Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lost in Space: 8 Weird Pieces of Space Junk

By Clara Moskowitz


Humans have ventured into space over the last 50 years, and all manner of junk has been left behind. From tiny bolts to whole space stations, people have discarded lots of stuff up there. Much of it eventually dies a fiery death as it falls through Earth's atmosphere, but some larger debris poses risks for astronauts and spacecraft that could collide with it. Here are some of the quirkier items left in space:

1. Spatula
While spreading some goo as a test of heat-shield repair materials, spacewalking astronaut Piers Sellers accidentally lost a spatula he had been using. The mishap took place during the space shuttle Discovery's 2006 STS-121 flight to the International Space Station, on a mission to test new safety techniques after the 2003 Columbia disaster. "That was my favorite spatch," Sellers reportedly said. "Don’t tell the other spatulas."

2. Tool bag
Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper lost her grip on a tool bag while doing a spacewalk in November 2008 to try to repair a jammed gear on a space-station solar panel. The 30-pound bag, filled with grease guns, a scraper tool and a couple of bags for debris, cost about $100,000. Amateur astronomers spotted subsequently spotted the bag in orbit, and North Americans can check to see if the tool bag is in their slice of the sky with's satellite tracker. Watch the bag float away below.

3. Glove
Starting out the long trend of astronauts losing stuff in space, the very first American spacewalker, Ed White, let go of a glove during his first extra-vehicular activity on the 1965 Gemini 4 flight. The glove stayed in orbit for about a month before burning up in Earth's atmosphere.

4. Tank of ammonia
This one was lost on purpose. In July 2007, NASA instructed astronauts to throw an unneeded 1,400-pound tank full of ammonia overboard. The device used to be part of the space station's cooling system, but when the A/C was upgraded, it became obsolete. Deeming that it would take up too much cargo room to carry it back to Earth, mission managers decided to have it trashed. More than a year later, the tank burned up over the South Pacific Ocean as it hit the atmosphere.

5. Gene Roddenberry's ashes
A portion of the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek series, were delivered to space in 1992 by the space shuttle Columbia on its STS-52 mission. The lipstick-sized capsule containing his ashes orbited the Earth before eventually disintegrating in the atmosphere. The rest of Roddenberry's ashes, along with those of his wife Majel who died in December 2008, will be shipped into space along with digitized fan letters in 2010.

6. Pee
Over the years, most of the urine produced by astronauts has been simply dumped overboard. Once pee hits the cold vacuum of space, it quickly freezes into tiny crystals which then float around as debris. (Astronauts have described watching urine being released into space as one of the most beautiful sights in orbit). Recently, however, a new pee-recycling system was brought up to the International Space Station to turn urine into drinking water, cutting down on the pee debris.

7. Pliers
While repairing a damaged solar array during a November 2007 spacewalk, astronaut Scott Parazynski accidentally lost a set of needle-nose pliers, which were spotted floating away below the station.

8. Camera
Astronaut Suni Williams was tussling with a stuck solar array on the space station in June 2007 when her camera came untethered and drifted away. Rather than astronaut error, this incident may have been caused when the button holding down the camera broke. Watch video of the mishap below.

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Spot five naked-eye planets – but not all at once

Just before dawn local on Feb. 22, Jupiter and Mercury will be easy to find using the moon as a guide. Mars will require binoculars.

By Joe Rao

This month you'll have an opportunity to see all five naked-eye planets – but not all at once. Two of them are evening objects, while the other three are clustered together low in the east-southeast sky deep in the dawn twilight.

The planets move around in our sky and become brighter and dimmer over time depending on where they are in their orbits around the sun. Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are never visible to the naked eye.

Here's what you can look for:

If you ever wanted to see a planet so bright it will take your breath away, this is your week and Venus is the planet. It hangs lantern-like, high in the west as darkness falls. It's so bright now that you should have little trouble finding it even before sunset in a clean, deep blue sky – which is also a good time to look at its dramatic crescent shape in a telescope.

As dusk starts to fade, this unrivaled heavenly lamp can scarcely be missed — you won't need a map. Venus sets more than 3 hours after the sun.

Venus is now at the pinnacle of brilliancy for this current evening apparition. Viewed through a telescope in the coming weeks, its crescent grows larger but thinner as the planet approaches the Earth in the celestial scheme of things and shows us more of its night side. By month's end Venus is similar in apparent size to Jupiter – but less than one-quarter of it is lit.

Gray markings in the planet's cloud cover remain quite subtle. Look around sunset, when the sky is brighter and Venus's crescent is less dazzling than it becomes after dark. Also, watch for signs of the mysterious ashen light – a still unexplained illumination that some observers have occasionally noticed in parts of Venus's night side.

On the evening of Feb. 27 the Americas will be greeted with one of the most spectacular Venus-crescent moon conjunctions possible. The pairing will persist from before sunset into the depths of darkness. Venus will sit about 1.5-degrees above and to the right of the three-day old crescent. Be sure not to miss this!

The next planet to look for is Saturn. This week it comes up above the eastern horizon about 90 minutes after sunset, but by the time of its opposition to the sun on March 8 it will be visible all night from dusk to dawn. Two nights later, on March 10, Saturn will ride high above the full moon.

Brightening slightly from magnitude +0.7 to +0.5, Saturn appears twice as bright as the bluish star, Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, the Lion. Shining sedately with a yellow-white hue, Saturn appears far to the lower left of that first magnitude star during the evening.

If you have a telescope magnifying at least 30-power, you'll be able to glimpse the famous ring system, which now looks like a bright line that bisects Saturn's disk. The rings open slightly to 2.3-degrees from edgewise by the end of February, but the rings will start closing again later this spring, ultimately disappearing even in big telescopes by midsummer.

A planetary trio
The other three planets visible are morning objects. Two of these are visible toward month's end but with some difficulty: Jupiter and Mercury.

Planetary Nebula NGC 2818, Hubble Space Telescope
Month in Space: Having a blast!
See the fireworks of a planetary nebula, a fresh crater on Mars and other cosmic highlights from January.

more photos

Solar conjunction for Jupiter was on Jan. 24; by the final week of February it'll be on its way back into view, appearing a little higher each day. Off to its upper right will be fainter Mercury. Bring binoculars for this challenging sighting; the two planets will be very low above the east-southeastern horizon about 30-35 minutes before sunrise.

Just before sunrise on the 22nd, seek out the slender sliver of an old crescent moon, just 2-½ days before new phase, low near the east-southeast horizon. If you find it, use it as your guide to locate Mercury and Jupiter, located about 5 or 6-degrees to the moon's lower left. Binoculars will help.

Jupiter and Mercury engage in a close conjunction early on the morning of Feb. 24, with Jupiter appearing to stand almost directly above Mercury; they're separated by 0.7-degree. For comparison, the moon's apparent width is 0.5-degree. The place to look is very low in the east-southeast. Mercury shines at a respectable magnitude -0.1, but still appears only about one-sixth as bright as Jupiter's -2.0.

