Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Search for life on Mars is frozen

By Colin Pillinger

An artist's concept of the Phoenix Lander on Mars
Touchdown: an artist's concept of the Phoenix Lander on Mars Photo: EPA

Some time earlier this month, Nasa's Phoenix Lander slipped into a cold-induced coma in the Arctic wastes of the Red Planet. With the onset of winter, the Sun dropped low in the sky, and the temperature fell to -130ºC at night.

Despite being wrapped up as warmly as Nasa's scientists could manage, the lander's electronics – particularly its batteries – were vulnerable to the cold. Without the power from its solar panels, there is little hope that Phoenix will rise again from its long hibernation.

The end of Phoenix's mission illustrates the difficulty we scientists face in probing the secrets of the Red Planet – and in particular in answering the biggest question of all: "Is there, or was there, life on Mars?" The world's media have been maintaining that we are about to find out the answer since the end of the 19th century, when Percival Lowell claimed he could see canals there. QED – there had to be intelligent Martians, and they would be 15ft tall and live in oases.

In the case of Phoenix, the intention was never to search for life, but it would have been nice to know whether the ice cap of Mars was a good place to send appropriately equipped landers for follow-up missions.

Unfortunately, Nasa's latest project didn't complete one of the experiments in which the life-seekers were particularly interested: pyrolysing (heating up) soil samples to separate out any organic matter. It did carry a suitable instrument – a high-tech oven-cum-mass-spectrometer called the TEGA – but it proved too difficult to get frozen clods of soil inside, and only one of the eight tests produced the sort of data the investigators were hoping for.

Technologically speaking, of course, the latest mission was a success as soon as it touched down: it proved that Nasa still knows how to land on its feet. The lander was called "Phoenix" because it was Nasa's second attempt to explore the poles after the failure of the Mars Polar Lander in 1999, when the computer shut down the descent engine while the robot was still some way above the surface.

In the interim, there had been two successful landings, of the Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, but they had used gas-filled bags to break their fall and bounce to rest. The success of Phoenix's downward-pointing cameras, and hazard-avoidance navigation systems, mean that the space agency can be much more choosy in future when selecting its targets.

Phoenix also accomplished much once on the surface. It lasted longer than its creators had anticipated, sending back pictures of a different kind of terrain and – after looking skywards – recognising that it was snowing. The robotic arm dug deep trenches through an ice layer, managing to melt some. The MECA experiment measured the pH (the acidic/alkalinity) of Mars's soil, and showed it to be slightly alkaline rather than very acidic, as some had predicted. It also identified a number of the ions responsible.

But none of these findings really contributes to that vital argument as to whether life can exist on Mars. On Earth, we know that there are microorganisms, called extremophiles, which can do their thing at almost any pH, in very salty or fresh water, at temperatures over 1,200C near the vents of volcanoes, or in the freezing cold of Antarctica. They even exist in atomic reactors. It would have been so much better to have seen some results that suggested there were a few bodies around on Mars – even dead ones.

This was the problem encountered in 1976 by Nasa's first life-detection laboratories, aboard the Viking landers. The Vikings had ways of releasing nutrients that might have been gobbled up by ravenous mini-Martians and turned into recognisable metabolic waste products.

These experiments seemed to work – but, because no accompanying organic matter could be found, the scientists decided that a chemical, rather than a biological, effect was being observed. As one famous planetologist, Carl Sagan, observed: "If you want to prove something extraordinary, you have to have extraordinary proof." But as Martin Rees, the future president of the Royal Society, said at the time: "The absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence", so the search continued.

In 2003, my own Beagle 2 team also thought we might be able to answer the vexed question of life on Mars. Our lander carried the experiment used on Earth to demonstrate that all sedimentary rocks (ie those deposited in water) contain carbonate minerals and organic matter from micro-organisms.

These are the chemical data, as opposed to fossil records, which can be disputed, that suggest life on Earth started nearly four billion years ago.

