Monday, October 20, 2008

The Great Worldwide Star Count

Sn2_2 The Great Worldwide Star Count will help discover how much light pollution is in the night sky.
Students, families and citizen scientists around the world will gaze skyward after dark from Oct. 20 to Nov.3, 2008, looking for specific constellations and then sharing their observations through the Internet. Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Participants in the Northern Hemisphere will look for the constellation Cygnus (image), while those in the Southern Hemisphere will look for the constellation Sagittarius.

They will then match their observations with charts downloaded from the Great World Wide Star Count Web site. The site also contains instructions for finding the constellations, and other event details.

The event, which is open to everyone who wants to participate, is organized by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the country and abroad.

"By searching for the same constellations in their respective hemispheres, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place," said Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control light pollution in their communities and around the world.

"The star count brings families together to enjoy the night sky and become involved in science," says Dennis Ward of UCAR's Office of Education and Outreach. "It also raises awareness about the impact of artificial lighting on our ability to see the stars."

The 2007 star count drew 6,624 observations taken in all seven continents, and organizers expect the number of participants to double this year.

UCAR used last year's observations to generate maps of star visibility around the world.

Next year, the star count will be part of a "cornerstone project" of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, a global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union and the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote interest in astronomy.

Participants may make observations outside their homes or go to less-developed areas where more stars are visible.

Those in overcast areas who cannot see stars will be able to input data about cloud conditions instead. Bright outdoor lighting at night is a growing problem for astronomical observing programs around the world.

"Last year's results showed a strong correlation between dense development, where there is a lot of light, and a lack of star visibility," Ward says. "Without even being aware of it, many of us have lost the ability to see many stars at night. Part of our goal is getting people to look up and regain an appreciation of the night sky."

Posted by Jason McManus.

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Astronauts Could Mix DIY Concrete for Cheap Moon Base


A lunar base could be built from waterless concrete composed entirely of moon dust, according to US researchers.

lunar base
A lunar base could be built from waterless concrete composed entirely of moon dust, according to US researchers.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will next year scout out a good landing site ahead of the 2020 mission that will put US astronauts back on the moon.

A four-strong team will spend seven days on the lunar surface, but NASA hopes to eventually have long-term moon bases.

However, building permanent structures on the moon would be astronomically expensive, says Houssam Toutanji, a civil engineer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, US.

"It costs a tremendous amount of money to take even 1 kilogram of material to the moon," he says. "Depending on who you talk to, the cost could be $50,000 to $100,000."

Dry walling

Toutanji thinks those costs could be sidestepped by making concrete from moon dust, and moon dust alone.

Here on Earth, concrete is made from a pebbly aggregate bound together by water and cement. Lunar concrete could be made using plentiful moon dust as the aggregate, and binding it together using sulphur purified from lunar soil.

"You want the sulphur to be in a liquid or semi-liquid form to work as a binding agent," says Toutanji, which requires heating it to between 130 and 140 °C.

Once cooled, concrete made in that way quickly hardens like a rock. "Within an hour you get an ultimate-strength concrete," Toutanji says. "With normal concrete you have to wait seven days, in extreme cases even 28 days to get maximum strength."

To test the properties of lunar concrete, Toutanji and Richard Grugel, a geological engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville, used a simulated lunar soil.

They added 35 grams of purified sulphur to every 100 grams of dust and cast the mix into a number of small cubes about 5cm on a side. Those were exposed to 50 cycles of severe temperature changes, each time frozen down to -27 °C and then warmed back to room temperature.

Even after that treatment the concrete could withstand compressive pressures of 17 megapascals (roughly 170 times atmospheric pressure). If the material is reinforced with silica, which can also be derived from moon dust, this can be raised to around 20 megapascals.

Moon mixer

Peter Chen of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, devised his own form of waterless concrete earlier this year, using epoxy as the binder.

"Toutanji and Grugel are of course correct in stating that, due to the high cost of going to the Moon, the amount of material to be transported must be kept to a minimum," he says.

Chen's concrete would require a supply of epoxy to be shipped to the moon, he concedes, but says once that is done it is simpler to make.

As well as a device to scoop up the soil, and a mixer to combine the soil and the epoxy, Toutanji and Grugel's concrete would also require a power source to bake sulphur out of lunar soil, and melt the concrete mixture, Chen points out.

But Toutanji thinks that those energy costs would still be lower than the costs of transporting raw material to the moon, although he has not worked out the logistics of powering the sulphur extraction and melting.

In the past researchers have claimed that temperatures of more than 1000 °C could be reached using solar furnaces that concentrate sunlight.