The only planet seemingly out of the loop in terms of visibility is Mars. Shining at magnitude +1.3 and rising deep in the glow of dawn less than an hour before sunup, it's not yet a naked-eye object for mid-northerners. Nonetheless, on the mornings of Feb. 16, 17 and 18, Mars and Jupiter will be separated by less than 1-degree. On the 17th, in fact, Jupiter will appear just 0.6-degree to the upper left of Mars. So if you can locate Jupiter, you should be able to find Mars with binoculars or a small telescope.

And with Mercury close by this makes for a planetary trio. For those readers living south of the equator, these three planets will appear a bit higher and against a somewhat darker sky; hence making them easier to see.

© 2009

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New Planets & an Unknown Object Discovered Beyond the Solar System

Gliese_581c_exoplanet_2_2 "It could happen almost any time now. We now have the technological capability to identify Earth-like planets around the smallest stars."

David Latham -Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

As astronomers become more adept at hunting for, and finding, exoplanets orbiting stars beyond the Solar System, international astronomers have figured out just what we should be looking for using the increasingly sophisticated technologies being developed.

Two exoplanets and an unknown celestial object, findings of the European Space Agency's COROT mission, an important stepping stones in the European effort to find habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars. These discoveries mean that the mission has now found a total of four new exoplanets.

COROT has now been operating for 510 days, and the mission started observations of its sixth star field at the beginning of May this year. During this observation phase, which will last 5 months, the spacecraft will simultaneously observe 12,000 stars.

Future telescopes such as NASA's Kepler, set for launch in 2009, would be able to discover dozens or hundreds of Earth-like worlds. The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), to be launched early in the next decade, consists of multiple telescopes placed along a 30 foot structure. With an unprecedented resolution approaching the physical limits of optics, the SIM is so sensitive that it almost defies belief: orbiting the earth, it can detect the motion of a lantern being waved by an astronaut on Mars

The SIM, in turn, will pave the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, to be launched late in the next decade, which should identify even more earth-like planets. It will scan the brightest 1,000 stars within 50 light years of the earth and will focus on the 50 to 100 brightest planetary systems. The TPF will allow the follow-up studies to learn about these planets' rotation and weather, and the composition of their atmospheres.

All this, in turn, will stimulate an active effort to determine if any of them harbor life, perhaps some with civilizations more advanced than ours.

The two new planets discovered by COROT are gas giants of the hot Jupiter type, which orbit very close to their parent star and tend to have extensive atmospheres because heat from the nearby star gives them energy to expand.

“Scientists suspect that with the detection of COROT-exo-3b, they might just have discovered the missing link between stars and planets.”

In addition, an oddity dubbed ‘COROT-exo-3b’ has raised particular interest among astronomers. It appears to be something between a brown dwarf, a sub-stellar object without nuclear fusion at its core but with some stellar characteristics, and a planet. Its radius is too small for it to be a super-planet.

If it is a star, it would be among the smallest ever detected. Follow-up observations from the ground have pinned it at 20 Jupiter masses, which makes it twice as dense as the metal Platinum.

“COROT has also detected extremely faint signals that, if confirmed, could indicate the existence of another exoplanet, as small as 1.7 times Earth’s radius.”

COROT was launched atop the Soyuz from the Baikonour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 27 December 2006. Settled in its almost-circular polar orbit ranging between 895 and 906 km above Earth's surface, the spacecraft was first powered on 2 January 2007 and started its science observations on 3 February of the same year.

Exoplanets have rarely been seen; rather, they have been indirectly observed by looking at the influence they exert on stars they orbit. But even with the most advanced telescopes planned by Earth's astronomers for use over the next several years, a planet orbiting another star would only appear as a single pixel. By comparison, a simple cellphone camera typically takes pictures with about a million pixels, or one megapixel. However, a great deal of information about a planet can be gleaned from that single pixel and the way it changes over time.

Analyzing the data would work for any world that has continents and bodies of liquid on its surface plus clouds in its atmosphere, even if those were made of very different materials on an alien world. For example, icy worlds with seas of liquid methane, like Saturn's moon Titan, or very hot worlds with oceans of molten silicate (which is solid rock on Earth), would show up similarly across the vastness of space.

However, the method depends on clouds covering only part of a planet's surface, regardless of what each world is made of. Saturn's Titan, for example, covered by perpetual global smog, would not give up the mysteries of its weather or rotation, nor would the boiling hot Venus, with its complete shroud of clouds.

The key, the astronomers learned after studying data from Earth's weather satellites, is that while clouds vary from day to day, there are overall patterns that stay relatively constant, associated with where arid or rainy landmasses are. Detecting those repeating patterns would allow distant astronomers to figure out the planet's rotation period because a brightening associated with clouds above a particular continent would show up regularly once each "day," whatever the length of that day might be. Once the day's length is determined, then any variations in that period would reveal the changing weather--that is, clouds in a different place than the average.

Planned telescopes such as NASA's Kepler, set for launch in 2009, would be able to discover dozens or hundreds of Earth-like worlds. Then even more advanced space observatories being considered, such as NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder, would allow the follow-up studies to learn about these planets' rotation and weather, and the composition of their atmospheres.

"Maybe somebody's looking at us right now, finding out what our rotation rate is -- that is, the length of our day," says Sara Seager, associate professor of physics and the Ellen Swallow Richards Associate Professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT.

Among other things alien astronomers could probably tell that our planet's surface is divided between oceans and continents, and learn a little bit about the dynamics of our weather systems and whether its a good day for a landing.

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Was There Once a Mars-Earth Microbe Shuttle?

Marsviewlarge_3 A little-known fact is that each year Earth is hit by by half a dozen or so one-pound or larger rocks that were blasted off the surface of by large impacts and found their way into Earth-crossing orbits. Nearly 10% of all rocks blasted off into space from the Red Planet end up crashing into Earth.

This natural "interplanetary transportation system" begs a fascinating question: If primitive and nearly indestructible micro-organisms exist on a given planet, must they by definition as a natural act or nature, travel to their immediate solar-system neighbors?

Recent research on lunar rocks discovered in Antarctica has shown that rocks greater than 10 kilograms in mass could be ejected from terrestrial planets -rocks capable of carrying living microbes- and survive the searing violence of the launch.

Over the history of the Earth, billions of football-sized rocks have landed on its surface, some only slightly heated by the launch, reaching Earth in a matter of a few months.

A year-ago March a study by a team of scientists at Oregon State University of a meteorite that originated from revealed a series of microscopic tunnels that are similar in size, shape and distribution to tracks left on Earth rocks by feeding bacteria. Although the researchers were unable to extract DNA from the Martian rocks, the finding nonetheless adds intrigue to the search for life beyond Earth.

