Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Perfect return flight for Proton

Proton (Inmarsat)
The Proton launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome

A Russian Proton Breeze M rocket has successfully launched one of the biggest commercial satellites ever built - the Inmarsat-4 (I4-F3).

The telecommunications spacecraft was released by the Proton at 0746 GMT, after a flight of more than nine hours.

It was the rocket's first outing since an upper-stage failure in March left a US coms platform at a useless altitude.

The I4-F3, operated by the UK-based Inmarsat company, will complete the firm's satellite broadband network.

The latest spacecraft joins two others of the same design that are already in orbit. The new satellite will be positioned over the Americas at 98 degrees West to give Inmarsat global coverage.

The company's network delivers high-speed (up to half a megabit) mobile internet and phone services to users on land, at sea and in the air.

The I4s are immense. The main body is 7m high and incorporates a 9m-wide antenna reflector that is unfurled in space like a fan.

"Each is almost the size of a double-decker bus, weighs six tonnes, and has a solar wingspan the length of a football pitch," said Andrew Sukawaty, CEO and chairman of Inmarsat.

I4 (Astrium)
It will take about a month to get the I4-F3 ready for service

"Each I4 is 60 times more powerful and has 16 times the capacity of an Inmarsat-3 satellite."

The Proton Breeze M, operated by International Launch Services, left the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2243 GMT, Monday.

The 58m-high, 700-tonne vehicle was making its return to flight after stranding the US AMC-14 satellite well below its intended operational orbit.

A review board determined that a pipe rupture in the Breeze M upper-stage caused the booster to shut down early, and the rocket's manufacturer - the Khrunichev Space Centre - was ordered to make modifications.

Protons have been launching commercial satellites since 1996, but they have a much deeper governmental heritage going back to the 1960s.

The vehicles have despatched science missions to the planets. They have also launched key components of the Soviet-era Mir space station and the International Space Station.

Although the Proton can be regarded as one of the most successful heavy boosters in history, the March failure was the third in three years and a successful outing for the Inmarsat satellite was deemed absolutely essential to maintain market confidence in the rocket.

I4 (Astrium)
The I4 is one of the biggest commercial platforms in operation today
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India has Big Plans for Lunar Exploration

India will send their first mission to the Moon in September. Chandrayaan-1 has been built and will be launched from Indian soil and sent on a mission to study the lunar surface. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will use its highly successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to get the lunar probe into space. This is an impressive mission for a small space agency, making huge strides in the exploration of space…

It seems like everybody is doing it these days. First, Russia did it (in 1959) by landing a probe on the lunar surface and taking pictures of the far side of the Moon. Then the Soviets put the first artificial lunar satellite into orbit in 1966. Not to be out done, President Kennedy had already begun the US quest to get man on the Moon, and in 1969 the superpower achieved that goal. For a long time it was only the two competitors in the Space Race who had visited the Moon, but in 1990, Japan joined the "Lunar Club" (with the Hiten spacecraft). Then in 1997 Hong Kong (China) succeeded in two flybys (HGS-1, a commercial satellite). Eventually, in 2006, the European SMART-1 space vehicle made it into lunar orbit. But since then, it's been China (with the Chang'e program) and Japan (with SELENE, or "Kaguya") who have been most active around the natural satellite.

And now there is a new kid on the block: India. One of the most populous nations in the world is pushing ahead with its own aspirations for lunar exploration. Although comparatively small, the Indian space agency ISRO was established in 1972 to develop space-based technologies in the aim of enriching the nation's economy. Until the early 1990's, India had to rely on Russia to launch payloads into space, but 1994 saw the first successful launch of the powerful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), lifting domestic and commercial satellites into orbit. Now the PSLV will launch India's most valuable payload yet, the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter and impactor. It is scheduled for launch on September 19th.

