as the worst death for someone else.

Awareness of the type of death and fear of the unknown can also make one kind of death more grisly than another. Dying in a plane crash is one example: The time between the airplane beginning its rapid descent and the moment of impact is more than long enough to generate terror. What's worse, depending on the circumstances, the passengers may remain conscious during the entire process. The plane is literally -- and unstoppably -- carrying its passengers to their probable deaths, and of this they are all totally aware.

With most forms of death, unconsciousness meets the victim before the grim reaper does, thus releasing the dying person from the fear that grips him. But the moments before death can be fraught with fear and pain.

A physician we interviewed recounts the story of a laborer in Africa who worked around vats of sulfuric acid -- one of the most caustic forms of acid. The man fell in one day. He quickly leapt out, but was covered in sulfuric acid, which immediately began to burn him chemically. In a panic and excruciating pain, the man ran outside. By the time his coworkers caught up to him, the man had essentially dissolved.

The acid burned the man to death, searing through skin, cauterizing blood vessels, and eating through organs until he died. The pain would be unbearable, and the circumstances irreversible. This is unquestionably a really bad way to die.

But what is it about stories like this? Why is it that on some primal level we feel the urge to imagine the man running madly about as his tissue fell away from his bones? Why do articles like Gosline's become so popular? In other words, why do we think about death? Read on to find out about an entire field of study dedicated to exploring death.


Thanatology and Ernest Becker

Death looms around us all, but for the most part, people try to avoid thinking about it. The success of antiaging skin care products and the hospital's increased role as supporter of life beyond the time after quality of life diminishes both attest to this. But while people in most cultures may avoid thinking about death, others find it a fascinating study. An entire school of thought is dedicated to the study of death and dying -- along with its processes, like grief. This field is called thanatology.

Man and death
Courtesy Vintage Images/Getty Images
A man confronting his own mortality?

Thanatologists believe that humans have compartmentalized death in a quest to trick ourselves into believing that we will not die. Unfortunately, by failing to confront our own mortality -- or even the mortality of those around us -- we will be ambushed when death inevitably comes knocking. What's worse, we will fail to live our lives in the best manner possible: It is the person who has accepted his own mortality who will live life to the fullest, say thanatologists.

Those who study death -- physicians, funeral directors and psychologists alike -- point out that before the early part of the last century, death was a very visible part of life in Western culture. When a person died, he most likely died at home. His corpse was often laid on a sofa or in a bed in the living room ironically enough, and meals were taken around it. Family members slept near the body of their deceased beloved. They had professional photographers take photos of the family gathered around the body, which was sometimes propped up with the eyes open to make the dead still appear to be alive.

This process often took place over the course of days before the person was buried. Both adults and children were exposed to the body. In this way, a child became socialized with death, and was arguably more ready to face his own mortality than the children of today.

So why is death so hard for many people to confront? Fear of the unknown is certainly one reason, but there is also another, more sublime aspect that is based on modern medicine.

A century ago, a person with cancer would die. A person with access to today's medical technology has a much better chance to live. In this manner, some have come to see medicine as a way to cheat death, and rather than confront the fact that they will die one day, they look instead to medicine to save them from their inevitable fates.

This is what the psychologist Ernest Becker considered a distraction. Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book, "Denial of Death." It was Becker's opinion that culture at large served to distract all of us from our impending deaths. It's as if we are all on the same roller coaster, chugging slowly up toward the tallest hill. At the crest is death, and every one of us will eventually make it to that crest. Culture in this metaphor is a set of giant televisions on each side of the coaster tracks, which some people choose to watch rather than look up toward the top of the hill and consider what's beyond the hill.

But although some allow themselves to be distracted, we are all unconsciously fully aware of our finite time here on Earth. In Becker's opinion, this causes feelings of anxiety and woe and is expressed through aggressive acts like invasions and wars.