Martin Fisk, a professor of marine geology in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and lead author of the study, said the discovery of the tiny burrows do not confirm that there is life on Mars, nor does the lack of DNA from the meteorite discount the possibility.

"Virtually all of the tunnel marks on Earth rocks that we have examined were the result of bacterial invasion," Fisk said. "In every instance, we've been able to extract DNA from these Earth rocks, but we have not yet been able to do that with the Martian samples.

"There are two possible explanations," he added. "One is that there is an abiotic way to create those tunnels in rock on Earth, and we just haven't found it yet. The second possibility is that the tunnels on Martian rocks are indeed biological in nature, but the conditions are such on that the DNA was not preserved."

More than 30 meteorites that originated on have been identified. These rocks from have a unique chemical signature based on the gases trapped within. The noble gas trapped in glass in the meteorites serve as a "fingerprint" that matches the composition of the Maritian atmosphere measured by the Viking Mission spacecraft that landed on in 1976. These rocks were "blasted off" the planet when was struck by asteroids or comets and eventually these Martian meteorites crossed Earth's orbit and plummeted to the ground.

One of these is Nakhla, which landed in Egypt in 1911, and provided the source material for Fisk's study. Scientists have dated the igneous rock fragment from Nakhla – which weighs about 20 pounds – at 1.3 billion years in age. They believe that the rock was exposed to water about 600 million years ago, based on the age of clay found inside the rocks.

"It is commonly believed that water is a necessary ingredient for life," Fisk said, "so if bacteria laid down the tunnels in the rock when the rock was wet, they may have died 600 million years ago. That may explain why we can't find DNA – it is an organic compound that can break down."

Fisk and his colleagues have spent more than 15 years studying microbes that can break down igneous rock and live in the obsidian-like volcanic glass. They first identified the bacteria through their signature tunnels then were able to extract DNA from the rock samples – which have been found in such diverse environments on Earth as below the ocean floor, in deserts and on dry mountaintops. They even found bacteria 4,000 feet below the surface in Hawaii that they reached by drilling through solid rock.

In all of these Earth rock samples that contain tunnels, the biological activity began at a fracture in the rock or the edge of a mineral where the water was present. Igneous rocks are initially sterile because they erupt at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees C. – and life cannot establish itself until the rocks cool. Bacteria may be introduced into the rock via dust or water, Fisk pointed out.

"Several types of bacteria are capable of using the chemical energy of rocks as a food source," he said. "One group of bacteria in particular is capable of getting all of its energy from chemicals alone, and one of the elements they use is iron – which typically comprises 5 to 10 percent of volcanic rock."

Another group of OSU researchers, led by microbiologist Stephen Giovannoni, has collected rocks from the deep ocean and begun developing cultures to see if they can replicate the rock-eating bacteria. Similar environments usually produce similar strains of bacteria, Fisk said, with variable factors including temperature, pH levels, salt levels, and the presence of oxygen.

The igneous rocks from are similar to many of those found on Earth, and virtually identical to those found in a handful of environments, including a volcanic field found in Canada.

One question the OSU researchers hope to answer is whether the bacteria begin devouring the rock as soon as they are introduced. Such a discovery would help them estimate when water – and possibly life – may have been introduced on Mars.

The Oregon State University College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences is internationally recognized for its faculty, research and facilities, including state-of-the-art computing infrastructure to support real-time ocean/atmosphere observation and prediction. The college is a leader in the study of the Earth as an integrated system, providing scientific understanding to address complex environmental challenges.

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SPACE PHOTOS THIS WEEK: Spiral Galaxies, Wildfire, More

Like a painter adding texture to a portrait, NASA used data from three of its "great observatories" to create the above composite picture of Messier 101, highlighting the spiral galaxy's many layers of detail.

Visible light (yellow) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope reveals where stars are perched along the galaxy's spiral arms. Infrared light (red) spotted by the Spitzer Space Telescope shows hot, star-forming dust. And x-ray light (blue) seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory marks high-energy gases, debris from exploded stars, and matter zooming around the edges of black holes.

NASA distributed the new picture to museums and schools nationwide to display as part of celebrations for Galileo's birthday on February 15.

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Think You'd Remember the Face of Your Torturer? Think Again

By Alexis Madrigal


CHICAGO — Imagine you've just been through a Guantanamo-style interrogation by a man in a prisoner-of-war camp. You're sitting in an isolation cell, when another of your captors bursts in the door, brandishing a photo of a man, and asking, "Did your interrogator give you anything to eat?" The man leaves, but later as your ordeal is ending, you're asked to pick out your interrogator from nine faces.

Surely, his image would be burned into your memory, right?


Using data from soldiers in a mock prisoner-of-war exercise within the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape programs of the U.S. military, new research shows that eighty-five percent of soldiers chose the man in the photograph — who was not involved in any way — instead of the man who'd actually subjected them to what the military calls a "very stressful interrogation" that could have included a variety of physically demanding tasks and some violence.

In other words, soldiers undergoing mock interrogations can be tricked by simple psychological techniques into misidentifying their interrogator. Combined with other research carried out by Elizabeth Loftus at the University of California, Irvine, psychologists are closing in on the exact procedures for creating false memories in individuals in a wide variety of circumstances.

"It can be said that we're on the brink of having a recipe for how we go about developing a false memory," Loftus told a packed lecture hall here at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

The study of misinformation and false memories have consistently shown that human beings are highly susceptible to suggestion. Much of the work has focused on creating or changing people's memories of the past. Loftus gave several humorous examples of memories that her team has been able to plant in substantial portions of the people in their studies, including convincing people that they had gotten sick from eating strawberry ice cream or the Pluto character at Disneyland had licked "their ears disturbingly and uncomfortably" when they were young children.

The point of these strange-sounding experiments is to find out how reliable human memory is, particularly under assault from misinformation or leading questions. What makes the interrogation research, led by Yale psychiatrist C. Andrew Morgan, so interesting is that the false memory of the interrogator was created mere hours after the experience. Even with the experience fresh in mind, the soldiers proved highly susceptible to misinformation.

Loftus group has tested planting simple misinformation as well as far more complex schemes in her efforts to probe the accuracy of human eyewitness testimony. DNA evidence and other high-tech methods had already created some doubt about how iron-clad the information you receive from seeing something with your own two eyes really is.

The research calls into question the entire eyewitness-based legal system. False memories implanted by researchers, it turns out, look basically identical to real memories. Neuroimaging machines can't tell them apart and neither can researchers.

So now, Loftus and her team are working to find out exactly who is most susceptible to having their memories altered by misinformation.

"I believe to some extent we're all susceptible to succumbing to false memories and having people tinker with our autobiographies," Loftus said, but a big brain can provide some measure of protection. "The smarter you are, the more you resist the misinformation."

