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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Air-breathing planes: the spaceships of the future?

by Rachel Courtland

Planned projects such as the Skylon plane (illustrated) would use oxygen from the atmosphere to burn fuel for at least part of the way to space (Illustration: Mann/Reaction Engines)

Getting to space has never been simple. A standing army of thousands is needed to launch the space shuttle, land it safely, and refurbish it so it is once again ready for flight.

And even the most basic space rockets require multiple stages, whose weight is mostly taken up by oxidisers needed to burn fuel. Rockets launch vertically to minimise the time they spend where Earth's gravity is strongest and shed stages to reduce their weight as they climb.

For decades, engineers have dreamed of a better way: a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that would be lighter, cheaper, and easy to reuse. A fleet of these vehicles, supporters say, could be almost as easy to maintain as conventional jet planes, reducing the preparation time before each launch from months to days or even hours.

Since most of a rocket's weight is taken up by oxidiser, one logical approach is to save weight by developing an engine that can use oxygen from the atmosphere to burn fuel at least part of the way.

Are we getting any closer to this goal? Last week, the UK firm Reaction Engines announced they had received €1 million from the European Space Agency to develop three key parts for an air-breathing rocket engine. The firm hopes those components could one day help fulfill a decades-old plan to build a space plane called Skylon, which could take off and land on a runway like a conventional jet.

But Skylon isn't the only game in town. New Scientist takes a look at air-breathing technology and what it could mean for the future of spaceflight.

How do air-breathing engines work?

The basic air-breathing engine uses inlets at the front of the vehicle to suck in air. What happens after that depends on the design.

One common engine is the ramjet, which uses the geometry of the engine to slow air down. But ramjets are only useful at relatively low speeds. At hypersonic speeds - above 5 times the speed of sound, or Mach 5 - the slowed air is too hot to be useful for combustion.

A popular solution to this problem is the scramjet, which does not slow air down very much, but instead quickly mixes the fast-flowing air with fuel together to create thrust. But scramjets are only useful above Mach 5, meaning another system, perhaps a conventional rocket, is needed to propel the plane to hypersonic speeds.

How fast can air-breathing engines travel?

The answer is not yet clear, since the technology has not undergone many tests. But at a certain speed, researchers believe air can't be mixed fast enough with fuel to combust it. That puts a limit on how fast air-breathing engines can go and suggests they will need to depend on rocket power to get that last boost into orbit.

Estimates for the speed limit of scramjets, for example, range from Mach 12 to Mach 20 (depending largely on the type of fuel used), says Mark Lewis, an aerospace engineer at the University of Maryland in College Park. That's still short of the Mach 25 or so needed to reach orbit and means scramjet flights would begin and end with a rocket phase.

What is Skylon's approach?

Skylon's proposed engine would use a heat exchanger to cool incoming air from 1000 °C at Mach 5 to less than -100 °C. Once cooled, the air is mixed with liquid hydrogen and burned.

Unlike scramjets, Skylon is designed to run in air-breathing mode directly from launch up to a speed of Mach 5.5. At an altitude of 26 kilometres, the engine would switch to conventional rocket power and use onboard oxygen to propel the plane into space.

"It's a pretty unique concept," says Mark Hempsell, director of future programmes at Reaction Engines. "I think at the moment it's the only realistic way to make aircraft vehicles that go into space."

The design should be sufficient to power a 43-tonne plane that can loft 12 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit, about half what the space shuttle can carry, the firm says.

How far along is the technology?

The most well-developed hypersonic air-breathing engines are small ones that are easily adapted to act as missile propulsion systems.

Two of the longest and fastest hypersonic air-breathing flights on record were made by NASA's X-43, a 5-metre-long scramjet-powered vehicle that accomplished two powered flights lasting roughly 10 seconds at Mach 7 and Mach 10 in 2004.

But that might change soon. Later in 2009, the US Air Force plans to begin test flights of a scramjet called the X-51. A B-52 bomber jet will be used to carry the vehicle to an altitude of 15 km, where it will be released and run for 4 to 5 minutes, accelerating to Mach 6.

Given the range of options, what's the best engine to use?

"As with all these things, the devil is in the details," says propulsion expert Aaron Auslander of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

There may be multiple ways to get to orbit. Picking the best design requires a better understanding of how cost effective and reliable the vehicles will be, Auslander says.

"I think all approaches are on the table," Lewis told New Scientist. Reaction Engines is "looking at one possible combination of engine system, and there's really a much broader range of options we need to explore before we know what to fly up to orbit," he adds.

Because scramjets might operate over the widest range of speeds, possibly up to Mach 20, Lewis says, they might be the most effective choice: "The farther you can go in the atmosphere, the greater the advantage will be."

But because scramjets would need a rocket to launch, and rockets accelerate too fast for tires, a scramjet plane would either have to launch vertically or on some sort of rail system, says Lewis.

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Obama backs Moon return in NASA budget

by Rachel Courtland

The plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 will continue, despite calls for the agency to go to asteroids or Mars (Illustration: NASA)

NASA will stay on track to return humans to the Moon by 2020, according to an overview of President Obama's 2010 budget request released on Thursday.

Recently, various groups - including Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the space advocacy group the Planetary Society - have called for NASA to send astronauts to new destinations, such as asteroids.

But the budget request backs a plan developed under the Bush administration to retire the space shuttle by 2010 and develop a system to return humans to the Moon by 2020.

However, the document does not specify whether the Moon return will be accomplished by NASA's Constellation programme, which aims to build a crew capsule called Orion and rockets called Ares to replace the shuttle.

Obama's transition team was reported to have raised questions about the programme's Ares rockets, which have been plagued by design concerns that include excess vibrations.