Becker's field of study -- referred to as the psychology of death -- does suggest a worst way to die. Since culture has the potential to distract us from confronting death, it can lead us to waste our lives. The worst type of death, according to Becker's theory, would be one that followed an insignificant life.

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Drugs create 'marathon mice' who can run for more than two hours

Researchers found that giving the animals certain drugs could trigger an endurance gene, allowing them to run for longer.

On average mice can normally run for only around 90 minutes and 900 metres before becoming exhausted.

But scientists found that giving the mice one of two experimental drugs, neither commercially available, could significantly increase their endurance.

Four years ago researchers bred genetically engineered mice that could run much further than normal, but this is the first test to prove that drugs can have the same effect.

One of the drugs lengthened the amount of time the mice could run by 44 per cent, allowing them to keep going for more than two hours.

"It's tricking the muscle into 'believing' it's been exercised daily," Dr Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute in California, who carried out the study, said.

"It's basically the couch potato experiment, and it proves you can have a pharmacologic equivalent to exercise."

The second drug had to be used in conjunction with exercise to have any effect, the research found, but improved the animal's running distance by 70 per cent and their endurance levels by 77 per cent after four weeks.

Both drugs, were able to affect parts of the muscles which usually only respond to exercise, the findings, published in the journal Cell, show.

But instead of building muscles, like steroids do, the drugs appeared to "reprogram" the slow-twitch fibres within the muscle, needed for endurance, allowing them to work for longer without feeling tired.

Scientists believe that both drugs, neither of which are available commercially, could be used to treat muscle wasting conditions, such as muscular dystrophy.

"It is highly likely that these drugs could have similar effects in humans.

But, it is important to note that at this point these drugs are not approved for human use," Dr Vihang Narkar, one of the other scientists involved in the study said.

The scientists added that they were aware of the potential for the drugs to be used to boost athletes' performance and have developed a test capable of detecting the presence of both in blood and urine.

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Stinging tentacles offer hint of oceans' decline

A jellyfish in the Mediterranean near the island of Mallorca in July 2006.
(Dani Cardona/Reuters)
By Elisabeth Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain: Blue patrol boats crisscross the swimming areas of beaches here with their huge nets skimming the water's surface. The yellow flags that urge caution and the red flags that prohibit swimming because of risky currents are sometimes topped now with blue ones warning of a new danger: swarms of jellyfish.

In a period of hours during a day a couple of weeks ago, 300 people on Barcelona's bustling beaches were treated for stings, and 11 were taken to hospitals.

From Spain to New York, to Australia, Japan and Hawaii, jellyfish are becoming more numerous and more widespread, and they are showing up in places where they have rarely been seen before, scientists say. The faceless marauders are stinging children blithely bathing on summer vacations, forcing beaches to close and clogging fishing nets.

But while jellyfish invasions are a nuisance to tourists and a hardship to fishermen, for scientists they are a source of more profound alarm, a signal of the declining health of the world's oceans.

"These jellyfish near shore are a message the sea is sending us saying, 'Look how badly you are treating me,' " said Dr. Josep-María Gili, a leading jellyfish expert, who has studied them at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona for more than 20 years.

The explosion of jellyfish populations, scientists say, reflects a combination of severe overfishing of natural predators, like tuna, sharks and swordfish; rising sea temperatures caused in part by global warming; and pollution that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows.

These problems are pronounced in the Mediterranean, a sea bounded by more than a dozen countries that rely on it for business and pleasure. Left unchecked in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, these problems could make the swarms of jellyfish menacing coastlines a grim vision of seas to come.

"The problem on the beach is a social problem," said Dr. Gili, who talks with admiration of the "beauty" of the globular jellyfish. "We need to take care of it for our tourism industry. But the big problem is not on the beach. It's what's happening in the seas."

Jellyfish, relatives of the sea anemone and coral that for the most part are relatively harmless, in fact are the cockroaches of the open waters, the ultimate maritime survivors who thrive in damaged environments, and that is what they are doing.