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Can E. Coli Help Make Biofuel Production More Efficient?

Waste From Gut Bacteria Helps Host Control Weight, Researchers Report

Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa. (Credit: UT Southwestern Medical Center)

A single molecule in the intestinal wall, activated by the waste products from gut bacteria, plays a large role in controlling whether the host animals are lean or fatty, a research team, including scientists from UT Southwestern Medical Center, has found in a mouse study.

When activated, the molecule slows the movement of food through the intestine, allowing the animal to absorb more nutrients and thus gain weight. Without this signal, the animals weigh less.

The study shows that the host can use bacterial byproducts not only as a source of nutrients, but also as chemical signals to regulate body functions. It also points the way to a potential method of controlling weight, the researchers said.

"It's quite possible that blocking this receptor molecule in the intestine might fight a certain kind of obesity by blocking absorption of energy from the gut," said Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa, professor of molecular genetics at UT Southwestern and a senior co-author of the study, which appears online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Humans, like other animals, have a large and varied population of beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines. The bacteria break up large molecules that the host cannot digest. The host in turn absorbs many of the resulting small molecules for energy and nutrients.

"The number of bacteria in our gut far exceeds the total number of cells in our bodies," said Dr. Yanagisawa.

"It's truly a mutually beneficial relationship. We provide the bacteria with food, and in return they supply energy and nutrients," he explained.

Using mice, the researchers focused on two species of bacteria that break up dietary fibers from food into small molecules called short-chain fatty acids. Dr. Yanagisawa's team previously had found that short-chain fatty acids bind to and activate a receptor molecule in the gut wall called Gpr41, although little was known about the physiological outcome of Gpr41 activation.

The researchers disrupted communication between the bacteria and the hosts in two ways: raising normal mice under germ-free conditions so they lacked the bacteria, and genetically engineering other mice to lack Gpr41 so they were unable to respond to the bacteria.

In both cases, the mice weighed less and had a leaner build than their normal counterparts even though they all ate the same amount.

The researchers also found that in mice without Gpr41, the intestines passed food more quickly. They hypothesized that one action of Gpr41 is to slow down the motion that propels food forward, so that more nutrients can be absorbed. Thus, if the receptor cannot be activated, food is expelled more quickly, and the animal gets less energy from it.

Because mice totally lacking Gpr41 were still healthy and had intestinal function, the receptor may be a likely target for drugs that can slow, but not stop, energy intake, Dr. Yanagisawa said.

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Gorillas and humans use similar body language to communicate

By Cher Thornhill

We already know that we are closely related to gorillas, but researchers now reveal that we even use body language in a similar way.

The study, by researchers at the University of Sussex, showed that gorilla’s use facial expressions and mouth movements were controlled by the left side of the brain – just like it is in humans.

The team thinks the insights could provide exciting clues as to how human language developed, and lead to new teaching techniques for people with communication problems, such as children with autism.


Body language: Apes, like humans, communicate through facial expressions and tactile signals, like grooming and huddling

Psychologist Dr Gillian Sebestyen said: ‘We shared 23 million years of evolution with great apes and then diverged approximately six million years ago.

‘Gorillas have highly complex forms of non-verbal communication. I think we are looking back at what sort of communications skills we may have once had.’

The researchers studied a family of gorillas at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, including a 13-year-old adult female, Fou fou, her infant son and their social network.

They captured Fou fou’s every movement on camera and broke down her behaviour into eye movements, facial expressions and physical actions.

Head and mouth movements had a right-handed bias. The right side of the body was controlled by the left side of the brain, which is also involved in language development, Dr Sebestyen reports.

She told Science Daily: ‘Apes, like humans, use a range of non-verbal communicative social skills such as facial expression, eye gaze and manual gestures, and tactile signals, such as grooming and huddling, which are used for social cohesion.’

Dr Sebestyen is now beginning a study on children aged 2-4 years with language impairments and hopes the findings will help us to understand the non-verbal communication that is critical for normal language.

She said: ‘I hope it will lead to better diagnoses of conditions such as autism and the creation of new health and education programmes to help these children at an early stage.’

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Report: Eco-consciousness Can Help Win Wars


Amid rampant attacks from insurgents in 2004, some US commanders in Iraq began to shift strategy to include fixing environmental problems like clogged sewer lines, growing trash piles, and polluted drinking water.

iraq eco
In this file photo, a U.S. soldier stands guard at the Sharkh Dijlah water treatment plant in... Expand
(AP Photo)

That green-warrior approach to winning "hearts and minds" seemed to help. Attacks fell dramatically in Baghdad neighborhoods when troops restored clean water. "Fence sitters" in the conflict sided with US forces.