Some argue that existing rockets, such as the Atlas V or Delta IV currently used to loft spacecraft, would be better alternatives, while others back a new design.

'Proceed as you were'

NASA's former chief, Mike Griffin, was a staunch supporter of the Constellation programme, but he resigned in January and his successor has not yet been named.

"The budget doesn't say a whole lot about any specific system," says John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. "I wouldn't interpret the absence of the words 'Constellation', 'Ares', and 'Orion' one way or another. That's really up to the the new management team, when it gets there."

Indeed, NASA is planning to stay the course - at least for now. "The direction we have at the current time is, 'Proceed as you were,'" says agency spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.

Under the proposed budget, the agency would receive $18.7 billion in 2010. Combined with $1 billion in funding provided in an economic stimulus package signed into law last week, NASA would get $2.4 billion more than it did in 2008.

Climate change

"It's a nice number," Logsdon told New Scientist. "Between the proposed increase and the stimulus package, NASA's $2.4 billion [would leave it] better off than it was last year."

The budget would also likely be a boost over 2009 funding levels. The agency's 2009 budget has not yet been settled. NASA has been operating at 2008 funding levels under a continuing resolution since October 2008.

But on Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed an omnibus bill to fund NASA for 2009. It calls for a $360 million increase in the agency's human exploration budget, which includes $2.9 billion for the Constellation programme. NASA's science budget would decline $200 million from 2008 levels. The US Senate is now considering the bill.

Climate change research and monitoring tops the list of funding highlights in the overview of NASA's budget request, but the budget for specific agency programmes is not included. A detailed budget request is not expected before April.

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Eye of God pictured in space

Eye of God:
Nicknamed the Eye of God, the amazing
object is actually a shell of gas and
dust that has been blown off by a faint
central star.
Photo: ESO

The bright blue pupil and the white of the eye are fringed by flesh-coloured eyelids - but this eye is so big that it light takes two and a half years to cross from one side to the other.

The object is actually a shell of gas and dust that has been blown off by a faint central star. Our own solar system will meet a similar fate five billion years in the future.

It lies around 700 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, and can be dimly seen in small backyard telescopes by amateur astronomers who call it the Helix nebula. It covers an area of sky around a quarter the size of the full moon.

The photo was taken with a giant telescope at the European Southern Observatory, high on a mountaintop at La Silla in Chile. It is so detailed that a close-up reveals distant galaxies within the central eyeball.

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Galaxy may be full of 'Earths,' alien life

(CNN) -- As NASA prepares to hunt for Earth-like planets in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy, there's new buzz that "Star Trek's" vision of a universe full of life may not be that far-fetched.

An artist's impression shows a planet passing in front of its parent star. Such events are called transits.

An artist's impression shows a planet passing in front of its parent star. Such events are called transits.

Pointy-eared aliens traveling at light speed are staying firmly in science fiction, but scientists are offering fresh insights into the possible existence of inhabited worlds and intelligent civilizations in space.

There may be 100 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, or one for every sun-type star in the galaxy, said Alan Boss, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution and author of the new book "The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets."

He made the prediction based on the number of "super-Earths" -- planets several times the mass of the Earth, but smaller than gas giants like Jupiter -- discovered so far circling stars outside the solar system.

Boss said that if any of the billions of Earth-like worlds he believes exist in the Milky Way have liquid water, they are likely to be home to some type of life.

"Now that's not saying that they're all going to be crawling with intelligent human beings or even dinosaurs," he said.

"But I would suspect that the great majority of them at least will have some sort of primitive life, like bacteria or some of the multicellular creatures that populated our Earth for the first 3 billion years of its existence."

Putting a number on alien worlds

Other scientists are taking another approach: an analysis that suggests there could be hundreds, even thousands, of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland constructed a computer model to create a synthetic galaxy with billions of stars and planets. They then studied how life evolved under various conditions in this virtual world, using a supercomputer to crunch the results.

Galaxy Quest

• The Milky Way is believed to be more than 13 billion years old.

• It is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

• The Milky Way has a circumference of about 250,000-300,000 light years.

• It is about 100,000 light years in diameter.

• There are three types of galaxies: ellipticals, spirals and irregulars.

• The Milky Way is a large disk-shaped barred spiral galaxy. (A barred galaxy has a bar-shaped structure in its middle.)

Source: Space.com

In a paper published recently in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the researchers concluded that based on what they saw, at least 361 intelligent civilizations have emerged in the Milky Way since its creation, and as many as 38,000 may have formed.

Duncan Forgan, a doctoral candidate at the university who led the study, said he was surprised by the hardiness of life on these other worlds.

"The computer model takes into account what we refer to as resetting or extinction events. The classic example is the asteroid impact that may have wiped out the dinosaurs," Forgan said.

"I half-expected these events to disallow the rise of intelligence, and yet civilizations seemed to flourish."

Forgan readily admits the results are an educated guess at best, since there are still many unanswered questions about how life formed on Earth and only limited information about the 330 "exoplanets" -- those circling sun-like stars outside the solar system -- discovered so far.

The first was confirmed in 1995 and the latest just this month when Europe's COROT space telescope spotted the smallest terrestrial exoplanet ever found. With a diameter less than twice the size of Earth, the planet orbits very close to its star and has temperatures up to 1,500° Celsius (more than 2,700° Fahrenheit), according to the European Space Agency. It may be rocky and covered in lava.

Hunt for habitable planets

NASA is hoping to find much more habitable worlds with the help of the upcoming Kepler mission. The spacecraft, set to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida next week, will search for Earth-size planets in our part of the galaxy.

Kepler contains a special telescope that will study 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way for more than three years. It will look for small dips in a star's brightness, which can mean an orbiting planet is passing in front of it -- an event called a transit.