In a speech on India's 61st Independence Day from the historic Red Fort in Delhi, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Chandrayaan-1 mission "an important milestone" for the nation. However, although a date has been set for launch, some of the text seemed a little uncertain. "This year we hope to send an Indian spacecraft, Chandrayan, to the moon. It will be an important milestone in the development of our space programme," Singh said. Whether the "we hope" was accidental or whether the launch date is only tentative remains to be seen.

Regardless, the mission appears to be good to go, obviously a huge boost to national pride. "I want to see a modern India, imbued by a scientific temper, where the benefits of modern knowledge flow to all sections of society," he continued.

A Blueprint to Regenerate Limbs

Probing the salamander genome reveals clues to its remarkable ability to regrow damaged limbs and organs.

In its own way, the axolotl salamander is a mighty beast. Chop off its leg, and the gilled creature will grow a new one. Freeze part of its heart, and the organ will form anew. Carve out half of its brain, and six months later, another half will have sprouted in its place. "You can do anything to it except kill it, and it will regenerate," says Gerald Pao, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, CA.

That extraordinary power of regeneration inspired Pao to probe the axolotl salamander's DNA. Despite decades of research on the salamander, little is known about its genome. That began to change last year, when Pao and his collaborators won one billion bases' worth of free sequencing from Roche Applied Science, based in Indianapolis. Now that the data is in, scientists can finally begin the hunt for the genetic program that endows the animal with its unique capabilities.

While all animals can regenerate tissue to a certain extent--we can grow muscle, bone, and nerves, for example--salamanders and newts are the only vertebrates that can grow entire organs and replacement limbs as adults. When a leg is lost to injury, cells near the wound begin to dedifferentiate, losing the specialized characteristics that made them a muscle cell or bone cell. These cells then replicate and form a limb bud, or blastema, which goes on to grow a limb the same way that it forms during normal development.

Scientists have identified some of the molecular signals that play a key role in the process, but the genetic blueprint that underlies regeneration remains unknown. Researchers hope that by uncovering these molecular tricks, they can ultimately apply them to humans to regrow damaged heart or brain tissue, and maybe even grow new limbs.

In order to quickly identify sections of the salamander's genome involved in regeneration, the scientists sequenced genes that were most highly expressed during limb-bud formation and growth. They found that at least 10,000 genes were transcribed during regeneration. Approximately 9,000 of those seem to have related human versions, but there appear to be a few thousand more that don't resemble known genes. "We think many of them are genes that evolved uniquely in salamanders to help with this process," says Randal Voss, a biologist at the University of Kentucky, who is working on the project.

The researchers now plan to make a gene chip designed to detect levels of some of these candidate genes, so that the scientists can determine at exactly what point during the regeneration process the genes are turned on. The team is also developing molecular tools that allow them to silence specific genes, which will enable them to pinpoint those that are crucial for proper regrowth.

Scientists also sequenced random chunks of the salamander genome. At about 30 billion bases and 10 times the size of the human genome, it is one of the largest among vertebrates. Most scientists expected that the extra DNA would be made up of junk DNA, long stretches of bases between genes. But initial findings were surprising. "Genes are on average 5 to 10 times larger than those in other vertebrates," says Voss. "The region of the genome containing genes is estimated to be more than two gigabases, which is as big as some entire genomes."

The extra DNA sequences sit within genes and are cut out during the translation from gene to protein. Much of this DNA comprises repetitive sequences not found in any other organisms to date, says Pao. However, it's not yet clear whether these repetitive stretches help facilitate regeneration or play some other role in the salamander's life cycle.

One of the key questions yet to be answered is whether the salamander has unique genetic properties that enable regeneration, or whether all animals have that innate capability. "If we come up with some totally unique gene only present in axolotl, that would make it really hard to replicate," says David Gardiner, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, who is also collaborating on the project. He prefers to think that regeneration comes from a fundamental abilitylying dormant in mammals, which could be reawakened with some simple genetic prodding."Most of the tissue in our arm regenerates; it's just the arm that doesn't regenerate," he says. "What's missing is how you coordinate a response to get an integrated structure."