Within the past year, there have been beach closings because of jellyfish swarms on the Côte d'Azur in France, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and at Waikiki and Virginia Beach in the United States.

In Australia, more than 30,000 people were treated for stings last year, double the number in 2005. The rare but deadly Irukandji jellyfish is expanding its range in Australia's warming waters, marine scientists say.

While no good global database exists on jellyfish populations, the increasing reports from around the world have convinced scientists that the trend is real, serious and climate-related, although they caution that jellyfish populations in any one place undergo year-to-year variation.

"Human-caused stresses, including global warming and overfishing, are encouraging jellyfish surpluses in many tourist destinations and productive fisheries," according to the National Science Foundation, which is issuing a report on the phenomenon this fall and lists as problem areas Australia, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, the Black Sea, Namibia, Britain, the Mediterranean, the Sea of Japan and the Yangtze estuary.

In Barcelona, one of Spain's most vibrant tourist destinations, city officials and the Catalan Water Agency have started fighting back, trying desperately to ensure that it is safe for swimmers to go back in the water.

Each morning, with the help of Dr. Gili's team, boats monitor offshore jellyfish swarms, winds and currents to see if beaches are threatened and if closings are needed. They also check if jellyfish collection in the waters near the beaches is needed. Nearly 100 boats stand ready to help in an emergency, said Xavier Duran of the water agency. The constant squeal of Dr. Gili's cellphone reflected his de facto role as Spain's jellyfish control and command center. Calls came from all over.

Officials in Santander and the Basque country were concerned about frequent sightings this year on the Atlantic coast of the Portuguese man-of-war, a sometimes lethal warm-water species not previously seen regularly in those regions.

Farther south, a fishing boat from the Murcia region called to report an off-shore swarm of Pelagia noctiluca — an iridescent purplish jellyfish that issues a nasty sting — more than a mile long. A chef, presumably trying to find some advantage in the declining oceans, wanted to know if the local species were safe to eat if cooked. Much is unknown about the jellyfish, and Dr. Gili was unsure.

In previous decades there were jellyfish problems for only a couple of days every few years; now the threat of jellyfish is a daily headache for local officials and is featured on the evening news. "In the past few years the dynamic has changed completely — the temperature is a little warmer," Dr. Gili said.

Though the stuff of horror B- movies, jellyfish are hardly aggressors. They float haplessly with the currents. They discharge their venom automatically when they bump into something warm — a human body, for example — from poison-containing stingers on mantles, arms or long, threadlike tendrils, which can grow to be yards long.

Some, like the Portuguese man-of-war or the giant box jellyfish, can be deadly on contact. Pelagia noctiluca, common in the Mediterranean, delivers a painful sting producing a wound that lasts weeks, months or years, depending on the person and the amount of contact.

In the Mediterranean, overfishing of both large and small fish has left jellyfish with little competition for plankton, their food, and fewer predators. Unlike in Asia, where some jellyfish are eaten by people, here they have no economic or epicurean value.

The warmer seas and drier climate caused by global warming work to the jellyfish's advantage, since nearly all jellyfish breed better and faster in warmer waters, according to Dr. Jennifer Purcell, a jellyfish expert at the Shannon Point Marine Center of Western Washington University.

Global warming has also reduced rainfall in temperate zones, researchers say, allowing the jellyfish to better approach the beaches. Rain runoff from land would normally slightly decrease the salinity of coastal waters, "creating a natural barrier that keeps the jellies from the coast," Dr. Gili said.

Then there is pollution, which reduces oxygen levels and visibility in coastal waters. While other fish die in or avoid waters with low oxygen levels, many jellyfish can thrive in them. And while most fish have to see to catch their food, jellyfish, which filter food passively from the water, can dine in total darkness, according to Dr. Purcell's research.

Residents in Barcelona have forged a prickly coexistence with their new neighbors.

Last month, Mirela Gómez, 8, ran out of the water crying with her first jellyfish sting, clutching a leg that had suddenly become painful and itchy. Her grandparents rushed her to a nearby Red Cross stand. "I'm a little afraid to go back in the water," she said, displaying a row of angry red welts on her shin.