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80 missing computers at nuke lab: watchdog

Eighty computers have been lost, stolen or gone "missing" at a major US nuclear weapons lab


Eighty computers have been lost, stolen or gone "missing" at a major US nuclear weapons lab, the nonprofit watchdog group Project On Government Oversight has said.

Eighty computers have been lost, stolen or gone "missing" at a major US nuclear weapons lab, the nonprofit watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has said.

The group posted online a copy of what they say is an internal letter outlining what appear to be worrisome losses at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the state of New Mexico.

The letter says that 13 lab computers were lost or stolen during the past year, three of the machines taken from an employee's home in January. Another 67 computers are deemed "missing."

"The magnitude of exposure and risk to the laboratory is at best unclear as little data on these losses has been collected or pursued," the letter dated February 3 maintains.

The letter, addressed to Department of Energy security officials, contends that "cyber security issues were not engaged in a timely manner" because the computer losses were treated as a "property management issue."

What became of the missing computers and the "security ramifications of each of the 80 systems" was to be detailed in a written report to lab officials by February 6, according to the letter.

AFP telephone calls to the lab on Friday in search of comment were not returned.

Los Alamos was created as a secret facility during World War II and was the site for the Manhattan Project that gave birth to the first nuclear bombs.

It is a major center for research related to national security, outer space, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing.

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New Artificial DNA Points to Alien Life

By Robin Lloyd

CHICAGO — A strange, new genetic code a lot like that found in all terrestrial life is sitting in a beaker full of oily water in a laboratory in Florida, a scientist said today, calling it the first example of an artificial chemical system that is capable of Darwinian evolution.

The system is made of the four molecules that are the basic building blocks of our DNA along with eight synthetic modifications of them, said biochemist Steven A. Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville.

The main difference between the synthetic molecules and those that make up conventional DNA is that Benner's molecules cannot make copies of themselves, although that is just "a couple of years" away, he said.

The wild biochemistry finding, described to a small group of reporters today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, offers ideas about new types of life for scientists to look for beyond our planet, or even possibly hidden on our planet.

"Unless it happens to shoot at you with a ray gun, the life that you encounter off of Earth will not necessarily have same biochemistry as us," Benner said.

And the step from Benner's system to something that could be called artificial life is still large. "There is not enough information in them to build organisms," Benner said.

Expanded alphabet for DNA

For some 20 years, Benner's labs have been involved in trying to make artificial life or things approximating it, with similar genetic and inheritance properties to life on Earth. (Previously, Benner worked at the University of Florida.)

He and his colleagues have focused in part on expanding the DNA alphabet to develop an "Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System," which now has its own supporting molecular biology.

The building blocks of DNA are four chemicals called nucleotides that are referred to as A, C, T and G, for short. The nucleotides pair up and bond in predictable ways to form the double helix structure of DNA. Benner's new nucleotides, which he and his colleagues have named Z, P, V, J, Iso-C, Iso-G, X and K, are reshufflings of the constituents of those molecules found in our DNA.

The evolution in this system happens when the 12-letter genetic code makes copying mistakes and subsequent sequences have properties that make them more liable to get copied. Those sequences would survive in greater numbers than the original sequence.

Benner's synthetic approach was conceptualized using "ball and stick plastic model chemistry," he said, the technique used by James Watson and Francis Crick to arrive at the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

The human genome's DNA includes 3 billion base pairs. Some of the molecules synthesized in Benner's lab are 81 base pairs long — relatively short.

The molecules are "fed" and grow via a process called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that allows the molecules to make copies of themselves. Once the replication of the molecules in Benner's system is self-catalyzed, without PCR, the process is self-sustaining. Benner claims, "then it's artificial life."

Dreaming up extra-terrestrial life

The research resulted from a NASA-funded project to try to understand what life might look like beyond Earth. Such life might live in water, but it could also live in liquid nitrogen or methane (as speculated for Saturn's moon Titan) and in environments with extremely high or low acidity.

The results are published in a technical book, "Life, the Universe and the Scientific Method," of which Benner has made about 100 copies to distribute to his colleagues.

"One of the ways scientists try to understand life as a universal concept ... is you try to make life on your own in the lab," Benner said. "We try to put together chemicals that do that."

Any potential life forms made from such molecules would be "so alien in terms of their biochemistry that they will not able to eat you," Benner said.

NASA has been involved in searching for extra-terrestrial life along numerous avenues for decades, including the Viking mission to Mars in the 1970s and its recent missions to the red planet which have searched for signs of habitability there. NASA also funds an Astrobiology Institute, which partners with hundreds of researchers world-wide who study of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe

The trick to searching for alien life is how to look for it, said Paul Davies of Arizona State University, who also spoke with reporters here today.

"All of the techniques which microbiologists use to [look for alien life] are customized to life as we know it," Davies said. "It's no surprise that microbiologists haven't come across micro-organisms that seem to have relatively different biochemistry."

In the future, more scientists could "talk with Steve Benner," Davies said, "to come up with perfectly good molecules that life could use — but doesn't."

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Targeted Immune Cells Shrink Tumors In Mice

Researchers have generated altered immune cells that are able to shrink, and in some cases eradicate, large tumors in mice. The immune cells target mesothelin, a protein that is highly expressed, or translated in large amounts from the mesothelin gene, on the surface of several types of cancer cells. The approach, developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), shows promise in the development of immunotherapies for certain tumors.

Expression of mesothelin is normally limited to the cells that make up the protective lining (mesothelium) of the body’s cavities and internal organs. However, the protein is abundantly expressed by nearly all pancreatic cancers and mesotheliomas and by many ovarian and non-small-cell lung cancers. Although the biological function of mesothelin is not known for certain, it is thought to play a role in the growth and metastatic spread of the cancers that express it.

“Since tumor cells are derived from the body’s normal cells, the immune system often does not recognize tumor molecules as dangerous or foreign and does not mount a strong attack against them,” said Ira Pastan, M.D., chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, a study collaborator. Moreover, even though it is possible to genetically engineer immune system cells to recognize molecules on tumor cells, most of the molecules found on tumor cells are also found on normal cells. But, Pastan notes, “Mesothelin is a promising candidate for generating tumor-targeting T cells, given its limited expression in normal tissues and high expression in several cancers.”

Previous laboratory research has shown that certain immune system cells, called T cells, can kill tumor cells that express mesothelin. In addition, studies in both animals and humans have shown that antibodies directed against mesothelin protein can shrink tumors.

In the new study, the research team genetically engineered human T cells to target human mesothelin. To produce them, a modified virus was used as a delivery vehicle, or vector, to transfer synthetic genes to T cells. These genes directed the production of hybrid, or chimeric, proteins that can recognize and bind to mesothelin and consequently stimulate the proliferation and cell-killing activity of the T cells. In laboratory studies, the team found that the engineered T cells proliferated and secreted multiple cytokines when exposed to mesothelin. Cytokines are proteins that help control immune functions. The cells also expressed proteins that made them resistant to the toxic effects of tumors and their surrounding tissues.