"It's akin to measuring a flea as it creeps across the headlight of an automobile at night," said Kepler project manager James Fanson during a during a NASA news conference.

The focus of the mission is finding planets in a star's habitable zone, an orbit that would ensure temperatures in which life could exist.

Boss, who serves on the Kepler Science Council, said scientists should know by 2013 -- the end of Kepler's mission -- whether life in the universe could be widespread.

Finding intelligent life is a very different matter. For all the speculation about the possibility of other civilizations in the universe, the question remains: If the rise of life on Earth isn't unique and aliens are common, why haven't they shown up or contacted us? The contradiction was famously summed up by the physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950 in what became known as the Fermi paradox: "Where is everybody?"

The answer may be the vastness of time and space, scientists explained.

"Civilizations come and go," Boss said. "Chances are, if you do happen to find a planet which is going to have intelligent life, it's not going to be in [the same] phase of us. It may have formed a billion years ago, or maybe it's not going to form for another billion years."

Even if intelligent civilizations did exist at the same time, they probably would be be separated by tens of thousands of light years, Forgan said. If aliens have just switched on their transmitter to communicate, it could take us hundreds of centuries to receive their message, he added.

As for interstellar travel, the huge distances virtually rule out any extraterrestrial visitors. iReport.com: Share your view of the universe

To illustrate, Boss said the fastest rockets available to us right now are those being used in NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Even going at that rate of speed, it would take 100,000 years to get from Earth to the closest star outside the solar system, he added.

"So when you think about that, maybe we shouldn't be worried about having interstellar air raids any time soon," Boss said.

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5 of the Worst Space Launch Failures

By Wired Science


Space flight is a tough business. In the 52 years since the beginning of American efforts to reach space, more than 160 launches, including that of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory on February 24, have failed. Here are some of the most devastating failures.

December 6, 1957: Vanguard TV3
The United States’ first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit was also its first failure. Two seconds after leaving the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, this rocket lost thrust and sank back down, rupturing and exploding its fuel tanks. It had reached a height of about four feet. Though the rocket was destroyed, the Vanguard satellite it was carrying was thrown clear, its transmitters still signaling. It is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. Image (above): NASA


Apollo_6_launch2 April 4, 1968: Apollo 6
This was the final unmanned test for the Saturn V rocket before it would carry a three-man crew around the moon and back, and things did not go as planned. Two minutes and five seconds into launch, the rocket was severely shaken by “pogo oscillations” — variations in thrust caused by changing fuel rates (and named after the bouncy children’s toy). In unrelated flaws, parts flew off the lunar module adapter, and two of the five engines shut down prematurely during the second stage burn. Apollo 6 did manage to reach space, but never made it to its planned 100-mile circular orbit. Later, the third rocket stage would also fail to reignite. Image: NASA

Challengersmoke_2 January 28, 1986: Challenger
Many were watching live when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts on board. At fault was the O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster, which ruptured upon liftoff and allowed a jet of pressurized gas to rush from the motor. The resulting destruction caused the shuttle’s liquid hydrogen fuel to explode and aerodynamic forces to tear apart the orbiter. The shuttle program was suspended for 32 months while the accident was investigated. Image: NASA

Geosg_launch2_2
May 3, 1986: GOES-G

Sometimes when it rains, it pours. This NOAA weather satellite was to be NASA’s first launch following the Challenger disaster. But the rocket was struck by lightning shortly after launch. Only 71 seconds after liftoff, an electrical fault caused the Delta 3194 rocket's first-stage engine to shut down prematurely. NASA destroyed the rocket 20 seconds later to avoid having it fall dangerously back to Earth. Image: NASA

Volna_ontruck June 21, 2005: Cosmos 1
Cosmos 1, a project of the Planetary Society and Cosmos Studios, would have been the first solar sail spacecraft, and the first space mission by a space advocacy group. Instead, the Volna rocket used to launch it from a Russian submarine never completed its scheduled burn, and the spacecraft crashed into the Barents Sea. Image: The Planetary Society

— Elise Kleeman

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Readying for Mars: Live 'Clean Room Cam' and Chat

Mars Science Lab in the clean room at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL

What goes into building a mission destined for Mars? NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is being assembled and tested right now in the clean room at JPL. Join us for a rare opportunity to go behind-the-scenes to see engineers and technicians as they work on this project which is scheduled to launch in 2011.

The live clean room video will be available on Ustream TV on Feb. 24 beginning at 10 a.m. Pacific. David Gruel, manager of assembly, test and launch operations for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, will be answering your questions from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the mission, will answer questions between 11:30 a.m. and noon. The Mars Science Laboratory rover is some five times heavier and more capable than any of its predecessors. The roaming laboratory will carry a Swiss army-like toolkit to explore sites on Mars that may be favorable for supporting microbial life.

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A green goddess: Two-tailed comet snapped streaking past Earth

By Daily Mail Reporter

We have known of its existence for only two years. But one scientist has captured an awe-inspiring picture of comet Lulin as it streaked past Earth on its ever-onward journey.

Glowing an eerie green, it came within 38million miles of Earth yesterday, the closest it has ever been, and about the same distance away as Mars.

Richard Richins from New Mexico State University snapped this spectacular picture in calm conditions two nights ago.

Enlarge Lulin

Lulin over New Mexico on 23rd February

The central coma of the comet is clearly visible and the greenish hue suggests it contains cyanogen - a colourless toxic gas - and diatomic carbon.

Lulin appears to have two tails with a yellow dust tail visible trailing to the left and a textured bluish-glowing ion tail to the right.

The spectacular comet will be brightest over the next few nights before fading away in the coming weeks.