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Why short women with long legs are the most attractive

Women who shape up to the ideal include the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Racquel Welsh and Marilyn Monroe.

Scarlett Johansson [left] and Michael Phelps
Ideal shapes: Scarlett Johansson and Michael Phelps

"We found that shorter, slimmer females with long slender legs, a curvy figure and larger breasts are more attractive," said lead researcher Dr William Brown of Brunel University.

Conversely tall men with broad shoulders and relatively short legs in comparison to the length of their upper body are the most attractive to women, say the researchers.

Examples include the record-breaking Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who is 6' 4 ins and yet is said to benefit from having relatively short legs in comparison to the length of his powerful upper body, as well as the British actors Christian Bale and Clive Owen.

Scientists report today that symmetry is important to attractiveness in the body as well as the face, as had previously been shown.

But the new work shows that we do not detect symmetry directly but by looking for a much more obvious turn on, dubbed "body masculinity," a composite measure of greater height, wider shoulders, smaller breasts, and stouter legs of the kind that propelled Mr Phelps to eight golds.

The pioneering research project used highly accurate three dimensional scans of body shape for the first time.

Dr Brown and colleagues used a 3D optical scanner to create a detailed image of the body shape of 77 people, half male, then asked volunteers to assess how attractive the bodies of the opposite sex were, using a colour-neutral, computer-rendered form minus the head.

Both men and women found symmetrical bodies were more attractive than lopsided, asymmetric ones, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Through their research, Dr Brown and a team of scientists identified the key factor was body masculinity, a mathematical fusion of traits including wider shoulders, smaller breasts and shorter legs, though not of the Ronnie Corbett kind because they must be accompanied by a tall body.

The volunteers rated men with high body masculinity most attractive, while evenly proportioned women with low body masculinity were deemed the most beautiful. They were also the most symmetrical too.

Dr. Brown explains: "It is widely believed that human beings are attracted to one another as a result of their prospect as a mate who will yield higher quality offspring for the chooser."

Although much work has shown symmetry is a signal of good genes, and thus a desirable reproductive partner, Dr Brown's work found that symmetry is not in the eye of the beholder and that there are more obvious signals of what is good looking and what is not.

In earlier work, Dr Brown found that good dancers tend to have more symmetrical bodies. Now he has found that body masculinity signals a symmetrical male, while low body masculinity, an hourglass figure with long legs, signal a symmetrical female. "Larger breasts are quite conspicuous and this is what males are attending to, rather than symmetry."

"Because bodily asymmetries are too subtle to be seen with the naked eye, evolution has instead engineered more conspicuous signals and displays, such as broad shoulders, curvy waist lines or smooth dance moves to indicate mate quality."

Previous studies of this kind relied on callipers to measure body shape, which are prone to human error and can only measure up to a maximum of nine inches, thus missing important 3D aspects of size and shape.

Instead, the study used Brunel's high-tech 3D body scanner to accurately measure human body proportions. Co-author, Dr Jinsheng Kang says: "The 3D body scanner accurately extracts hundreds of measurements of the human body, including volume, in six seconds and removes a potential source of measurement error."

In his next study, Dr Brown plans to probe how attractively tall men with short legs are able to dance.

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Women spend 3,276 hours getting ready

The time women spend putting on make up and getting dressed works out at 3,276 hours over their lifetimes while men only devote 1,092 hours to looking their best.

A survey of 1,000 women also showed that 67 per cent thought that the time spent getting ready was actually a chore.

Only a third of women said they enjoyed preening themselves.

They spend about half an hour washing and styling their hair followed by 20 minutes applying make-up and 15 minutes applying nail varnish.

And there is evidence of a north south divide. Two thirds of northern women spend an average of 146 minutes getting ready compared with southerners who take 117 minutes to pamper themselves.

Women in the north also like to go out more with 71 per cent saying they go out twice on a weekend compared with 49 per cent in the south.

Heather Boden from Skinbliss, who commissioned the research, said: "The figures come as no surprise considering the pressure that today's women are under just to make themselves look good.