Results obtained from meteorites blasted off Mars long ago, and serendipitously delivered to Earth, seemed to show that there had been life on the Red Planet as recently as 700,000 years ago, at a time when hominids, the precursors of modern humans, were walking around on our own planet.

There is circumstantial evidence that the organic materials found are genuinely Martian, rather than being the result of contamination on Earth – but circumstantial evidence isn't proof positive.

To eliminate the spectre of contamination, Beagle 2 was going to perform the same experiments on Mars. Unfortunately, the mission was a failure, even though the money wasn't wasted: the Wellcome Trust is exploring using the skills acquired in the early detection of TB.

But now that Phoenix seems to have frozen stiff, where do we go from here? Nasa's landers from 2004 are still happily chugging around near the Equator. But its next landing mission, which involves lowering a car-sized rover on a "sky crane", needs more than $2 billion to complete. It is scheduled for launch in 2009, but with a new administration with new priorities, it could be delayed, or worse.

The European Space Agency has been threatening to go back to Mars with a lander ever since Beagle 2 declined to call home. At first it was in 2009, then it shifted to 2011, then 2013. The plan now is to launch in 2016 and arrive in 2017, maybe. At the same time, European science ministers will be asked this week to double the budget from €600 million to 1.2 billion, or to fund a cut-down version at 1 billion. In the current economic climate, this is far from a foregone conclusion.

In other words, a Mars sample return that might provide a definitive answer to the question of extraterrestrial life is – as always – at least 15 years away. As for putting humans on Mars, that's pretty much a joke.

Of course, I'm sure there are plenty of people worrying about mortgages to pay and families to feed who are entirely unconcerned about whether there is life on Mars. But if we could show that life exists, or had existed on just one other planet, we could extrapolate to a universe teeming with life.

Studying another form of life would help us understand how life started, just as Darwin recognised how it developed via evolution by seeing how different life forms changed in the different places he visited. This would be the ultimate solution to another of our existential conundrums: "Where do I come from?"

And me? Ideally, I'd like a Beagle 3 or Beagle 4 – the technology isn't obsolete, and seems a snip now at £40 million. But if not, I'll do what the Brits always do when our team doesn't qualify: watch anyway, and cheer for the underdogs of the space exploration scene – Japan, China and India – who don't seem to be frozen by fear of failure.

Colin Pillinger is Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University, and led the team behind the British lander Beagle 2

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Sci-Fi Space Robots: Top Five

by Ian O'Neill

I love science fiction, I always have. In fact, it was the main motivational factor for me to begin to study science in the early 90’s. Although sci-fi is outlandish, futuristic and seemingly impossible, there is actually a high degree of science fact behind the TV shows, movies and video games. So when I was young, sci-fi fuelled my enthusiasm for physics; more specifically, astrophysics.

Many years after these first forays into trying to understand how the Universe really worked, I now find myself drawn to real space missions doing real science only to find the divide between sci-fi and sci-fact is getting smaller and smaller. However, to ignite the imagination and build an enthusiasm for the “futuristic” science being carried out right now, it helps if the robotic embodiment of the satellite, rover, probe or lander looks futuristic itself (possibly even a bit “sci-fi”). This way we not only do great science, but we ignite the imaginations of men, women and children who would have otherwise ignored the science behind space exploration.

So, here are my top five missions to ignite the imagination, past and future…

5. CryoSat-2: Inspired by Da Vinci?

Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would design (ESA)

Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would design (ESA)

Cryosat-2 will be launched in 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA) to be flown into orbit so it can begin a three-year survey, monitoring the condition of the ice sheets around the Earth’s poles. At first glance, Cryosat-2 may not look like much, but on further inspection, you can tell it is a definite departure from the standard “flimsy solar panel waving” satellite look. In some views, it may look like a shed (solar panelling giving the satellite a very roof-like appearance), but there is a retro sci-fi appeal to this advanced piece of technology. On looking through the great Leonardo da Vinci’s designs, one concept jumps out at me. Was Cryosat-2 inspired by da Vinci’s armoured car design? Probably not, but it looks pretty cool regardless.