It is almost 180 degrees around from the Sun and so visible nearly all night long,

Enlarge

This stunning picture shows comet Lulin glowing green in the sky as it makes its closest approach to Earth

Enlarge

Comet Lulin is delighting amateur astronomers who are observing it using telescopes and binoculars

Lulin was discovered by a 19-year-old student from a photo taken at Lulin Observatory-Taiwan, in 2007.

The stellar traveller is very active, shedding nearly 800 gallons of water each second on its journey around the Sun. That's enough liquid to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than 15 minutes.

Nasa said: 'This appears to be Lulin's first visit to the inner solar system and its first exposure to intense sunlight. Surprises are possible.'

Astronomers using the Nasa Swift Satellite are tracking a spectacular comet as it closes in on Earth and sheds gas and dust from its vaporised ice. This combined view shows combined ultraviolet and X-ray images of the object

British astronomers from Leicester University will study the comet using the NASA Swift Satellite to find out more about its chemistry and gather clues about the origin of comets and the solar system.

Swift has already revealed that Lulin is surrounded by a hydroxyl cloud spanning nearly 250,000 miles, or slightly greater than the distance between Earth and the moon.

Andrew Read, from Leicester University, said: 'The comet is releasing a great amount of gas, which makes it an ideal target for X-ray observations.'

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Military to use new gel that stops bullets

By Thomas Harding Defence Correspondent

d3O gel: New gel to stop bullets
Richard Palmer invented the D3O shock
absorbing material that locks instantly
into a solidified form when it is hit at high impact
Photo: REUTERS

The Ministry of Defence has awarded £100,000 to a small company that has developed a special substance that hardens immediately on impact.

It is hoped that the shock-absorbing substance will soon be fitted onto the inside of soldiers' helmets reducing in half the kinetic energy of a bullet or piece of shrapnel and hopefully making them impenetrable.

The gel, called d3O locks instantly into a solidified form when it is hit at high impact.

"When moved slowly, the molecules will slip past each other, but in a high-energy impact they will snag and lock together, becoming solid," said Richard Palmer, who invented the gel. "In doing so they absorb energy."

The d3O gel has already expanded into a range of sporting goods and is found in ski gloves, shin guards, ballet shoe pointes and horse-riding equipment. The substance relies on "intelligent molecules" that "shock lock" together to absorb energy and create a solid pad. Once the pressure has gone they return to their normal flexible state.

The gel is stitched into clothing or equipment that is supple until it stiffens into a protective barrier on impact.

If the product is taken on by defence contractors it could be used to reduce the current bulky and restrictive armour used by troops in on the frontline with gel pads inserted into key protective areas.

Mr Palmer said it was the equivalent to comparing "cumbersome" RoboCop to Spiderman with the latter's protection "nimble covert and flexible".

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Obama Budget Strong in Science

By Alexis Madrigal
President Barack Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2010 budget Wednesday — and it's full of good news for scientific research.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency will all increase substantially, although details remain scarce. Combined with the billions doled out in the stimulus package, government scientific agencies will be better funded than they have been in recent memory, if Congress doesn't change Obama's plans too much.

Notable areas in the new budget include:

  • A $2.7 billion increase in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget. That's a 35 percent increase that will push the agency's budget to $10.5 billion. The EPA also got $7 billion in the stimulus package.
  • The National Science Foundation, which builds the big, cool tools for American science, will get an 8.5 percent bump to its budget. Combined with the $3 billion it got stimulated with, it'll have $10 billion to play with.
  • NASA will only get to tack $700 million onto its $18 billion budget from last year but they picked up an extra billion dollars in stimulus cash, too.
  • The Department of Energy raked in $39 billion from the stimulus package. In comparison, the $2.4 billion bump it would get from Obama's budget isn't much. More importantly, we don't know how much more money the DOE's Office of Science will get to add to its $4.8 billion budget. One interesting tidbit: the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, an energy research unit modeled on DARPA, finally got $400 million to start up. Former President Bush officially created ARPA-E last year, but it received no funding until the stimulus package.

Stay tuned for more details. We'll be watching as more details about how the agencies will be spending this money emerges.

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Lost world of extremophiles hides beneath Great Lakes

by Catherine Brahic

A diver sets up a respiration chamber experiment near the purple microbial mats at Middle Island Sinkhole in Lake Huron (Image: Tane Casserley, NOAA)

A diver sets up a respiration chamber experiment near the purple microbial mats at Middle Island Sinkhole in Lake Huron (Image: Tane Casserley, NOAA)

We normally think of freshwater lakes and salty oceans as two distinct worlds. Not so in the North American Great Lakes. Just 20 metres beneath the surface of some of the largest freshwater reservoirs on Earth are deep brine-filled pockets.

Now, researchers are discovering that these unusual sinkholes are home to extraordinary communities of microscopic bacteria. The organisms are not new to science, but preliminary genetic analysis is showing that they are relatives of bacteria that live in the subglacial lakes of Antarctica. Others are functionally similar to the extremophile bacteria living on the black smokers of the deep ocean.

The sinkholes were discovered in 2001, when a sonar expedition searching for shipwrecks found deep pits, up to 100 metres across, in the lake floor. The underwater pits have formed in places where an ancient underlying seabed is dissolving.

As groundwater water rises through the carbonate bedrock, it dissolves minerals and carries them into the lake. "You have this pristine fresh water lake that has what amounts to materials from 400 million years ago being pushed out into [it]," says Steven Ruberg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ruberg is part of a team of researchers who are studying the chemistry and biology of these odd pockets of life. So far, they have found that the water inside them is chemically very different to the overlying lake water. For starters, it is rich in sulphates and low in oxygen. It is also significantly more acidic, contains more chloride, less dissolved organic carbon, and supports entirely different life forms to the rest of the lake.