To study the effects of the engineered T cells on tumor tissue, the researchers implanted human mesothelioma cells underneath the skin of mice. About six weeks later, when tumors had formed and progressed to an advanced stage, the engineered T cells were administered to the mice. Direct injection of the T cells into tumors or into veins of the mice resulted in disappearance or shrinkage of the tumor.

“Based on the size of the tumors and the number of cells administered, we estimate that one mesothelin-targeted T cell was able to kill about 40 tumor cells,” said study leader Carl H. June, M.D., Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of Translational Research at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center. “This finding indicates that small doses of these cells may have potential in treating patients with large tumors. Clinical trials are being developed to investigate this approach in patients with mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.”

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Biotechnology's potential barely exploited: scientists

by Jean-Louis Santini

Biotechnology's potential barely exploited: scientists AFP/HO/File – This picture released by the Seoul research institute Maria BioTech shows human embryonic stem cells. …

CHICAGO (AFP) – New research tools will bring a boom in biotechnology that will unlock the enormous potential of using synthetic life to cure disease and develop environmentally friendly fuels, scientists say.

"If you look at all the things biology can do with technology, we have not yet scratched the surface," said Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.

The past 35 years of biotech development have introduced a number of "tremendous applications," particularly in the area of bioengineered drugs, Endy said at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

Research is now moving ahead at a rapid clip, with "geometric improvements" in tools used to construct DNA from scratch, he said.

And in the area of gene sequencing, it took researchers just six years to go from reading a simple bacteria genome to being able to sequence a human genome.

Last year, researchers at the Venter Institute built a bacteria genome from scratch, he noted.

"I bet we will be able to construct a human chromosome, and the yeast genome," Endy said, offering a six-year forecast. "It sounds a little bit crazy because it's an exponential improvement in the tools."

There is both public and private interest in making these basic tools more relevant.

"We are advocating now a national initiative in synthetic biology that would include in part a route map for getting better in building genetic material, constructing DNA from scratch and assembling it into genes and genomes," Endy said.

An open technology platform "where the genetic componentry is available for anybody who might want to start a biotechnology company" is critical to advancing the field.

"In the next month we will announce a public agreement as a new legal framework for sharing standard biological parts," Endy added.

An open platform could significantly reduce the amount of time and money it takes to develop new drugs, said Jay Keasling, professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Keasling is using a microbe to produce a lower cost anti-malaria drug to replace Artemisinin, a plant-based drug to which resistance is growing and which faces expected supply shortages.

"We anticipate in one or two years that the optimization process will be completed and that production of the drug will commence and have it in the hands of people in Africa shortly thereafter," Keasling said.

Meanwhile, Christina Smolke, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University spoke about her efforts to design molecules that go into the cell and analyze the cellular state before delivering a therapeutic effect.

"Our goal is to make more effective therapies by taking advantage of the natural capabilities of our immune system and introducing slight modifications in cases where it is not doing what we would like it to do," she said.

Smolke said she hoped to translate her technologies into intelligent cellular therapeutics for glaucoma cancer patients in the next five years.

"That's a very optimistic view... but so far things are moving quickly," she said.

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Saliva: Secret Ingredient in the Best Kisses

By Robin Lloyd

CHICAGO — Go ahead. Kiss the girl. And you might make it a wet one, because scientists who are starting to understand the biochemistry of kisses say that saliva increases sex drive.

Those in the kissing-science field of philematology are finding links between kissing and the hormones that affect coupling, researchers said here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And these hormones are one of the keys to our reproductive success, so there's a link to evolution and passing on our genes to the next generation.

"There is evidence that saliva has testosterone in it," said Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, and testosterone increases sex drive. "And there is evidence that men like sloppier kisses with more open mouth. That suggests they are unconsciously trying to transfer testosterone to stimulate sex drive in women."

Men also could be using the saliva transfer to assess women's fertility and estrogen cycle, but they might want to be wary of turning women off with too much slobber, she added.

More than 90 percent of human societies exchange smooches, Fisher said. And the behavior is rampant among pygmy chimpanzees and bonobos, some of our fellow primates. Foxes lick each others' faces, birds tap their bills together, elephants put their trunks into one another's mouths. Charles Darwin himself thought that kissing was a natural instinct.

One study found that 66 percent of women and 59 percent of men say that the quality of the first kiss can kill a relationship, Fisher said.

Kissing is a way of assessing our potential mates, but it's "just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "We're going to find that all kinds of chemical systems are in play in courtship that we are unaware of."

Stress and bonding hormones

Psychologist Wendy Hill at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania is hot on the trail of those chemical systems. In a 2007 study, Hill and her team found interesting differences between the hormone levels of college-aged male-female couples who had kissed and those who had just held hands and listened to music for 15 minutes in a room in a student health center. Subjects were measured for their levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in social recognition, male and female orgasm, and childbirth.

Cortisol (stress) levels decreased in men and women after kissing, but only men's oxytocin levels increased, while women's decreased.

Hill thought that the setting might have been too clinical for the women to get turned on, so she tried in her latest study to up the ambience by locating the couples in a secluded room of an academic building, outfitted with a couch, flowers, jazz music and electric candles.

This time, cortisol levels were found to plummet, post-kissing, in both men and women, Hill found, but the other hormone results are still being analyzed, she told a group of reporters today at the AAAS meeting.

Nourishing origins

Some anthropologists think that kissing originated as a way for mothers to transfer pre-chewed food to their children. In some non-Western societies, so-called pre-mastication is still common. This practice could have led to romantic kissing among adults. Others theorize that kissing started out as a gesture of fusion or union of souls.

Donald Lateiner, a history and classics professor at Ohio Wesleyan University who also spoke to reporters today at AAAS, has investigated who kissed whom and why and when in ancient Athens, Rome and nearby. In his work, he looked at depictions of romantic, familial and social kissing-up in poetry and prose, public and private art, including vase paintings, sculpture and mirror cases.

Kissing is relatively infrequently represented in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, Lateiner said. "That isn't to say there isn't a lot of sex, but there isn't a lot of kissing, which is somewhat different," he added.

Kissing in antiquity served more often to relate men socially in a hierarchy than for erotic purposes, to judge by limited, damaged and biased sources, Lateiner said.

Kowtow kissing, or kissing to demonstrate deference to a social superior, was common in the Near East and became common again (along with kissing of appendages) in the later Roman Empire, Lateiner said.

"I have also found that there was an 'escalation of osculation' in the first century C.E. (A.D.)," Lateiner said. "There was also a kissing disease outbreak, what seems to be Mentagra [a pimply inflammation of the hair follicles, usually in the beard]."

Some of Lateiner's other findings in an analysis of Roman lyric poetry, epigrams and novels: "The Roman novels are slobbery."

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Will Time Travel Ultimately Prove to be Impossible?