Francisco Antonio Padrós, a 77-year-old fisherman, swore mightily as he unloaded his catch one morning last weekend, pulling off dozens of jellyfish clinging to his nets and tossing them onto a dock. Removing a few shrimp, he said his nets were often "filled with more jellyfish than fish."

By the end of the exercise his calloused hands were bright red and swollen to twice their normal size. "Right now I can't tell if I have hands or not — they hurt, they're numb, they itch," he said.

Dr. Santiago Nogué, head of the toxicology unit at the largest hospital here, said that although 90 percent of stings healed in a week or two, many people's still hurt and itched for months. He said he was now seeing 20 patients a year whose symptoms did not respond to any treatment at all, sometimes requiring surgery to remove the affected area.

The sea, however, has long been central to life in Barcelona, and that is unlikely to change. Recently when the beaches were closed, children on a breakwater collected jellyfish in a bucket. The next day, Antonio López, a diver, emerged from the water. "There are more every year — we saw hundreds offshore Tuesday," he said. "You just have to learn how to handle the stings."

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New Lighting Technology Offers Alternative To CFLs and LEDs

Energy Boom in West Threatens Indian Artifacts

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Areas like the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area have become vulnerable to exploitation.


DOLORES, Colo. — The dusty documentation of the Anasazi Indians a thousand years ago, from their pit houses and kivas to the observatories from which they charted the heavens, lies thick in the ground near here at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Or so archaeologists believe. Less than a fifth of the park has been surveyed for artifacts because of limited federal money.

Much more definite is that a giant new project to drill for carbon dioxide is gathering steam on the park’s eastern flank. Miles of green pipe snake along the roadways, as trucks ply the dirt roads from a big gas compressor station. About 80 percent of the monument’s 164,000 acres is leased for energy development.

The consequences of energy exploration for wildlife and air quality have long been contentious in unspoiled corners of the West. But now with the urgent push for even more energy, there are new worries that history and prehistory — much of it still unexplored or unknown — could be lost.

At Nine Mile Canyon in central Utah, truck exhaust on a road to the gas fields is posing a threat, environmentalists and Indian tribes say, to 2,000 years of rock art and imagery. In Montana, a coal-fired power plant has been proposed near Great Falls on one of the last wild sections of the Lewis and Clark trail. In New Mexico, a mining company has proposed reopening a uranium mine on Mount Taylor, a national forest site sacred to numerous Indian tribes.

“We’re caught in the middle between traditional culture and archaeological research and the valid existing rights of the oil and gas leaseholders,” said LouAnn Jacobson, an archaeologist by training and the manager of both the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Anasazi Heritage Center here in the four-corners area, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico touch.

Nationally, only about 20 percent of the 193-million-acre national forest system has been surveyed for historical or cultural content, according to a recent report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. At the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 261 million acres, including the monument here, the figure is only 3 percent.

Heightened awareness of the risk to historic sites has been fueled in part by the growing number of retirees like John Gwin who have flocked to retreats like Durango and Pagosa Springs in Colorado. Mr. Gwin, a burley former F.B.I. agent who has dedicated his retirement to the study and stewardship of the Anasazi landscape, said the region’s mix of ancient past and verdant nature was unmatched anywhere in his travels.

“I enjoy being out there, being quiet and appreciating the people who lived there 1,000 years ago — imagining what Chimney Rock meant to them,” said Mr. Gwin, who leads tours as an unpaid volunteer for the federal Forest Service at the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, about an hour east of here.

But population growth has also brought people who are not so reverent. Instances of vandalism and illegal raids for relics — as more footprints are found leading out into once-silent Indian mounds — have risen sharply in the last few years, though few offenders are caught.

Federal land managers, tribal leaders and archaeologists call it piling on. Energy companies build roads for access to their drill pads. But then expanding populations, many of them riding off-road vehicles, use those roads for exploration or exploitation. What was once remote becomes less so, and harder than ever to defend for future generations.