For more, see CryoSat-2, a Satellite that Looks Like a Shed, Doing Science in the Freezer

4. ESA ExoMars Pasteur Rover: Moulded from Gold

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

Ever since I first laid eyes on the Pasteur rover, I’ve been in love. Although the science being carried out by the current rovers on the Red Planet (including the epic near-death tale currently unfolding from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit) is phenomenal, the solar panelled “hat” rover look is fairly generic. Solar panels are an essential energy-generating tool (unless you’re a certain bulky NASA Jeep, packing plutonium-filled RTGs. How are they going to land that thing again?), so if you’re a small rover, you need to wear your solar panels with pride.

This is where the Pasteur rover takes the standard rover design and makes it better. As can be seen from the artist’s impression above, it looks like the robot has been moulded out of gold, certainly an improvement on its previous dorky-looking frame. Plus, it will be carrying a huge drill to bore deep into Mars. If that’s not a superbly designed robot, I don’t know what is.

Alas, we’ll have to wait until we see the Pasteur rover making treadmarks in the regolith. It’s not set for launch until 2013.

For more, see: ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels.

3. GOCE: Intimidating Low-Earth Orbit

No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

It is shaped like a bullet, resembles a Star Destroyer and it is propelled by its own ion drive. Satellites don’t get much more “sci-fi” than this! As with Cryosat-2, the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is a departure from the standard satellite “look”, bolting all its solar panelling to one side of its bodywork. The science is incredible too, it will detect the smallest changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, plotting the contours of our planet’s geoid.

However, this means GOCE will need to orbit low. So low in fact that it will be influenced by drag of the upper atmosphere. Cue the aerodynamic bullet-shape and ion drive. Awesome.

GOCE should be in space right now, but is suffering launch delays after a fault was detected in the Rokot launch vehicle that will deliver it into orbit. It looks like we’ll have to wait until February until we see this stunning robot fly overhead…

For more see: GOCE Will be the Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever.

2. Phoenix Mars Lander: Recently Departed, Never Forgotten

The Sun finally set on Phoenix (NASA)

The Sun finally set on Phoenix (NASA)

It was a space exploration story of epic proportions. The Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the Red Planet in May, and from that point on our perception of Mars changed. Although the lander was one of the most advanced pieces of kit sent on an interplanetary voyage, its design wasn’t that different from the legendary Viking landers from the 1970’s. But its design isn’t what made this little lander special, it was its panache.

For starters, any planetary mission that has a portion of its flight called the “7-minutes of terror” is worth paying attention to. After all, Phoenix only took 7 minutes to re-enter and land (via a powered landing, using a rocket pack — none of this “air bag” nonsense), punching into the Martian atmosphere and showing off to the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter watching over the planet. Following the dramatic landing, Phoenix surpassed all of its mission objectives, confirming water ice, finding perchlorate (that may or may not be conducive to life), taking stunning images; it even had its mission extended by two months. Alas, all good things come to an end and Phoenix died last week.

What really set this NASA mission apart from the rest was the open lines of communication. NASA and University of Arizona scientists blogged, Twittered and released constant mission updates. A true effort in public participation and understanding. Phoenix, you will be missed by millions.

1. Voyager 1 & 2: Inspiring a Generation

The interstellar probes are still operational (NASA)

The interstellar probes are still operational (NASA)

As far as missions go, you can’t beat the twin Voyager probes. Voyager 1 is the fastest moving, and most distant manmade object — it is 107.58 AU (16.093 billion km, or 9.94 billion miles) away, travelling at 17 km/s — and Voyager 2 isn’t that far behind (although it’s going in the opposite direction). Both probes have carried out the longest period of Solar System exploration than any other spacecraft and they are still operational today, 31 years after they were launched in 1977 (it is hoped they will still be transmitting for two more decades).