Time_travel In what must be the most touching and useful tribute to departed author Arthur C. Clarke ever attempted, a group of scientists authors are trying to dare time travel into existence. Sir Clarke famously stated that "when a [distinguished scientist] states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong". And a lot of distinguished scientists just told LiveScience "Time travel is absolutely impossible".

The authors, including Charles Liu (author of "One Universe: At Home In The Cosmos"), Brian Greene (of "The Elegant Universe") and Michio Kaku ("Hyperspace") float a raft of objections to trans-temporal travel. True to Clarke's statement, sometimes affectionately known as "Clarke's Law", each objection seems more like reason to expect time travel than rule it out. Professor Greene states that all time-travel theories operate at the very boundaries of known physics, and are therefore unlikely to work. As opposed to, say, the boundaries of our understanding being where new discoveries are made. As Sir Clarke said years ago: "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible".

The other chief objection is the incomprehensible amounts of energy required to punch a hole in spacetime, or stabilise a wormhole, or engineer a double-cosmic-string-ring (yes, that's a real astrophysical concept) capable of bending space hard enough to let us pop back to the past. One point eighty-one jigawatts just isn't going to cut it here, whatever "jigawatts" turn out to be, and most calculations show that powering a time machine with a lightning strike would be like powering a sixteen-wheeler with a bag of jelly babies. (So it seems Marty won't be getting back to the future after all). Of course, the idea of lighting up New York would have had you committed to a mental home in the early eighteenth century. Pre-electricity, schemes were being suggested to transport the increasing numbers of people to the scant available heat and light in times of need.

Understand: the amount of energy we now take for granted was so vast, so utterly unimaginable to people in the past that they were preparing to restructure their whole society rather than even attempt to generate it. Of course, this doesn't guarantee that we'll be able to pop back and tell them. The false argument of past scientific ignorance, the "didn't scientists used to think the world was flat" gambit fails because we know so much more now. The key to progress is our cumulative knowledge, developed and refined by generations of researchers into a vast, accurate body of knowledge. We are far more likely to be able to find what's possible than at any point in history. What we know so far is probably right, and allows us to make predictions about what might be possible.

But until we can explain absolutely everything, we should still steer clear of saying something is impossible.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

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What Modern Men Want in Women

By Sally Law

Sally Law has written about health and sexuality for the Cleveland Clinic, and has appeared regularly as a guest host on Sirius Radio. Her column, The Science of Sex, appears weekly on LiveScience.

What do men want in a woman? Brains? Beauty? Vacuuming prowess?

Researchers at the University of Iowa find that men increasingly are interested in intelligent, educated women who are financially stable — and chastity isn't an issue.

The findings are part of a study, conducted every decade since 1939, which asks participants to rank a list of 18 characteristics they would want in a partner on a scale ranging from "irrelevant" to "essential." Included are such items as "sociability" and "good cook, housekeeper," as well as "mutual attraction and love," which came in first place for both men and women in 2008. (In 1939, it wasn't in the top three for either sex.)

Male and female participants in 2008 rounded out their top traits with "dependable character" and "emotional stability, maturity." Men ranked intelligence fourth, a big jump from 11th place in 1939; in addition, "good financial prospect" moved to 12th place in 2008, a shift from its low 17th-place ranking in 1939 and last-place ranking in 1967.

"This is a generation of men who has grown up with educated women as their mothers, teachers, doctors, and role models," said Christine Whelan, head of the study and author of "Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love" (Simon & Schuster, 2008). "And in tough economic times, sharing the financial burden with a spouse takes the burden off these guys to be the sole provider."

The study's participants were college students from the University of Iowa, the University of Washington, the University of Virginia, and Penn State University.

"Like attracts like, so certainly the fact that we were polling college students would suggest that intelligence and education are going to be important characteristics," Whelan says.

Another notable shift involves the significance of chastity: In 1939, it was valued more than intelligence in women, but in 2008, it was ranked the least important characteristic. Furthermore, it also was ranked the least important for men. This, coupled with the shared top-three ranking for both men and women, suggests a commonality that seems positively modern-day.

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Women less tolerant of each other than men are, study finds

The research, published in the US journal Psychological Science, found that women formed a negative view of their peers much quicker than men did.

The team from Emmanuel College in Boston asked male and female college students to rate their room-mates under different scenarios.

When asked to judge how they would rate their room-mates if they carried out a single fictional act of negative behaviour, after they had been otherwise completely trustworthy, women were far more likely to be critical of them.

Men, on the other hand, were much more tolerant.

Women were also more likely to switch to a new room-mate than men were.

The authors, led by associate professor of psychology Joyce Benenson, concluded that women were harsher on their peers because they expected more from their same-sex relationships than men did.

They wrote: "Women may simply weight negative information more heavily than men do, because negative information disrupts the establishment of intimacy, which serves a more important function in same-sex relationships for women than for men."

While the study did not take place in the workplace itself, it would appear to back up previous surveys that have found women prefer to work for a male boss.

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Engineers Revolutionize Nano-device Fabrication Using Amorphous Metals

Various parts (nano-molds, nano-wires, gears, membrane, scalpels, and tweezers) fabricated by molding metallic glass over wide range of length scales -- from 13 nm to several millimeters. (Credit: Kumar/Schroers(Yale))

Yale engineers have created a process that may revolutionize the manufacture of nano-devices from computer memory to biomedical sensors by exploiting a novel type of metal. The material can be molded like plastics to create features at the nano-scale and yet is more durable and stronger than silicon or steel.

The search for a cost-effective and manageable process for higher-density computer chip production at the nano-scale has been a challenge. One solution is making nano-scale devices by simple stamping or molding, like the method used for fabricating CDs or DVDs. This however requires stamps or master molds with nano-scale features. While silicon-based molds produce relatively fine detail, they are not very durable. Metals are stronger, but the grain size of their internal structure does not allow nano-scale details to be imprinted on their surfaces.

Unlike most metals, “amorphous metals” known as bulk metallic glasses (BMGs) do not form crystal structures when they are cooled rapidly after heating. Although they seem solid, they are more like a very slow-flowing liquid that has no structure beyond the atomic level — making them ideal for molding fine details, said senior author Jan Schroers of the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Researchers have been exploring the use of BMGs for about a decade, according to Schroers. “We have finally been able to harness their unusual properties to transform both the process of making molds and producing imprints,” he said. “This process has the potential to replace several lithographic steps in the production of computer chips.”

Schroers says BMGs have the pliability of plastics at moderately elevated temperatures, but they are stronger and more resilient than steel or metals at normal working temperatures.

“We now can make template molds that are far more reliable and lasting than ones made of silicon and are not limited in their detail by the grain size that most metals impose,” said Schroers.

To actually get detail at the nano-scale the researchers had to overcome an issue faced in any molding process — how to get the material to cover the finest detail, and then how to separate the material intact from the mold. Surfaces of liquid metals exhibit high surface tension and capillary effects that can interfere in the molding.