“Multiple use worked for a while, but now the uses are in the same place,” said Terry Morgart, a legal researcher for the Hopi tribe in Arizona. “You can’t have recreation, cultural resources, energy development and cell towers all on the same spot. I think the agencies are aware of these conflicts, but because they’re stuck with these archaic laws, they’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Indian leaders, who link modern tribal populations in the Southwest to the ancestral Anasazi, have mounted a campaign to stop the local exploration for carbon dioxide, which would be used to help rejuvenate old oil fields that are now stirring to life in Texas and elsewhere as oil prices soar.

“Fencing dozens of sites for the facilitation of energy development is not what we had in mind when we supported the designation of the monument,” said Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, in a letter in April to federal agencies.

The problems and pressures come as there is a new understanding of the ancient American culture, as well as new tools that land managers and energy companies say could help preserve fragile ancestral sites. A new perspective on how to think about the aboriginal past — not just as assemblages of stone but linkages of place and pilgrimage — is also reshaping how energy and history might coexist.

The Bureau of Land Management, for example, in working out drilling plans at Canyons of the Ancients, is considering using mitigation money — the dollars drillers must post to ensure they have cleaned up after themselves — toward financing volunteer efforts to police the backcountry.

“They are part of the eyes and ears on the ground,” said Ms. Jacobson, the monument manager, referring to the volunteers.

The Forest Service is considering a similar idea at Chimney Rock. Using energy mitigation money to support volunteer programs for policing and preventing vandalism, Forest Service officials said, could help extend the agency’s budgets, which are being sapped by rising costs in other areas, especially fire protection.

“We need help either from volunteer groups or law enforcement,” said Walt Brown, a geologist at the Forest Service, “and to have the companies fund those kinds of efforts might help. It’s about ensuring that what we say is going to happen in here gets done.”

A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents drilling companies, described helping defend historical sites as good for business, especially if financing volunteers created more contact and understanding between local residents and energy explorers.

“These good-neighbor policies are fully supported by industry,” said Jeff Eshelman, a vice president at the petroleum association, which is based in Washington.

Mr. Eshelman said that higher energy prices, in addition to making some formerly uneconomical areas desirable for drilling in the four-corners region, were allowing for more expensive technologies that could help protect surface areas. One of those technologies is horizontal drilling, in which boreholes snake out underground from a single drill pad.

New research into how archaeological sites were used by the ancient tribes is also leading to new thinking about the broader impacts of drilling. The Forest Service, for example, using research at Chimney Rock that suggests the place was chosen by the Anasazi at least partly for its vantage point of the San Juan Mountains and river valley below, recently decided that a big natural gas drilling project just a mile or so away must not be visible from the rock.

The hard truth, though, is that federal land managers are strapped by budgets that do not lavish much on cultural study or preservation, and that those budgets are getting tighter. For the 600,000-acre national forest region that includes Chimney Rock, for example, there is one cultural resource officer, and the position is currently vacant.

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How a Random Guy Trumped the Greatest Minds from China and the USA on Climate Change

Britain to Phase Out Incandescents

The British Government plans to carry out a bright idea of the next two years. To phase out traditional light bulbs.

They hope to stop selling 100 watt bulbs by January 2009, and 40 watt bulbs by 2010.

Tony Blair signed up to EU plans that signaled death across Europe for traditional style bulbs earlier this year.

Britain hopes to phase out the traditional bulb in favor of CFLs as quickly and as smoothly as possible.

If every British household replaced three 60 or 100 watt light bulbs with CFLs, the energy savings would be greater than the power used by the country's entire street lighting network.

How is that for motivation?

However, consumers might not be willing to fork over the money needed to buy the more expensive CFLs.