The reason why the Voyager project is #1 on my list is that I cannot think of any other robotic explorer more successful and longer lived than Voyager. In return, the Voyager probes have inspired a generation, their elegant design firing the imagination and reminding us that NASA’s glory days are far from over…

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Supercomputers Break Petaflop Barrier, Transforming Science

By Betsy Mason


A new crop of supercomputers is breaking down the petaflop speed barrier, pushing high-performance computing into a new realm that could change science more profoundly than at any time since Galileo, leading researchers say.

When the Top 500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers was announced at the international supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas, on Monday, IBM had barely managed to cling to the top spot, fending off a challenge from Cray. But both competitors broke petaflop speeds, performing 1.105 and 1.059 quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, the first two computers to do so.

These computers aren't just faster than those they pushed further down the list, they will enable a new class of science that wasn't possible before. As recently described in Wired magazine, these massive number crunchers will push simulation to the forefront of science.

Scientists will be able to run new and vastly more accurate models of complex phenomena: Climate models will have dramatically higher resolution and accuracy, new materials for efficient energy transmission will be developed and simulations of scramjet engines will reach a new level of complexity.

"The scientific method has changed for the first time since Galileo invented the telescope (in 1509)," said computer scientist Mark Seager of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Supercomputing has made huge advances over the last decade or so, gradually packing on the ability to handle more and more data points in increasingly complex ways. It has enabled scientists to test theories, design experiments and predict outcomes as never before. But now, the new class of petaflop-scale machines is poised to bring about major qualitative changes in the way science is done.

"The new capability allows you to do fundamentally new physics and tackle new problems," said Thomas Zacharia, who heads up computer science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, home of the second place Cray XT5 Jaguar supercomputer. "And it will accelerate the transition from basic research to applied technology."

Breaking the petaflop barrier, a feat that seemed astronomical just two years ago, won't just allow faster computations. These computers will enable entirely new types of science that couldn't have been done before. This new generation of petascale machines will move scientific simulation beyond just supporting the two main branches of science, theory and experimentation, and into the foreground. Instead of just hypotheses being tested with experiments and observations, large-scale extrapolation and prediction of things we can't observe or that would be impractical for an experiment, will become central to many scientific endeavors.

"It's getting to the point where simulation is actually the third branch of science," Seager said. "We say that nature is always the arbiter of truth, but it turns out our ability to observe nature is fundamentally limited."

Climate modeling is one area that is ripe for a boost. In the past couple years, the general public has come around to the idea that climate change is real, and scientists are moving on to the potential impacts, how we might adapt and the technology that will help us cope. To do this in any meaningful way, the predictive models need to have a much higher resolution and be much more precise.

"These kinds of questions require much higher fidelity than we had before," Zacharia said. "Very important decisions are going to be made by policy makers based on this science."

Bluegene_10 Currently, the state of Tennessee, which is more than 400 miles long, is represented by only two pixels in most global climate models. The new computers will drastically increase resolution, in both space and time, and improve accuracy.

In the race to achieve this promise, Oak Ridge had made a push to top the speed list this year with its Cray XT5 Jaguar, but Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico tweaked its IBM Roadrunner to get just enough more juice to keep the crown. Both more than doubled the performance of Livermore Lab's BlueGene/L IBM computer that led the pack a year ago.

Though there may be disappointment in Oak Ridge over losing by a nose, the lab also has the eighth fastest computer, a smaller version of the Jaguar. When combined with its bigger sibling in the next few weeks, the Jaguar will boost the lab's total capability to around 1.6 petaflops. In the same one-acre room resides the 15th fastest computer, and Oak Ridge is in the process of assembling yet another supercomputer for the National Science Foundation. All told, the lab could reach 2.5 petaflops.

Speeds and Feeds: Oak Ridge's Jaguar Supercomputer:
  • Type: The Cray XT computer is a distributed-memory massively parallel MIMD supercomputer.