Yet despite several such successes and a strong environmental ethic on bases in the United States, US Army commanders typically overlook environmental concerns in plans for operations overseas, says a new RAND Corporation study.

Commissioned by the Army Environ­mental Policy Institute (AEPI), the study examined the role environmental considerations and issues play in the Army's "contingency operations" – long-term missions abroad that may involve conflict.

The conclusion: The US Army succeeds better when it's a deeper shade of green.

"Although environmental considerations are integral to the Army's ability to meet national objectives … they are often underrepresented in the competition for attention, investments, and manpower," the report states. While the Army does have some environmental policy guidelines for such operations, it "has no comprehensive approach to environmental considerations in contingencies, especially in the post-conflict phase."

As a result, fuel and other hazardous-waste spills, raw sewage gushing into local waters (from bases that were supposed to be temporary but grew to be permanent), and gargantuan garbage piles have plagued Army operations – and irritated local populations – from Haiti and Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq, the report found.

Does that mean soldiers must become tree-huggers? Not exactly. Depar­tment of Defense directives exempt combat operations from environmental requirements. But in one of its most striking findings, RAND says incorporating environmental concerns into planning contingency operations "can have a significant impact … and be particularly important for success in the post-conflict phase."

Army officials interviewed by the Monitor say ecoawareness is already high – but could be improved.

"I think we have a better appreciation for environmental considerations during contingency operations than we have ever had at any point in time in the past," says Tad Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for environment, safety, and occupational health and a proponent of the RAND study.

"We're seeing commanders that really – they get it…. They have a thorough understanding of the impact, the second- and third-order effects in many cases, that environmental considerations have." A key benefit from wrapping the environment into military planning is that it protects US troops as well as civilians. In many nations that US troops enter, environmental conditions are already poor, and further degradation can alienate local populations. The Army got it right, the report says, when it put environmental monitors at the Iraqi port of Ash Shuaiba, where air pollution – including chemical releases and dust – was considered a major health threat. (Despite efforts to deal with dust and other pollution, releases of ammonia and sulfur dioxide sickened soldiers in April 2004.)

While US military doctrine calls for environmental baseline assessments when a base is established, that wasn't done in Iraq until much later. Such failures can lead to dangerous situations. In June, congressional hearings examined whether some 250 US soldiers had been exposed to toxic sodium dichromate while guarding an Iraqi oil installation.

In more than half of the 111 cases documented by RAND, the report concludes that US military actions directly or indirectly caused, or could have caused, additional environmental harm.

Environmental victories and setbacks

According to Pentagon policy, hazardous waste is to be disposed "in an environmentally sound manner." But bases often have inadequate plans to deal with hazardous wastes, resulting in soil contaminated by fuel or oil spills, contaminated containers, waste grease, and antifreeze.

At a US base in Afghanistan, a 50-pound bag of asbestos was found at a machine shop and roofing tiles on soldiers' barracks were confirmed to have asbestos in them. More recently in Afghanistan, improperly stored waste lithium batteries caught fire, releasing hazardous fumes.

The US has had environmental victories, too, including building a trash landfill for Baghdad to high standards, fixing water-treatment plants, and repairing local water wells in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pre-planning averted the disastrous oil-well fires set by retreating Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War. And the US Army Corps of Engineers is working to restore the vast Mesopotamian Marshlands of Iraq that were drained by Saddam Hussein to deny his enemies safe haven.

Independent observers say the US military's performance is sketchy.

"Battle and defeating the enemy is [the US military's] first priority, and I have full sympathy for them if they cannot take care of the environment outside of their camp," says a UN official who served in the Afghanistan region and who asked not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "But in camps where they use chemicals, these are controlled situations, and I would like to see a greater greening of their bases."

Requests for information on use of ozone-depleting chemicals by US and NATO forces were refused, the official notes. At Bagram Air Base, he says, official prohibitions do not prevent open sales of the hides of endangered animals by locals as souvenirs to US service personnel.

At the same time, the official applauds another US base, in Tajikistan, that shipped its hazardous waste in containers to the Netherlands for proper processing.

"In that instance, they did a very good job," this official says.

The RAND study refers only briefly to depleted uranium rounds. Past Monitor reports have found that using DU-tipped weapons to destroy enemy armor creates radioactive dust – as it has in Bosnia and in Iraq – that threatens soldiers and civilians. Some US veterans claim they were contaminated by DU residue.