Hilary Benn, the Environmental Secretary hopes to work on energy wasting televisions next. He hopes that manufacturers will cooperate. He is also looking to set higher goals than Britain's current ones to reduce emissions, recycle, and compost.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: "Almost all of the retailers involved have already committed to removing these bulbs ahead of 2011 after a campaign by Greenpeace." He also believes that the government needs to have stricter standards, in order to encourage the more involuntary use of the CFLs.

"For every year of delay in getting rid of these bulbs, five million tonnes of C02 are emitted into the atmosphere, unnecessarily."

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Is Storing Carbon Dioxide Under the Ocean a Viable Strategy for Combating Global Warming?

Solar Energy, All Night Long

MIT professor Daniel G. Nocera has long been jealous of plants. He desperately wanted to do what they do--split water into hydrogen and oxygen and use the products to do work. That, he figures, is the only way we humans can solve our energy problems; enough energy pours down from the sun in one hour to power the planet's energy needs for a year.

In January, only a month after reevaluating his methodology in the face of a frustratingly slow process, he finally found a way. "For six months now I've been looking at the leaves and saying 'I own you guys!'"

Nocera's discovery--a cheap and easy way to store energy that he thinks will be used to change solar power into a mainstream energy source--will be published in the journal Science on Friday. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited--and soon."

Plants catch light and turn it into an electric current, then use that energy to excite catalysts that split water into hydrogen and oxygen during what is called photosynthesis' light cycle. The energy is then used during the dark cycle to allow the plant to build sugars used for growth and energy storage.

Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, focused on the water-splitting part of photosynthesis. They found cheap and simple catalysts that did a remarkably good job. They dissolved cobalt and phosphate in water and then zapped it with electricity through an electrode. The cobalt and phosphate form a thin-film catalyst around the electrode that then use electrons from the electrode to split the oxygen from water. The oxygen bubbles to the surface, leaving a proton behind.

A few inches away, another catalyst, platinum, helps that bare proton become hydrogen. (This second reaction is a well-known one, and not part of Nocera and Kanan's study.)

The hydrogen and oxygen, separated and on-hand, can be used to power a fuel cell whenever energy is needed.

"Once you put a photovoltaic on it," he says, "you've got an inorganic leaf."

James Barber, a biochemistry professor at Imperial College London who studies artificial photosynthesis but was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," he said. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated."

Nocera's discovery arose from frustration. Disappointed with the pace of his lab's progress, Nocera and his team decided in December to question some of the basic assumptions they had made in setting up earlier experiments.

Chemists, it turns out, are always worrying about the stability of their catalysts and end up doing backflips to try to synthesize materials that won't corrode. Photosynthesis, though, is so violently reactive that the catalysts involved break down every 30 minutes. The leaf has to constantly rebuild them. Maybe, thought Nocera, instead of fighting corrosion, he should work with it. "It's a bias a lot of scientists have. We want something to be structurally stable. But all it has to be is functionally stable."

This thinking led Nocera to try his cobalt-phosphate mixture. He knew it wouldn't hold together, but he thought it might still work. Sure enough, Nocera's catalyst breaks down whenever the electricity is cut, but it assembles itself again when electricity is reapplied.

Nocera's discovery is still a science experiment. It needs plenty of engineering before it can be a useful device. The cobalt and phosphate at the center of Nocera's work is cheap and plentiful, but the hydrogen reaction uses platinum, which is rare and expensive. The electrode needs to be improved so the oxygen-making process can speed up. And the system needs to be integrated into some kind of electricity-producing device, ideally powered by solar or wind on one end and a fuel cell on the other.

But splitting the oxygen away from the water was the hard part, and Nocera has done it. "Now we can start thinking about a totally distributed solar [photovoltaic] system," he said. "We couldn't have a solar economy unless it could produce energy 24/7. Now we can."

His hope is that because unlike traditional electrolysis devices, which are expensive and require toxic alkaline solutions, his system is so cheap, simple and benign that scientists and engineers around the world will be able to improve it quickly.