  • What Is It: A petaflop computer can process one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second. That's 1,000,000,000,000,000 calculations every second.

  • Processors: 182,000 AMD quad-core Opterons, running at 2.3 gigahertz.

  • Memory Capacity: 362 terabytes of memory (with 578 terabytes per second of memory bandwidth).

  • OS: Cray XTs run UNICOS/lc, a flavor of Unix with networking and file-system enhancements from BSD.

  • Recent History: The peak performance for a supercomputer has more than doubled in the last year, from 0.5 petaflops to the current high of 1.1.

  • The Future: Raymond Kurzweil believes the human brain has a power of 10 petaflops. By Kurzweil's reckoning, we should equal the human brain's calculating power in less than 7 years.

But it's not just about the speed.

"This is not an Olympic sprint where somebody gets a medal at the end," Zacharia said. "That's not the point."

The Jaguar was designed to be optimal for science. Oak Ridge surveyed scientists in many fields including energy, climate and combustion, and built the computer to suit their needs. It has three times the memory capacity of any other computer, Zacharia said -- 362 terabytes of memory.

The designers paid special attention to making the transition to Jaguar as easy as possible for scientists, allowing them to use applications they have already developed instead of spending years coding new ones to suit the computer.

"I believe we have the best, most capable computer in the world for science," he said.

Only fully assembled in early September, nine months ahead of schedule, Jaguar has already helped scientists who have been eagerly anticipating the petaflop capability.

"The past six weeks we have already run many of the scientific applications people have been waiting for for a long time," Zacharia said.

Jaguar and its peers, which will undoubtedly be multiplying in the coming years -- Livermore Lab is currently assembling a petaflop computer that will join the club in 2011 -- promise to take some scientific fields to the next level by enabling far more complex simulations. This in turn will inspire scientists to imagine new questions, which will in turn need even bigger supercomputers to answer.

"That's exactly how science thrives on these big facilities," Zacharia said. "Any fundamentally new science facility captivates and drives the imaginations of scientists worldwide."

Jaguar's power will be unleashed on scientific problems including drug discovery, photovoltaics and new materials. A single simulation will be able to handle every aspect of a complex problem, such as the performance of a scramjet engine, including the airflow around it, its internal combustion, the strength of its materials, the effect of intense heat and aerodynamic forces.

"With the advent of petaflop computing, it's possible to do this simulation," said Seager, who is collaborating with scientists at other labs and universities to do just that.

Today's computer scientists can barely contain their excitement as they imagine what is now possible.

"It's very exciting to be alive today and doing computer science," Seager said. "Now we can do some spectacular things."

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Women find scarred men attractive when looking for a fling

By Daily Mail Reporter

Indiana Jones

Harrison Ford, seen here as Indiana Jones, has a visible scar on his chin. Researchers say western women may associate scars with health and bravery

Scars may boost a man's sex appeal - but only if a woman is looking for a short relationship.

Women view men with scars as being adventurous, macho and brave, according to Liverpool University research.

But once a woman becomes a mother, she is likely to dump the 'bad boy' in favour of a more caring, sharing sort.

The finding could go some way to explain the allure of film star Harrison Ford, whose scarred chin is the result of a car accident when he was in his 20s.

Academics investigated how scarring might influence how the sexes pick partners for both long-term and short-term relationships.

According to the findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, men find women with or without scars attractive.

Dr Rob Burriss, from the University of Liverpool's School of Biological Sciences, said: 'Male and female participants were shown images of faces that displayed scarring from injury or illness, and were asked to rate how attractive they found the person for long-term and short-term relationships.

'Women may have rated scarring as an attractive quality for short-term relationships because they found it be a symbol of masculinity, a feature that is linked to high testosterone levels and an indicator of good genetic qualities that can be passed on to offspring.

'Men without scars, however, could be seen as more caring and therefore more suitable for long-term relationships.