Postdoctoral fellow Golden Kumar found that by altering the mold-BMG combination they could create surfaces so that the atoms take advantage of their favorable interaction with the mold— to both fill the mold and then release the product.

In this paper, Schroers’ team reports nano-patterning of details as small as 13 nanometers— about one ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair — and the scientists expect that even finer detail will be possible since the BMGs are only limited by the size of a single atom.

While ‘plastics!’ was the catchword of the 1960’s, Schroers says, “We think ‘BMGs!’ will be the buzz-word for the coming decade.”

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Genome data moves Darwin forward

U.S. researchers say data from the Human Genome Project are shedding new light on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

"Over the ages we cataloged the anatomical differences between people and eventually biochemical differences, too. Now we can get down to the molecular differences," Carlos D. Bustamante, a professor of computational biology at Cornell University, told The Washington Post. (NYSE:WPO)

Researchers said many common health problems -- such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure -- may have been caused by natural selection.

The report said more than 300 human genes show evidence of recent mutations and it is estimated that at least 10 percent of the human genome has undergone natural selection during the past 200,000 years.

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A bitter face-off in Japan over whaling

Nisshin Maru

Jamie Holland of the group Sea Shepherd braces for an evasive move in front of the Nisshin Maru off Antarctica. Environmentalists routinely harass Japanese whaling boats during the nation's controversial annual hunt for minke and fin whales.

By John M. Glionna

unichi Sato's face clenched when he recalled opening the reeking box of whale meat -- all 50 pounds of it.

"At first we thought it was someone's dismembered body," Sato said. "It was quite depressing."

He and fellow Greenpeace activist Toru Suzuki had tracked the package to a mail depot in northern Japan after tipsters told them it contained whale meat bound for the country's black market, smuggled by crew members of a ship commissioned to kill the mammals for scientific research, not profit.

But when they held a cameras-flashing news conference last spring to turn the meat over to police, the officers instead arrested the activists for trespass and theft.

That put them at the center of a bitter face-off between environmentalists and the Japanese government, which many believe wants to severely punish the pair as a warning to citizens who question the country's controversial whaling policy.

Japanese officials say the men -- dubbed the Tokyo Two -- are eco-terrorists who stole the meat from a legitimate transporter to falsely malign the nation's whaling establishment. The pair faced a pretrial hearing in their case this week; they could receive up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

"These men have been painted as heroes," said Joji Morishita, consulate for the Japanese government's powerful Fisheries Agency, which sponsors the whale hunts. "They're not heroes."

The case has shifted the front lines of the war over Japan's whaling program from the frigid waters off Antarctica, where 100 whales are culled by Japan each winter, to the streets of Tokyo and the court of public opinion.

It also is a rare occurrence of Japanese taking the lead in protesting their government's environmental policies. In a culture where demonstrations are rare and a premium is put on polite public discourse, Sato and Suzuki's actions have raised eyebrows.

"Usually it's Australians, Americans or British taking action, not the Japanese themselves," said Keiko Hirata, a political scientist at Cal State Northridge who specializes in Japanese foreign policy.

Along with putting Japan's whaling practices on trial, experts say, the case calls into question the tactics of activist groups such as Greenpeace, which are often viewed here as meddling outsiders.

Although commercial whaling was banned in 1986, Japan is permitted to kill the animals for "lethal research" on their migratory and other habits in anticipation of a return to sustainable commercial hunts. Norway and Iceland also cull a limited number of whales each year.

Environmentalists routinely harass Japanese whaling boats during the hunt for the nation's disputed annual harvest of 935 minke and 50 fin whales. The group Sea Shepherd has been accused of tactics such as firing acid, mud, nails and water cannons at the vessels.

After the arrest of the two activists, Greenpeace supporters sent 250,000 letters to Japanese prosecutors and a delegation handed a letter of protest to the office of Prime Minister Taro Aso.

"This has become a very political case," Suzuki said. "The government wants to destroy Greenpeace."

Morishita responded icily to Greenpeace assertions that the men have not been treated fairly. "If they don't trust our police," he said, "there is no basis for further discussion."

Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and officials say the culls are a part of the national identity. But consumption of the meat, once a staple of the country's diet, is now restricted to a few upscale restaurants and coastal whaling villages.

The whaling issue has strained relations between Japan and allies such as New Zealand and Australia, which have publicly expressed displeasure with the annual hunt. Britain has hinted that it might take the matter to the United Nations.

Japanese officials say they are the target of emotional propaganda.

"Critics say the whale is a special animal to be protected. We'd like to treat it exactly like any other wildlife hunted worldwide, such as deer or kangaroos," Morishita said.

"What would the Americans say if India suddenly said they should stop eating beef because the cow is special to their culture?" he asked. "That is what is happening to us."

Polls show that 56% of Japanese approve of eating whale meat. More men than women support the practice, which is also more strongly backed by people older than 40.

"Much of this support isn't because people are pro-whaling or are willing to eat whale meat," said Atsushi Ishii, a professor at Japan's Tohoku University who specializes in the nation's environmental policies. "People are against the anti-whalers. They don't like being told what to do by the outside groups."

Sato, a 32-year-old former English teacher, said he was unaware of the international protest against Japan's whaling until he joined Greenpeace a few years ago.

"The more I read about the issue, the more I realized that what the Japanese government is telling the public is a lie," he said. "I wanted to make this a Japanese issue."

He said activists received a tip last year that a package labeled as having "cardboard" contents would contain illegal whale meat. They intercepted the box and later opened it at a nearby hotel, shocked at what they found inside.

But they were more stunned by the backlash against their actions in the Japanese news media. Apparently tipped off by authorities, TV cameras accompanied police who arrested the men and searched Greenpeace offices.

"We expected the media to support us," said Suzuki, 42, who once owned a motorcycle repair firm. "But they turned against us."

Both men were held for the maximum 23 days without being charged, and said they were interrogated for as long as 12 hours a day while handcuffed and tied to chairs. Suzuki refused to speak for 13 days and waged a weeklong hunger strike, maintaining that he was a political prisoner.

Lawyers say the men's rights were violated.

"They took a stand against Japan's national policy," defense attorney Yuichi Kaido said. "So they are being harshly punished."

Since their release, the men have been banned from talking to each other or other Greenpeace activists. They cannot leave home for extended periods or travel abroad and can only speak with journalists separately, in the offices of their lawyers.

Both say they have been constantly followed by undercover police officers and received anonymous threats after their addresses were reported by the news media.

"In Japanese society, being arrested means a lot," Sato said. "People see a guy on TV in handcuffs and assume he's guilty."

Sato, a father of one, and Suzuki, whose wife is expecting their first child, refuse to back down. "The government's killing of these whales is wrong," Suzuki said. "There is no justification for it."

Sato said that no matter what, they achieved their goal of bringing the alleged whale meat scandal to public light.