Dispersal mystery

In these pockets, fish and plankton give way to dense communities of brilliant purple cyanobacteria that photosynthesise using sulphur instead of oxygen and give off hydrogen sulfide – the gas associated with rotting eggs. In deeper sinkholes, where light levels are too low for photosynthesis, bacterial communities form pale floating "ponytails" that can metabolise sulphur compounds without light.

Similar mats of cyanobacteria have been found in Antarctic lakes that are permanently locked under several thousand metres of ice. The light-free communities, on the other hand, resemble those found on deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.

How these extremophiles came to colonise Antarctica, the deep oceans and aquatic pockets at the bottom of the North American Great Lakes is something of a mystery, say the researchers.

They have sent remotely operated submarines into the sinkholes and have seen how the mats of cyanobateria will occasionally peal off the bottom and rise up into the freshwater lake above, shuttled by microbial gases that come out of the sediment. This suggests one method of dispersal may be through global currents – but it still leaves much to be explained.

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A Sketchy Brain Booster: Doodling

By Brandon Keim


Good news, doodlers: What your colleagues consider a distracting, time-wasting habit may actually give you a leg up on them by helping you pay attention.

Asked to remember names they'd heard on a recording, people who doodled while listening had better recall than those who didn't. This suggests that a slightly distracting secondary task may actually improve concentration during the performance of dull tasks that would otherwise cause a mind to wander.

"People may doodle as a strategy to help themselves concentrate," said study co-author Jackie Andrade, a University of Plymouth psychologist. "We might not be aware that we're doing it, but it could be a trick that people develop because it helps them from wandering off into a daydream."

Andrade's findings, published Thursday in Applied Cognitive Psychology, are an interesting wrinkle on cognitive load theory: The mind has a limited amount of attention to give and, once occupied, stops processing other stimuli.

Cognitive load is exploited by magicians, whose verbal and physical flourishes distract from sleight-of-hand. It also explains why driving while talking on a hands-free headset is no safer than driving while holding a phone. And it could be the reason why doodling is so much better than daydreaming.

"It takes a large cognitive load to daydream. That has a big impact on the task you're meant to be doing," said Andrade. "Doodling takes only a small cognitive load, but it's just enough to keep your mental resources focused on the main task."

Andrade's team asked 40 people to listen to a recording containing the names of people and places. Afterwards the people wrote down the names they could remember.

While listening, half of the test subjects were also required to shade in shapes on a piece of paper. Afterwards, they remembered one-third more names than test subjects who didn't doodle while listening.

"The exciting thing is that people actually got better while doing two things at once," said Andrade. "Doodling is not as bad a thing as we might think."

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Do TV Commercials Make You Happier?

By Sean Gregory

A still from a Geico commercial featuring one of its caveman characters

Human beings are innately trained to do certain basic things: Eat. Drink. And despise television commercials. But put down that remote for a second. While in no way should you shun food and water, don't go skipping through the car ads on your TiVo. Turns out that sitting through those 30-second spots may make you happier than you think.

According to a surprising study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, commercial interruptions often enhance enjoyment of television, at least for younger viewers. How could that possibly be true? How can brain-shearing jingles, annoying announcers and awful acting possibly make you happier? According to the researchers, it all boils down to a behavioral trait called adaptation. Adaptation predicts that even positive experiences become less enjoyable over time. Prior studies have shown that the longer people live in an enjoyable place, consume their favorite ice cream or listen to their favorite song, the more the intensity of their happiness declines. One study concluded that even after people win the lottery, their happiness returns to prior levels a few months after cashing in the ticket. (See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2009.)

Along these lines, the authors of the new study, titled "Enhancing Television-Viewing Experience Through Commercial Interruptions," proposed that the longer viewers continuously consume a television program, the less intensely they enjoy the experience. Sure, I'm euphoric that The Office is on now, but five minutes into the show, that euphoria has certainly worn off. So what can possibly help me get the love back? An annoying set of commercials, for sure. Yes, I hate the fact that I'm seeing that Toyota ad for the 800th time. And the Geico cavemen just aren't that funny anymore. Please make it stop. Wait, thank heavens: The Office is back on! Yes, I'm ecstatic once again.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers — Leif Nelson, a marketing professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego; Tom Meyvis, a marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business; and Jeff Galak, an NYU doctoral student — asked subjects to watch an episode of the Emmy-winning sitcom Taxi. The episode, "Louie's Mother," originally aired in 1981 (trivia buffs: Julia DeVito, the real-life mother of Danny DeVito, who starred as cab dispatcher Louie De Palma on the show, played the episode's title role). The researchers chose Taxi because the subjects, 87 undergraduates from NYU, had no pre-existing opinion of the show. (See the 100 best TV shows of all time.)

Half the subjects watched Taxi exactly as it aired in syndication back in 2005. The commercials included a mix of cheesy local New York City advertisements for places like the Jewelry Factory and the law office of Michael Brownstein, as well as network promos for shows like Geraldo, The Simpsons, and Inside Edition. The other half watched Taxi without any commercials. Those who watched the show with interruptions reported statistically significant higher levels of enjoyment.

The researchers ran similar tests involving a four-minute clip of an animated sword fight between two pirate characters and a three-minute nature video about ducks. In both cases, when commercials were inserted into the middle of the clip, respondents reported higher satisfaction levels than did those who saw it without advertisements. Also, those who saw commercials were willing to pay more money for a DVD compilation of 15 shorts by the director of the pirate video and to donate more funds to wild-duck preservation. The results held true whether the commercials were humorous (in the case of the pirate program, viewers saw a BellSouth Yellow Pages ad featuring fighting clowns) or annoying (for the duck documentary, there were spots for fitness company Body by Jake and carmaker Hyundai). (See the top 10 TV commercials of 2008.)