'The results demonstrate that we may have more in common with non-Western cultures than previously thought.

'The perception that scarring is a sign of strength is a view shared by the Yanomamo tribe of Venezuela for example, who use face-paint to accentuate scars that result from ritualised club fights designed to test a man's endurance against repeated strikes to the head.

'The assumption that scarring is a sign of bravery is also consistent with the historical tradition of academic fencing in Western culture, whereby scarring on a man was often evidence of his courage and ability to withstand an opponent's blow.'

The research is published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

You can take the online face preference test at

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Obama opens new green chapter for US on climate

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington

Barack Obama yesterday renewed his promise to make a decisive break with George Bush on the environment, using a summit convened by Arnold Schwarzenegger to promise a "new chapter in America's leadership on climate change".

The video appearance by Obama confirmed the Californian governor's role as a global leader on climate change, a position shored up only hours earlier when Schwarzenegger set a bold new target for his state to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

In his address, the president-elect accused Bush of failing to show leadership on the issue of climate change. "That will change when I take office," said Obama.

He went on to lay out an ambitious agenda, beginning with targets aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Obama also reiterated a campaign pledge to invest $15bn (£10bn) a year in clean technology - including clean coal and nuclear power.

"This investment will not only help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure. And it will not only help us bring about a clean energy future, saving our planet. It will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating 5m new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced."

Obama added: "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences too serious."

Schwarzenegger's targets for electricity generation as well as Obama's appearance at the conference confirmed the governor's leadership in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions at a time when there has been a vacuum at federal level.

In his remarks to the conference yesterday, Schwarzenegger said Obama's election means that he would now be "in synch" with the new administration in taking action to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. "Five years ago when we talked about yes we can protect the environment and we can protect the economy on the same time, there were a lot of doubters," he said. "We have also faced obstacles on the federal level with the federal government."

But he added: "Our revolution now does have soldiers and it is spreading around the globe." He said the conference was intended to advance negotiations on a sequel to the Kyoto protocols in Poland in two weeks, and in Copenhagen next year.

Yesterday's summit comes at a pivotal time amid expectation of a dramatic shift in US environmental policy once Obama is in the White House. As Obama noted in the video address, he will not attend the meeting in Poland but had asked members of Congress who will be there to report back to him.

"Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world towards a new era of global cooperation on climate change," he said.

"When I am president, any governor who's willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that's willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that's willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States."

Schwarzenegger's meeting brought together European, Indian and Chinese officials, oil firm executives and environmentalists, along with a handful of Schwarzenegger's fellow governors from Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. Representatives from Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Washington state were also on hand.

The summit was said to be carbon-neutral, with emissions associated with the conference offset by giving money to global environmental causes. And there were other eco-touches, with room keys, name badges, lunch boxes and coffee cups made from recycled material.

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California Ups Renewable Energy Mandate to 33% by 2020

New Cost-Effective Battery Tested to Store Wind-Power

Hunger among U.S. children skyrockets in 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some 691,000 children went hungry in America sometime in 2007, while close to one in eight Americans struggled to feed themselves adequately even before this year's sharp economic downturn, the Agriculture Department reported Monday.

Families with the highest rates of hunger were headed by single mothers, says the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Families with the highest rates of hunger were headed by single mothers, says the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The department's annual report on food security showed that during 2007 the number of children who suffered a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat was more than 50 percent above the 430,000 in 2006 and the largest figure since 716,000 in 1998.

Overall, the 36.2 million adults and children who struggled with hunger during the year was up slightly from 35.5 million in 2006. That was 12.2 percent of Americans who didn't have the money or assistance to get enough food to maintain active, healthy lives.

Almost a third of those, 11.9 million adults and children, went hungry at some point. That figure has grown by more than 40 percent since 2000. The government says these people suffered a substantial disruption in their food supply at some point and classifies them as having "very low food security." Until the government rewrote its definitions two years ago, this group was described as having "food insecurity with hunger."