"There's a host of waxing, exfoliating, moisturising, straightening, polishing and plucking involved in getting ready for a night out. When you're stretched for time or just simply want to get out, see your friends and have a good time, the routine of getting ready can often be an unwanted task."

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Suzuki’s Cars Will Run On 100% Ethanol in US, Brazil by 2010

Shipping pollution 'may cause 60,000 deaths a year'

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

Sea air in coastal cities, renowned for being bracing and healthy, is instead being heavily polluted by dirty smoke from ships a study has found.

Scientists have found ships are contributing far more polluting tiny sulphur rich particles than had previously been thought.

Container ship in port: emissions have a major impact on air quality in coastal cities the study found
Container ship in port: emissions have a major impact on air
quality in coastal cities the study found

The tiny particles travel large distances and can become lodged in the lungs, posing a serious health hazard.

Previous studies have shown ship smoke may be responsible for as many as 60,000 deaths worldwide, according to an earlier study conducted at the University of Delaware.

"This is the first study that shows the contribution of ships to fine particulates in the atmosphere," said Prof Mark Thiemens, who headed the research team at the University of California, San Diego.

"Ships are really unregulated when it comes to air pollution standards. What we wanted to find out was the contribution of ships to the air pollution in San Diego.

"And what we found was a surprise, because no one expected that the contribution from ships of solid sulphur-rich particles called primary sulphate would be so high."

Primary sulphate, or SO4, is produced when ships burn a cheap, sulphur-rich fuel called "bunker oil."

The scientists say, these primary sulphate particulates are particularly harmful because they are especially fine, less than 1.5 microns or millionth of a metre in size.

As a result, they can travel extremely long distances because they stay in the atmosphere for longer periods and, unlike bigger dust grains and particles that are removed by the body when breathed, remain in the lungs.

Using a chemical fingerprinting technique to sample air at the end of the pier at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, the scientists found that the smoke from ships contributed as much as 44 per cent of the sulphate found in fine particulate matter in the atmosphere of coastal California.

On the days when the proportion of ship sulphate approached one-half of the fine particulate matter, the scientists determined from wind direction and speed calculations that ships burning high sulphur fuel in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego ports were a major influence.

"Our results suggest that this component of ship emissions is important and should not be ignored in the future," said Dr Gerardo Dominguez, first author.

In another study in the same journal, a team warms that the future impact of global warming is even worse than predicted when the grazing animals are taken into account.

The impact of global warming in the Arctic was studied by Penn State biologists, Dr Eric Post and Christian Pederson, to show that grazing animals will play a key role in reducing the anticipated expansion of shrub growth, thus limiting their predicted and beneficial carbon-absorbing effect.

While Dr Post and Pederson agree that global warming will promote the growth of shrubs, they argue that grazing by muskoxen and caribou will reduce the carbon-mitigating benefit of the plants, based on the findings of a novel five-year experiment in West Greenland in which they compared the effects of grazing in plots treated with increased temperatures versus those left untreated.

"We need to be aware that the 'carbon dioxide sponge' - represented especially by shrubs and trees - may not be as big as we thought it was," said Dr Post. "This finding is yet another reason to think carefully about reducing carbon-dioxide emissions."

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Carbon Farming Being Tested As a Way to Store CO2 in Soil

The Earth Will Be Just Fine, Thank You

The grand myth of environmentalism is that it’s all about saving the Earth.

It’s not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving ourselves.

That may seem a bit counter-intuitive; after all, the Earth is certainly central to the rhetoric, the memetic of environmentalism. Most environmental discussions focus on ecological dynamics, with references to human beings typically limited to enumerations of the various insults we’ve visited upon the planet. Given the degree of culpability we bear for the current state of the planet, this is entirely appropriate.

But the rhetorical focus of environmentalism on the planet obscures the fact that what human beings have done to the Earth pales in comparison to past disasters hitting our world, from massive asteroid strikes to super-volcano eruptions killing off 90+% of the Earth’s species. And in every case, the Earth has recovered, and life has once again flourished.