Not everyone should stick around for the Subway ads. First, the study is a bit biased toward college-age respondents. To correct that, in one experiment the researchers expanded the age range, including subjects from 18 to 67 years old. Those over the sample's median age of 35, which matches the median age for the U.S. population at large, preferred programs without commercials. Subjects under 35 liked the breaks. Since younger viewers get bored more easily, they might desire more novelty — in this case, an ad in the middle of a program — than older viewers do.

Further, when viewers watch shows with a strong narrative plot, like 24, Lost, and ad-free HBO dramas such as Big Love and The Sopranos, commercials could dampen the experience. To test this, the researchers showed viewers two different Bollywood musicals. One featured a fast-paced dance sequence in which two male Indian actors pursued the lead female actress (high stimulus, strong plot). The other involved a more languid sequence without a compelling hook (low stimulus, weak plot). When viewers were watching the more dramatic clip, two commercial breaks — one for the Jewelry Factory, the other for the illustrious Michael Brownstein — had no real effect on their experience. For those who saw the low-octane video, the commercial breaks significantly enhanced their experience. The longer the clip ran without a break, the more bored those viewers became.

Still, could a commercial break in the middle of Big Love, HBO's critically acclaimed hour-long series, increase a viewer's intensity after the break ("Yes, it's back!"), thereby improving the overall experience? And what do these findings mean for the advertising industry? Will under-35 viewers, the catnip demographic for most sponsors, start ditching the DVRs so they can absorb the ads? "I'd imagine that advertisers might smile and pat themselves on the back for this," says Nelson, the report's lead author. "But it's not going to lead people to keep commercials in their life. The strong feeling people have against commercials is truly ubiquitous. It swamps everything." Even, possibly, one's happiness.

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Can Google Latitude get my stolen phone back?

Jemima Kiss

Latitude

San Francisco-based Nick Strada tracked his phone to Boston using Google Latitude Photograph: Nick Strada/Google

Not yet – but with a bit of inspired app design, it could help.

We all know how annoying it is to lose your mobile phone, especially if you never did get round to backing up those valuable contacts. But with location-based services becoming ubiquitous, isn't there a way to track down your lost or stolen handset?

That was exactly what San Francisco-based Nick Strada thought when he realised he left his Nokia E71 in the back of a cab: he'd activated Google's Latitude location service a few days earlier, so surely he could track down the culprit?

When he logged into Latitude online, he was surprised to see his phone floating around a good 3,000 miles away – in central Boston. When phoning and texting his own number failed, Strada realised the phone's keypad had probably locked, and eventually the phone's battery died, taking its location with it. Surely there's some interesting potential here to help retrieve, or at least protect, a stolen handset?

Thousands of application developers have begun to flex their creative muscles, and some have already started to address the problem.

Apple's App Store offers Password Trap, which tries to identify a thief's location while luring them with false personal data; the optimistic Owner Information, which is supposed to makes it easy for whoever finds you phone to return it to you; and GPS Thief Tracker, which, if the thief happens to open it, will send a discreet email with the phone's location.

On Google's Android platform, meanwhile, there's plenty of inspiration for a stolen phone tracker that could be "plugged in" to Latitude.

Textecution is designed to stop drivers texting, and so disables the phone if it moves faster than 10mph. Could a new app disable the whole phone if it is taken more than five miles from your home location? Or maybe Latitude's regular security alert messages could be reconfigured remotely so that your thief is bombarded by infuriating alerts every 15 seconds? Or how about a ­simple remote lock, that makes the phone unusable?

The more severe the repercussion, the more you'd have to trust the application. Strada's fantasy about a remote mobile detonator may be taking things a bit far, but this is a fascinating creative challenge and, for the developer that cracks it, could be a lucrative business.

And however you find out where your phone is, you will still end up with a more practical problem: how do you confront the thief? We don't know how seriously the police would take GPS "evidence", so you may just have to ­borrow some muscle.

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Water 'more important than oil' businesses told

Juliette Jowit

Animal skull lies on dried-up reservoir

Water shortage will cause greater ruin than peak oil. Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

Dwindling water supplies are a greater risk to businesses than oil running out, a report for investors has warned.

Among the industries most at risk are high-tech companies, especially those using huge quantities of water to manufacture silicon chips; electricity suppliers who use vast amounts of water for cooling; and agriculture, which uses 70% of global freshwater, , says the study, commissioned by the powerful CERES group, whose members have $7tn under management. Other high-risk sectors are beverages, clothing, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, forest products, and metals and mining, it says.

"Water is one of our most critical resources – even more important than oil," says the report, published today . "The impact of water scarcity and declining water on businesses will be far-reaching. We've already seen decreases in companies' water allotments, more stringent regulations [and] higher costs for water."

Droughts "attributable in significant part to climate change" are already causing "acute water shortages" around the world, and pressure on supplies will increase with further global warming and a growing world population, says the report written by the US-based Pacific Institute.

"It is increasingly clear that the era of cheap and easy access to water is ending, posing a potentially greater threat to businesses than the loss of any other natural resource, including fossil fuel resources," it adds. "This is because there are various alternatives for oil, but for many industrial processes, and for human survival itself, there is no substitute for water."

In a joint statement, CERES' president Mindy Lubber and Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, urged more companies and investors to work out their dependence on water and future supplies, and make plans to cope with increased shortages and prices.

"Few companies and investors are thinking strategically about the profound business risks that will exist in a world where climate change is likely to exacerbate already diminishing water supplies," they say.