The findings should increase pressure to meet President-elect Barack Obama's campaign pledge to expand food aid and end childhood hunger by 2015, said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group.

He predicted the 2008 numbers will show even more hunger because of the sharp economic downturn this year.

"There's every reason to think the increases in the number of hungry people will be very, very large based on the increased demand we're seeing this year at food stamp agencies, emergency kitchens, Women, Infants and Children clinics, really across the entire social service support structure," said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group.

Weill said the figures show that economic growth during the first seven years of the Bush administration didn't reach the poorest and hungriest people. "The people in the deepest poverty are suffering the most," Weill said.

The number of adults and children with "low food security" -- those who avoided substantial food disruptions but still struggled to eat -- fell slightly since 2000, from 24.7 million to 24.3 million. The government said these people have several ways of coping -- eating less varied diets, obtaining food from emergency kitchens or community food charities, or participating in federal aid programs like food stamps, the school lunch program or the Women, Infants and Children program.

Among other findings:

• The families with the highest rates of food insecurity were headed by single mothers (30.2 percent), black households (22.2 percent), Hispanic households (20.1 percent), and households with incomes below the official poverty line (37.7 percent).

• States with families reporting the highest prevalence of food insecurity during 2005-2007 were Mississippi (17.4 percent), New Mexico (15 percent), Texas (14.8 percent) and Arkansas (14.4 percent).

• The highest growth in food insecurity over the last 9 years came in Alaska and Iowa, both of which saw a 3.7 percent increase in families who struggled to eat adequately or had substantial food disruptions.

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We Used To Recycle Everything; What Happened?

Throughout history, since the dawn of man, we have been a recycling people. We reused anything and everything multiple times before discarding of it - if there was anything left at all. When we were lucky enough to get our hands on something useful, we were careful with it so as to make it last as long as possible. Hunters used every part of an animal. Houses were made from any scrap material that could be rounded up, as it was easier than building one from scratch. Children played with the same toys their entire childhood. Things were cherished - nothing was thrown away unless it was absolutely destroyed. No one bought the “new” version of something before the “old” version was used up. How times have certainly changed…

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ed-meister

Now we throw everything away - and most of it still works! We replace perfectly fine household electronics because ours is not the “new” kind, we buy new cell phones every few months, we only keep cars for a few years (which I have certainly been guilty of!), and we are sold so many single-use items that I don’t even know if anyone knows how to use a washable mop/sponge/diaper anymore. We buy cheap clothing by the bundle and it only lasts a few months before it is either out of style or torn to shreds. Products are bought, used for a short time, and thrown away. Most everything we buy cannot be recycled, so it ends up in an overcrowded landfill that we then bury or burn, contributing to the decline in the quality of our environment. It’s a never-ended cycle that seems to get worse by the year - I am hopeful that so many people taking a newly found interest in the green movement that we can reverse the trend before we take it too far.

There are still some smaller industries and companies who do their best to recycle and reuse everything. Take a small farm for example - the farmers grow crops, which feed both them and their animals. The animals digest their food, leaving behind animal poop that is can be used as compost to regrow more crops, which feed more animals…you get the picture. And even better than that, some farmers are using the animal waste to actually make electricity and reusable water - an Alberta farm is the future site of IMUS, which is a new technology that will turn manure into a source of electricity, heat, fertilizer and reusable water – all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. And companies like Patagonia (who I buy my fleeces from) and Act2 turn old plastic bottles (and their own old garments) into clothing and consumer goods. This is very good progress, and every day more and more companies are seeing the benefits of recycling and going green, both for the environment and their bottom line!