Over a one-year period in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996, a US peacekeeping force of 20,000 generated some 2,000 tons of hazardous waste, the report says. At a base camp in Albania during NATO's involvement in the Balkans in 1999, no operating wastewater treatment plant was available, so sewage was released directly into a local river.

In Iraq, incidents include soldiers accidentally spilling diesel fuel into a lake. In another incident, 300 gallons of fuel were spilled onto the ground – and went unreported. That spill was finally detected and cleaned up, but could have polluted local groundwater and contaminated an area that was to become a US Army base.

'Powerful force' in achieving mission

"The war-fighter types – people in combat forces – don't think about these things as an environmental issue," says David Mosher, a senior policy officer at RAND and lead author of the report. "What we're saying is that in a lot of these countries, environment really cuts to life-sustaining issues – that's why it can be such a powerful force for advancing the mission."

The vast majority of commanders realize they have to have a good environmental program in place, "and the repercussions if they don't," says Col. Maria Gervais, commander of the US Army Environmental Command. "For the most part, commanders understand their obligations in terms of being environmental stewards while also ensuring mission accomplishment."

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Climate change accelerating far beyond the IPCC forecast, WWF says

By Paul Eccleston

Climate change is happening much faster than the world's best scientists predicted and will wreak havoc unless action is taken on a global scale, a new report warns.

Extreme weather events such as the hot summer of 2003, which caused an extra 35,000 deaths across southern Europe from heat stress and poor air quality, will happen more frequently.

Emissions from a power station -  Climate change accelerating far beyond the IPCC forecast, WWF says
Power station emissions: The report predicts the collapse of eco systems on both land and sea

Britain and the North Sea area will be hit more often by violent cyclones and sea level rise predictions will double to more than a metre putting vast coastal areas at risk from flooding.

The bleak report from WWF - formerly the World Wildlife Fund - also predicts crops failures and the collapse of eco systems on both land and sea.

And it calls on the EU to set an example to the rest of the world by agreeing a package of challenging targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to tackle the consequences of climate change and to keep any increase in global temperatures below 2ºC.

The report says that the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a study of global warming by 4,000 scientists from more than 150 countries which alerted the world to the possible consequences of global warming - is now out of date.

WWF's report, Climate Change: Faster, stronger, sooner, has updated all the scientific data and concluded that global warming is accelerating far beyond the IPCC's forecasts.

As an example it says the first tipping point may have already been reached in the Arctic where sea ice is disappearing up to 30 years ahead of IPCC predictions and may be gone completely within five years - something that hasn't occurred for 1m years. This could result in rapid and abrupt climate change rather than the gradual changes forecast by the IPCC.

The findings include:

* Global sea level rise could more than double from the IPCC's estimate of 0.59m by the end of the century.

* Natural carbon sinks, such as forests and oceans, are losing their ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere faster than expected.

* Rising temperatures have already led to a major reduction in food crops resulting in losses of 40m tonnes of grain per year.

* Marine ecosystems in the North and Baltic Sea are being exposed to the warmest temperatures measured since records began.

* The number and intensity of extreme cyclones over the UK and North Sea are projected to increase, leading to increased wind speeds and storm-related losses over Western and Central Europe.

The report was issued to coincide with a meeting of EU Environment Ministers today (mon) to discuss new laws aimed at tackling climate change. Some countries, including Italy and Poland, have already rejected proposals for higher cuts in emissions claiming they are unaffordable and unrealistic when many countries are facing recession.

The UK is the only country so far to commit to a legally binding 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 which the Government claims can be achieved by a switch to renewable energy sources - such as wind and wave - combined with a new generation of nuclear power stations.

In the report WWF urges the EU to commit to a reduction target of at least 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 without relying on offsetting overseas and to provide financial support so developing countries can cut their own emissions and prepare for unavoidable impacts of climate change.

WWF-UK's Head of Climate Change, Dr. Keith Allott, said: "Climate change is a major challenge to the future of mankind and the environment, and this sobering overview highlights just how critical it is that EU Environment Ministers, who are meeting today to discuss EU legislation to tackle climate change, commit to a strong climate and energy package, in order to ensure a low carbon future.

If the European Union wants to be seen as leader at UN talks in Copenhagen next year, and to help secure a strong global deal to tackle climate change after 2012, then it must stop shirking its responsibilities and commit to real emissions cuts within Europe."

The report has been endorsed by Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the newly elected Vice Chair of the IPCC, who said: "It is clear that climate change is already having a greater impact than most scientists had anticipated, so it's vital that international mitigation and adaptation responses become swifter and more ambitious."

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New Solar Power Material Can Capture Every Color of the Rainbow