"We achieved that," he said. Then he added softly: "Perhaps we overachieved."

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Twelve Frog Species Discovered in India

Samsung unveils solar-powered cell phone

Samsung Electronics today rolled out a solar-powered cell phone called the "Blue Earth." The phone will be a touch-screen phone without physical buttons, like the iPhone. The solar panel is on the back of the handset.

The Blue Earth phone will be made from the plastic of recycled water bottles and contains no Brominated Flame Retardants, Beryllium or Phthalate, according to Samsung.

Even the packaging is politically correct, and made from recycled paper. The charger -- for when or where the sun doesn't shine -- uses only 0.03 watts on standby.

Here's the company's press release.

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Stimulus Could GIve Calif. High-Speed Rail


When the high-speed rail system is complete, it is expected to cover 800 miles and reach speeds of up to 220 mph.

Suddenly, the state of California may have moved even closer to getting high-speed rail.

High-Speed Rail Lines Around the World


The California Public Interest Research group hailed news on Thursday that billions of dollars in President Barack Obama's recently passed stimulus plan could be used to pay for the state's new high-speed rail system.

Congress added $9.3 billion in the American Reinvestment and Economic Recovery Act for development of high-speed rail and other intercity rail throughout the U.S.

The amount was a large increase from the Senate version of the bill and came on top of $8.4 billion already designated for other public transit agencies.

“This bill, especially the money for high speed rail, marks a bold step for 21st century transportation,” said John Krieger, with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “After decades of looking on with envy at efficient bullet trains overseas, American high speed rail is finally leaving the station.”

CALPIRG officials said they cannot yet say just how much of the $9.3 billion will go towards high speed rail in California.

"It cannot be accurately said at this point because the money will go through a competitive grants process, which will be determined by the Federal Transit Administration," said Erin Steva, transportation associate with CALPIRG.

The FTA must make sure that the high-speed rail project is worthy of receiving the money.

"Given the passage of Proposition 1A, I think the state is well positioned to be able to capitalize on this opportunity," Steva said.

Both Democrats, Republicans Supported Public Transportation

The additional high-speed rail funds mark the second time that public transportation has bucked the general trend in the Recovery Act.

When the bill came to the floor of the House, dozens of amendments for additional were all defeated – with the sole exception of a measure to add $3 billion to public transportation.

That amendment passed on a voice vote without opposition and with speeches of support from Republicans.

The money for high-speed rail development and for intercity rail will be spent largely on projects to build and improve tracks, signals, and stations, as well as to make pedestrian, auto and transit crossings safer near corridors.

Some of it will be spent to modernize Amtrak, which has seen six years of record ridership gains.

Californians recently passed a $10 billion ballot measure for a North-South high-speed rail link for trains which will travel over 220 mph.

The project could avoid the need for costly airport and highway expansion and millions of gallons of oil consumption.

The push for rail and other transit comes at a time of record levels of public transportation and Amtrak ridership and growing frustration with airports.

Europe, Japan and China already have thousands of miles of high-speed rail.

Experts have said high-speed rail is a more efficient and time-saving option than airplanes for trips less than 500 miles.

"Funds for transit and other rail will get Americans back to work while reducing dependence on oil and congestion at highways and airports," Krieger said.

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Biggest Solar Deal Ever Announced — We're Talking Gigawatts

By Alexis Madrigal

The largest series of solar installations in history, more than 1,300 megawatts, is planned for the desert outside Los Angeles, according to a new deal between the utility Southern California Edison and solar power plant maker, BrightSource.

The momentous deal will deliver more electricity than even the largest nuclear plant, spread out among seven facilities, the first of which will start up in 2013. When fully operational, the companies say the facility will provide enough electricity to power 845,000 homes — more than exist in San Francisco — though estimates like that are notoriously squirrely.

The technology isn't the familiar photovoltaics — the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity — but solar thermal power, which concentrates the sun's rays to create steam in a boiler and spin a turbine.

"We do see solar as the large untapped resource, particularly in Southern California," said Stuart Hemphill, vice president of renewable energy and power at Southern California Edison. "It's barely tapped and we're eager to see it expand in our portfolio."

BrightSource is the reincarnation of Luz International, which built the only currently operating solar thermal facility during the 1980s in the Mojave Desert. After natural gas and energy prices plunged in 1985, that operation became unprofitable. The group's engineers and founders moved the business to Israel, where they continued to work on their technology.

The new deal breaks the company's own record for the largest ever solar deal. The new installations, when completed, will produce 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Previously, they'd cut a deal to deliver 900 megawatts of power to the Northern California utility, PG&E.

"Coupled with our earlier partnership with PG&E, this agreement proves that the energy industry recognizes the important role that solar thermal will play in the energy future," John Woolard, CEO of BrightSource, said in a press conference with reporters.

While Brightsource is a leader in the field, a variety of other companies compete in the solar thermal space. and other investors have backed eSolar's with $130 million funding. Abu Dhabi's clean-tech fund, Masdar, has funded a $1.2 billion solar thermal company called Torresol. Yet another player, Abengoa, recently signed a $4 billion deal with Arizona Public Utilities, and Stirling Energy Systems, a company that has adapted the Stirling Engine, a 200-year-old invention, for concentrated solar power, even pulled in a $100 million investment.

The first of the seven installations will be in Ivanpah, California and will be rated at 100 megawatts of peak power. The companies expect it to produce 286,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year. When all the installations are finished, they'll stretch over 10,500 acres of land.

Southern California Edison's Hemphill said that the new plants would provide a valuable hedge against volatile natural gas prices, noting that his company had seen natural gas prices as low as $4 per thousand million cubic feet (a standard industry measure) and as high as $16. Given the variability of natural gas pricing, Hemphill said that his company did not expect the solar thermal electricity to exceed the market cost of electricity in California.

The 1980s-era solar thermal plants use the oldest solar thermal technology around, known as a parabolic trough. Mirrors shaped like a paper-towel roll cut in half concentrate the sun's rays on a liquid. That heat can be transformed into various types of energy. The Luz fields made electricity, but Frank Shuman built a plant based on this principle to pump water in Egypt in the first decade of the 20th century.

The new design sounds more exciting. Mirrors that track the sun — heliostats — sit in a massive field around a tower with a boiler. All those mirrors concentrate the sun's heat on the boiler, which makes steam and drives a turbine.

Solar thermal is seen as a promising source of energy for city-scale power because it works on very well established principles. Photovoltaics have come down in price — and thin-film plastic solar cells could get even cheaper — but the conversion of sunlight to electricity remains a novel source of energy. The first working cells were only built half a century ago, and they were truly something new in the world.

Steam-driven turbines, on the other hand, make almost 90 percent of the world's electricity and their ancestry stretches back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Solar thermal engineers, then, can use the knowledge gained from more than a century of tinkering at coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission plants.

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