We used to be a nation (and world, for that matter) of recyclers, but it has become to easy to just “buy a new one” because the “one” we have is out of style or has a little wear and tear. I think we need to encourage more of us to go back to the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra that we have followed since the beginning of time - even if we didn’t know it then. There is no way we can continue to buy and throw away at the rate that we are - all that stuff has to go somewhere. (Want to know where? Check out the book “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” which is a staple on my bookshelf.) Let’s start building quality products again so when we buy something we know it will last a very long time, and let’s start reusing what we already have access to. Enough with the single-use plastic crap that every store is full of - let’s bring back quality goods!

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A quicker, easier way to make coal cleaner

'Partial capture' of emissions could be near-term move

Nancy Stauffer, MIT Energy Initiative

Construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States is in danger of coming to a standstill, partly due to the high cost of the requirement -- whether existing or anticipated -- to capture all emissions of carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas. But an MIT analysis suggests an intermediate step that could get construction moving again, allowing the nation to fend off growing electricity shortages using our most-abundant, least-expensive fuel while also reducing emissions.

Instead of capturing all of its CO2 emissions, plants could capture a significant fraction of those emissions with less costly changes in plant design and operation, the MIT analysis shows.

"Our approach -- 'partial capture' -- can get CO2 emissions from coal-burning plants down to emissions levels of natural gas power plants," said Ashleigh Hildebrand, a graduate student in chemical engineering and the Technology and Policy Program. "Policies such as California's Emissions Performance Standards could be met by coal plants using partial capture rather than having to rely solely on natural gas, which is increasingly imported and subject to high and volatile prices."

Hildebrand will present her findings on Nov. 18 at the 9th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies in Washington. Her co-author is Howard J. Herzog, principal research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative and chair of the conference organizing committee.

The United States is facing a pressing need for more power plants that run essentially all the time. Renewable sources aren't suited to the task, nuclear plants can't be built quickly enough, and expanded reliance on natural gas raises price and energy-security concerns. Coal, which now supplies more than half of all U.S. electricity, seems the best option.

But as several states have started to regulate CO2 emissions, and others are expected to follow suit, some of the luster has come off coal. Amid the uncertainty, no one wants to be the "first mover" on building a new coal plant incorporating carbon capture and storage (CCS). Depending on the type of plant, carbon capture alone can increase the initial capital cost by 30 to 60 percent and decrease plant efficiency so that the cost per kilowatt-hour rises. That high cost would reduce a plant's economic competitiveness, meaning it might be called on to run on a limited basis, or not at all. Plus, CCS hasn't been proved at full scale, so no one knows exactly what to expect.

In Herzog's view, the call for full carbon capture is "a policy of inaction, a policy that won't move forward either new coal plants or the CCS technology." Partial capture could be a viable intermediate step.

The push for full capture (defined as 90 percent of the total) is in part economic: everyone assumed that 90 percent capture would -- due to economies of scale -- yield the lowest cost per ton of CO2 removed. Anything less than 90 percent would mean a higher per-ton cost.

To investigate that assumption, Hildebrand and Herzog modeled the technological changes and costs involved in capturing fractions ranging from zero to 90 percent. The model takes into account technological breakpoints. For example, carbon capture is achieved by a series of devices that absorb CO2, release it and compress it. Full capture may require two or more parallel series.

The model confirms that the cost per ton of CO2 removed declines as the number of captured tons increases. Not surprisingly, when the second series is added, cost per ton goes up, but it then quickly levels off. Cost per ton is thus roughly the same at, say, 60 percent capture as it is at 90 percent capture. Since there are no economies of scale to be gained by going to 90 percent, companies can remove less -- and significantly reduce their initial capital investment as well as the drop in efficiency once the plant is running.

The researchers conclude that as a near-term measure, partial capture looks promising. New coal plants with lower CO2 emissions would generate much-needed electricity while also demonstrating carbon capture and providing a setting for testing CO2 storage -- steps that will accelerate the large-scale deployment of full capture in the future.

This research was supported by the MIT Carbon Sequestration Initiative and the National Science Foundation.

The GHGT-9 conference is organized by MIT in collaboration with the IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme (IEA GHG), with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Energy.

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