We sometimes make the conceptual mistake of thinking that the way the Earth’s ecosystem is today is the way it will forever be, that we’ve somehow reached an ecological end-state. But even in an eco-conscious world, or one devoid of humans entirely, natural processes from evolution to geophysical and solar cycles would continue. The Earth’s been at this for a long time, literally billions of years; from a planetary perspective, a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon lasting 10,000 years (for example) is little more than a passing blip.

The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere or how many toxins we dump into the soil and oceans, given enough time the Earth — and its ecological systems — will recover.

But human civilization is far more fragile.

Human civilization could not withstand and recover from the same kinds of assaults the planet itself has shrugged off in eons past. We remain entirely dependent upon myriad Earth services and systems, from topsoil and clean water to carbon cycles and biodiversity. Activities that undermine those critical services and systems quite literally threaten the survival of human civilization. The fundamental resilience of the Earth’s geophysical systems simply means that, when we ignore our effects on the planet, we’re simply making ourselves disposable, just another passing blip in the planet’s long history.

In trying to minimize the harmful impacts of human activities upon the global ecosystem, environmentalism supports the continued healthy existence of humankind.

To me, this too is entirely appropriate. Despite its many flaws, I’m a big fan of human civilization. I marvel at our capacity to organize matter and information, at our ability to learn from mistakes and pass that learning down to subsequent generations. Civilization — writing, cities, trade, the whole lot of it — makes us unique on this planet and, as far as we can tell so far, in our part of the universe. Destroying that through malice or negligence is the worst form of crime, and the height of tragedy.

Part of a focus upon civilization, however, is the recognition that we do not exist in isolation, that we are dependent upon an enormous variety of complex systems. As a result, our continued existence requires the continued success of those systems. In order to save ourselves, we have to minimize actions which damage and disrupt the environment.

Like any social movement, environmentalists argue over tactics and goals, and some eco-activists will disagree with my characterization of the purpose of environmentalism. But the reality is that — at least with current technologies — there’s nothing that we can do to truly put the planetary biosphere at existential risk. It will recover from what we now do, albeit in a different form than today. But what we can do is so violate the integrity of the planet’s ecosystem that the Earth can no longer support us.

Critics of environmentalism often claim that eco-activists hate humans, that we value the Earth more than we value ourselves. With very few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth.
Environmentalism is fundamentally about making sure that human beings, and human civilization, can continue to thrive on our home planet for centuries, millennia to come. Environmentalism, in its demands for respect for nature, ultimately demands that we respect ourselves.

Photo by John McColgan of the Alaska Fire Service.

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The Most Polluted City on Earth


I work over at and I wanted to share this eye opening and disturbing environmental video on Linfen China.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are underway and hopefully the smog and pollution won't ruin the fun. We have all seen and heard the environmental stories in recent months about China's toxic drama and the drastic steps they have taken to have a blue sky over Beijing. With all the articles on Beijing, we wanted to see what environmental stories were being neglected outside that media circus. What's the real deal.

Did you ever wonder what one of China's most polluted city looks like? Well wonder no more., which recently sailed out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to investigate plastics in our oceans, went to China and descended upon the toxic town of Linfen. We viewed Linfen as an example of China's larger environmental impact on a global level. Linfen afterall is one of China's 16 cities that populate the Top 20 Global List of the world's worst polluted cities.

In Toxic Linfen, China we explore the nation's dependency on coal and the consequences of that on air and water pollution and the impact on the Chinese citizen. We also take a look at the health of Chinese nationalized coal industry and its ability to change. Finally we explore China's efforts on Beijing and then what the future holds. We have experts, locals, doctors and incredible visual evidence of a city you need to know about but don't ever want to go to.

It is 5 Parts and will be airing over the next two weeks. Part 1-4 are live now, the fifth goes up soon.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Thanks for watching!