For his part, Nocera says he will work to understand and improve both sides of his new discovery. His lab will try to learn every detail about just how his catalyst is making the oxygen. And he is going to work with his engineering colleagues at MIT to try to integrate his storage device into systems that he hopes one day will power homes and cars all day and all night.

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Algal Fuel One Step Closer To Becoming A Conventional Oil Alternative

As Bush Fights for Big Oil, Exxon Mobil Puts Profits at $1,485 a Second

- Miles Grant, National Wildlife Federation, 703-864-9599 (cell),

WASHINGTON, DC (July 31, 2008) – ExxonMobil reported second-quarter earnings of $11.68 billion today, the largest quarterly profit ever by any American corporation. On May 29, reported Exxon Mobil plans to invest just $10 million this year in renewable energy.

Additionally, on July 22 the Associated Press reported, “The five biggest international oil companies plowed about 55 percent of the cash they made from their businesses into stock buybacks and dividends last year, up from 30 percent in 2000 and just 1 percent in 1993, according to Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.”

Adam Kolton, the National Wildlife Federation's senior director of congressional and federal affairs, said today:

“Just one day after President Bush renewed his demand for Congress to turn over more of America’s natural resources to Big Oil, Exxon Mobil reports the largest quarterly profit in America’s history, an amazing $1,485.55 per second. Let there be no mistake where that profit came from – the pockets of American drivers, the victims of a vicious circle. Our government gives America’s public lands and waters to Big Oil. Big Oil extracts the oil and consumers are forced to buy it because they have no other choice of alternative technologies or fuels – it’s buy what Big Oil is selling or walk to work. Big Oil takes that money and invests that money not in cheaper, cleaner renewable energy, but in stock buybacks and dividends.

“Now President Bush wants to start the circle again, asking Big Oil to bail us out of our energy crisis. If you’re trying to quit smoking, you don’t ask the Marlboro Man for help, and if you’re serious about quitting your oil addiction, you don’t ask Big Oil for help.

“Don't be fooled by the big lie. We can’t drill and burn our way out of our energy crisis. It’s failed Americans again and again while delivering record profits for oil companies. We need clean energy solutions to break America’s addiction to oil, give consumers real energy choices, recharge our economy and help solve global warming.”

Learn more about the real solutions that would cut our energy costs and ease our addiction to fossil fuels in the National Wildlife Federation's "Don't be Fooled" fact sheet:

The National Wildlife Federation is America's largest conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

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Fungus Could Save Ethanol Plants $800 M

Written by Jaymi Heimbuch

It’s quite a week for biofuel breakthroughs and news. Iowa State University research has revealed a way to reduce the energy and water use required to produce corn ethanol, saving ethanol plants a possible collective $800 million a year in energy costs and as much as 10 billion gallons of water a year. And it’s all based on a fungus, and recycling.

The new breakthrough is aimed at the dry-grind part of the ethanol production process. Basically, corn kernels are ground up, water and enzymes are added, starches are turned into sugars, and sugars are fermented to produce ethanol. The ethanol is recovered with distillation. At the end of the ethanol distillation process, there is a liquid left over – about 6 gallons for every 1 gallon of ethanol. Only about half of the leftover liquid can be recycled, and the process to remove solids and organic materials in it is expensive. When the fungus Rhizopus microsporus is added to the liquid and allowed to flourish, it makes possible as much as 80% of the organic matter and solids in the sillage to be removed, and the liquid leftover can then be recycled into the production process.

The fungus has another useful element – it can be eaten. Ethanol plants can harvest the protein- and nutrient-rich fungus and sell it as a livestock food supplement.

Implementing the new technology would cost an ethanol plant that produces 100 million gallons a year about $11 million – kind of a lot for ethanol plants right now, but still do-able. And, researchers say that investment could be paid back in as little as six months, thanks to the energy savings. The process is still waiting for a patent, and investors to help the project prove that the process can work on a commercial scale, so all this is still iffy. But iffy it works, then ethanol plants could have a new way to reduce overall costs and environmental impact on production.

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