"Companies that treat pressing water risks as a strategic challenge will be far better positioned in future," they add.

The CERES report adds to growing concern about a looming water crisis. In the Economist's report, The World in 2009 , Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of food giant Nestlé, wrote: "under present conditions… we will run out of water long before we run out of fuel". And at its annual meeting this year the World Economic Forum issued what it itself called a "stark warning" that "the world simply cannot manage water in the future in the same way as in the past or the economic web will collapse".

CERES, which has members in the US and Europe, made recommendations, including that companies should measure their water footprints from suppliers through to product use, and integrate water into strategic planning, and that investors should independently assess companies' water risk and "demand" better disclosure from boards.

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Coal Mine Cleanup Reform Proposal by Obama to Save $200 Million a Year

by Derek

coal mine

President Obama submitted a budget proposal on Thursday that halts the distribution of up to $200 million per year to states that have already cleaned up their abandoned coal mines, yet still receive money from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program.

This action by Obama is bringing heated opposition from Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer, and the recipient of $100 million a year from the program.

“I can say with full confidence that I and Wyoming’s current congressional delegation will not rest until President Obama’s current AML proposal is buried.” - Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo

Wyoming has finished the cleanup of its abandoned coal mines, but continues to divert the money to projects such as the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources operating budget ($17.4 million), a gasification facility and technology center for the School of Energy Research ($20 million) , and the construction of a road to a future Carbon County coal-to-liquid plant ($10 million).

“This is a past obligation and to threaten to take away what we are already owed is outrageous.” - Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo

The president’s proposal could also affect Montana, Texas, Louisiana, and three Native American tribes, and its critics claim that the proposal goes against a compromise agreed upon in 2006. That compromise allowed states that have achieved their coal mine cleanups to continue using the funding for road construction, non-coal reclamation, and other projects.

Under the initial federal AML program, coal operations across the country pay a tax on each ton of coal produced that funds the reclamation of mine sites abandoned before the 1977 federal strip mine law was passed.

“The goal is to stop payments to states where the job of reclaiming abandoned coal mines is done.” - Peter Mali, U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

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Carbon Dioxide Drop And Global Cooling Caused Antarctic Glacier To Form


Projection of the what the first Antarctic ice sheet might have looked like as the global climate cooled about 33.5 million years ago. Antarctica is in gray, with the ice sheet shown in meters of ice thickness. The ice sheet is continental in scale, but somewhat smaller than today. The estimate is based on prior modeling work of DeConto and Pollard and is supported by this new data study. (Credit: DeConto & Pollard / Nature)

Global climate rapidly shifted from a relatively ice-free world to one with massive ice sheets on Antarctica about 34 million years ago. What happened? What changed? A team of scientists led by Yale geologists offers a new perspective on the nature of changing climatic conditions across this greenhouse-to-icehouse transition — one that refutes earlier theories and has important implications for predicting future climate changes.

Detailed in the February 27 issue of Science, their data disproves a long-held idea that massive ice growth in the Antarctic was accompanied by little to no global temperature change.

This report shows that before the Southern Hemisphere ice expansion, high-latitude temperatures were at least 10°C (about 18˚F) warmer than previously estimated and that there was a 5˚C - 10˚C drop in surface-water temperature during the climate transition.

"Previous reconstructions gave no evidence of high-latitude cooling," according to senior author Mark Pagani, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale. "Our data demonstrate a clear temperature drop in both hemispheres during this time."

Their conclusions are based on sea-surface "temperature proxies" – calculations of temperature based on the distribution of specific organic molecules from ancient plankton that only lived at certain temperatures and were later preserved in ocean sediments. These molecules were assayed in ocean cores collected by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and earlier marine programs that study Earth history by coring deep-ocean sediments and crust around the world.

"Temperatures in some regions, just before the Antarctic glaciers formed, were surprisingly higher than current climate models predicted, suggesting that these models underestimate high-latitude warming under high CO2 conditions," said lead author Zhonghui Liu, Pagani's postdoctoral associate who is now an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. Further, he said, the substantial cooling that occurred in both Northern and Southern high latitudes suggests that a decline in CO2 level, rather than a localized change of ocean circulation drove the climate transition.

The ice formed over Antarctica in about 100,000 years, which is an "overnight" shift in geological terms. "Just over thirty-five million years ago, 'poof,' there was an ice sheet where there had been subtropical temperatures before," said co-author Matthew Huber of Purdue University.

Another theory refuted by this study is the notion that ice-expansion also occurred in the Northern Hemisphere during this time — a supposition poorly supported by physical evidence of glacier formation in that region, say the Yale scientists.

There are about 70 meters of vertical sea level rise represented in the ice sheets of Antarctica. And, there are many questions regarding the glacier's stability, the temperature thresholds that would cause radical glacier melting, and the rate at which it would change, according to Pagani. "Our findings point to the difficulty of modeling accurate temperatures under higher CO2 in this critical region."

Other authors on the article were David Zinniker at Yale, Robert DeConto and Mark Leckie at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Matthew Huber at Purdue University, Henk Brinkhuis at Utrecht University, and Sunita R. Shah and Ann Pearson at Harvard. The research was supported by funds from the National Science Foundation and Yale University and computation was performed using resources of the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing at Purdue.

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Scientists to stop global warming with 100,000 square mile sun shade

According to astronomer Dr Roger Angel, at the University of Arizona, the trillions of mirrors would have to be fired one million miles above the earth using a huge cannon with a barrel of 0.6 miles across.

The gun would pack 100 times the power of conventional weapons and need an exclusion zone of several miles before being fired.

Despite the obvious obstacles - including an estimated $350 trillion (£244trn) price tag for the project - Dr Angel is confident of getting the project off the ground.