– Rory

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Coastal Dead Zones Are Growing

The teal blue area illustrates a dead zone
The teal blue area illustrates a dead zon

Over the past two or three decades, scientists have noticed with growing alarm that vast stretches of coastal waters are turning into dead zones — patches of seabed so depleted of oxygen that few creatures, if any, can survive there. In 2004, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) took stock of the phenomenon — which is caused in large part by agricultural runoff — and pronounced it one of the biggest environmental problems of the 21st century. Two years later it noted that the number of identified dead zones, some of which cover thousands of square miles, had climbed from 150 to 200.

Predictably, things have gotten worse since then. Robert Diaz, an ecologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia who helped UNEP with its numbers, reports in the current issue of the journal Science that today there are more than 400 known dead zones along coastlines around the world, covering roughly 95,000 sq. mi. of seabed. Some of the dead zones that Diaz and his Swedish co-author identify in their review have been around for some time, but have only recently been studied. Many others appear to be new. About 8% of them, mainly those in the Baltic and North seas, persist throughout the year, says Diaz; half, including one the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico, form mainly seasonally, typically beginning in summer after the spring thaw and receding in the fall. Overall, the researchers found that the number of new dead zones has grown exponentially over the past four decades.

That's bad news for fish — and for the people who eat them. Much of the world's fish supply is already troubled due to overfishing, dying reefs and the disappearance of marshland, mangrove forests and other coastal environments that serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for many valuable species. Biologists haven't been able to figure out how much oxygen depletion alone contributes to the decline of teetering fisheries — the question is hotly debated in marine-science circles these days — but few experts would disagree that an increase in dead zones can only be a detriment.

Indeed, severe hypoxia, as scientists refer to the phenomenon, has been linked to the collapse of fisheries in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea (which has since recovered) and a lobster fishery in the Kattegat, a patch of the North Sea between Denmark and Sweden. Other headline examples exist as well, but, more often, hypoxic waters have a relatively subtle impact on fish. "Most of the effects of low oxygen on fish stocks are what we call 'sub-lethal,' " says Diaz. "It doesn't kill the fish but stresses them. It affects their growth, it reduces their reproductive output, and makes them more susceptible to disease."

Dead zones are created when excess nitrogen and other pollutants in ocean water promote large blooms of algae and phytoplankton on the surface. The nitrogen gets there in a couple of ways: through river water filled with fertilizer from farm runoff and from air polluted with tailpipe and smokestack emissions. When the algae die and sink to the ocean floor, bacteria there break them down, while consuming pretty much all of the available oxygen in the water. The bacteria also proliferate wildly, taking over the ecosystem and exacerbating the oxygen depletion. If conditions like strong currents, which are common in summer, prevent oxygen-rich water from the surface from mixing with lower layers, bottom-dwelling animals like lobsters, crabs and flounder in that area either flee or die. Relatively immobile animals such as oysters, clams and worms are particularly susceptible to annihilation. Such deaths take the bottom out of the marine food chain, helping to create sustained dead zones.

The best way to prevent this from happening would be to reduce the amount of nitrogen introduced into the ocean. The technology already exists to do that. If, for example, farmers in the upper part of the U.S. were given a financial incentive to plant crops like winter wheat, rather than leaving their fields fallow after the fall harvest, says marine ecologist Robert Howarth of Cornell University, much of the nitrogenous fertilizer that would normally get washed into waterways by spring thaws could instead be absorbed into winter grain crops. Measures of this sort, if uniformly implemented, could all but eliminate the Gulf of Mexico's famously ballooning dead zone.

Such changes to farm management aren't likely to be cheap or easy to implement. But, as Diaz's study suggests, the consequences of inaction might prove infinitely more expensive. "The oceans are vast and they cover most of the Earth's surface," notes Howarth. "But what people mostly care about in the oceans is largely in these coastal areas. That's where the most productive fisheries are, and where people recreate. And that's where people are overfishing, and where dead zones are developing."

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Most Chinese Say Pollution is a Big Problem and Should be Made a Top Priority