He said: "What we have developed is certainly effective and a method guaranteed to work.

"Tests are ongoing but we expect to be ready to launch within 20 or 30 years time. Things that take a few decades are not that futuristic."

Dr Angel has already secured NASA funding for a pilot project and British inventor Tod Todeschini, 38, was commissioned to build a scaled-down version of the gun.

He constructed the four-metre long cannon in his workshop in Sandlake, Oxfordshire, for a TV documentary investigating the sun shield theory.

He said: "The gun was horrendously dangerous. This was the first gun I'd ever built.

"I knew I could put it together safely but at the end of it all I didn't know what I was going to get.

"It was immensely dangerous. I was attempting to build a gun to produce 1,500G of force but it ended up creating about 10,000G and we had to turn the power down.

"Most weapons used by the army produce 100Gs of force so our gun was about 100 times more powerful.

"The main danger was electrocution because it used enough power to boil 44,000 kettles.

"If you were working with normal levels of electricity you could get a shock and be fine, but if you got a shock off this you would be dead - no question.

"We've proved it's possible to build a scaled-down version of the gun needed to get these lenses into the air so it's just a matter of scaling up the designs for the real thing."

If Dr Angel's sun shield is successful he says the mirrors will last 50 years before needing to be replaced.

"What you are talking about is a project which will stop global warming for centuries to come," he said.

"At the moment the sums involved sound huge but in the greater scheme of things it's a price worth paying.

"Over 50 years the mirrors will become damaged and therefore fresh lenses will need to be fired into space to ensure the shield is constant."

Dr Angel, who pioneers solar energy, is developing cheaper methods of making the lenses to bring the cost of the project down.

In the meantime researchers at the University of Victoria, Canada, are testing the sun shield theory by using computer simulations of the project.

Dr Angel's sun shield theory will feature on Ways to Save the Planet on the Discovery Channel at 7pm on Sunday.

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Forests in the sky could be built to clean air of pollution belched out by factories

By Daily Mail Reporter

Visionary architects have designed a revolutionary skyscraper to combat global warming by growing trees hundreds of feet in the air.

The CO2 Scraper will hold up to 400 trees in a bid to absorb dangerous pollutants and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Its award-winning designers say it should be built near factories or other major sources of pollution in order to clean the air.

skyscraper

Skyscraper of the future? The CO2 scraper would pump out oxygen and improve air quality

Evergreen trees will be mounted on a series of floors within a 400ft-tall concrete structure so they can filter air hundreds of feet above the ground.

They will be supplied with water and nutrients via a windmill-powered pump system.
It has been designed by Nectar Product Development, a design company based in California.


A spokesman said: 'The CO2 Scraper would be a large-scale construction for holding between two to four hundred large-size trees.

'These would potentially absorb dangerous pollutants and convert global warming-related carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen.

'The only outside power required would be electricity for an elevator to be used by maintenance personnel - the Scraper would absorb carbon dioxide and thereby increase the amount of life-giving oxygen in the atmosphere.'

How the CO2 scraper would work

He added: 'In addition, the structure would provide immediate benefits to people and animals in its vicinity, providing a significant amount of shade.

'It will also cool the air during the hot summer months via the temperature-lowering properties of hundreds of trees.

'We thought of the CO2 Scraper as a way to place trees in areas where they would ordinarily be difficult or impossible to plant such as near a factory, major road or perhaps even in a densely populated urban area.

'The idea here was to imagine a structure with relatively small footprint in terms of the amount of ground it covers.'

Scientist and sustainability specialist Joep Meijer, founder of theRightenvironment, has praised the 'outstanding' design.

He said: 'The CO2 Scraper is an outstanding example of the kind of ideas we need to look at now.

'It would be a great investment in natural capital for existing industries.'

Nectar's senior designer Yutaka Kazamaki said: 'Although right now the economy is naturally the focus of world attention, the issue of global warming is clearly among the greatest issues our planet is facing.

'The need to consider any and all possible solutions that address both our environmental and economic challenges has never been greater.'

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Environmental Studies Enrollment Soars

By Kate Galbraith

StudentThe Evergreen State College A student in an undergraduate environmental studies program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., studies lichen ferns.

With his emphasis on renewable energy and green jobs, President Barack Obama has picked an issue that resonates with his core supporters — young people.

At colleges around the country, students seem to be flocking to environmental studies.

At Boston College, 17 students minored in environmental studies in 2003; this year 44 students will do so (assuming everyone graduates).

Iowa State University has seen the number of students enrolled in environmental studies and environmental science programs soar from 99 students in fall 2003 to more than 150 last fall.

William Crumpton, who chairs the environmental sciences and environmental studies major at Iowa State, said that a recruiting push had been helpful, but mainly students simply seem more interested in environmental issues, partly at the expense of biotechnology, a traditional draw.

“I had this sense that environmental issues got a lot more press — or maybe more effective press — in last four to five years,” said Mr. Crumpton.

At the University of Virginia, “We have definitely seen an increase in majors over the past two-three years, but where we have really increased are the environmental science courses we teach to non-majors,” said Jay Zieman, the chair of the University of Virginia’s environmental sciences department in an e-mail message. “That number has increased 45 percent over the past five years.”

The one slight outlier of my four-college survey was the University of Pennsylvania. The number of undergraduates majoring in environmental studies peaked at 44 in 2002, but now is down to 32 (still higher than the 20 in 1999). However, the number of master’s degrees in environmental policy hit a 10-year high last year, and the university has seen a spurt of master’s enrollment in related areas like hydrology.

The student interest comes as a range of universities, from Stanford to the University of Toledo, are working to beef up their alternative-energy research.

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