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Science in the News Weekly


On Mars, Ice and Salt

An electrical short in the Phoenix Lander's mechanical arm delayed its exploration of the Martian north pole last week, but new photos on Saturday revealed that the spacecraft's thrusters had uncovered a large patch of ice, which is exactly what scientists hope to sample and analyze.

But the planet may be too salty to support life as we know it. At least that is the conclusion of a study of minerals near the Martian surface in the Meridiani plain. The rover Opportunity discovered ancient deposits of magnesium sulphate there that appear to have been left behind by salty water.

Even beyond our system, there may be many Earth-like planets in the cosmos. A four-year study of 400 stars found that as many as 30 percent possess close-in, relatively small planets with some Earthly characteristics.

And an amateur stargazer has been credited with discovering the fastest rotating natural object in our solar system. The space rock, as big as a house, spins once every minute. It zoomed past earth in April.

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A Step Toward Thought-Controlled Machines

In last week's issue of Nature, researchers reported a dramatic advance in brain-machine interface. Two monkeys with tiny sensors implanted in their brains were able to control a mechanical arm with their thoughts. It suggests that brain-controlled prosthetics, if not yet practical, are at least technically feasible.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning to begin sending drone airplanes into hurricanes this season as part of a program to monitor the atmosphere. The data sent back should help forecasters predict the intensity of the storms.

Robot submarines turned up several artifacts on the sea floor off the coast of Rhode Island last week, including objects associated with the wreck of the HMS Cerberus, which was scuttled by its British captain during the American Revolution. The robots were designed to hunt for underwater mines.

At a science summit in New York, leading American scientists criticized the decline in federal support for science and lamented the nation's diminished role as a leader in research and technology. It was the opening event for the first World Science Festival.

And, finally, it was also announced last week at the science festival that seven men are the first winners of new science prizes established by philanthropist, businessman and physicist Fred Kavli. The Kavli Prizes are worth $1 million in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. They will be awarded every other year.

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Ancient Past: A New Meaning for Stonehenge?

British archaeologists said last week that Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone monument, appears to have served as a cemetery for as long as 500 years and may have been a burial site for a single important family, perhaps a royal dynasty.

In other news, researchers said a massive release of methane 635 million year ago may have caused a jump in temperature that triggered rapid melting of global glaciation on earth. The sudden burst of methane may have occurred when ice sheets that stretched all the way to the equator broke apart.

Scientists say a 380-million-year-old fossil fish with an embryo still attached to its umbilical cord has provided the oldest example of a live birth. The specimen was found in Australia. Until now, scientists thought creatures from that time period reproduced by laying eggs.

And speaking of fossils, New Jersey sediment known as glauconite has yielded some curious specimens of late. One in particular, of a sabertooth salmon, suggests that the dinosaur-era fish may have survived longer than anyone thought, based on the geologic record.

And, finally, divers reported finding the ruins of an ancient temple in the Nile River that was built in honor of the Egyptian fertility god Khnum. Because the river has shifted course over the centuries, archaeologists said they expect to make other such finds through underwater excavations.

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Biomedicine: A Senator's Illness in America, Hybrid Embryos in Britain

The announcement last week that U.S. senator Edward Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor (a glioma) prompted many media outlets to report on the treatment options and prognosis for this medical condition.

In other news, the British parliament approved research using hybrid embryos that contain human and animal material. Experts said cytoplasmic hybrids are never likely to be transplanted into sick patients, and any insights about diseases revealed through this line of research are probably years away.

Meanwhile, U.S. health officials expressed concern that narcotic painkillers and other legitimate pharmaceuticals are replacing illegal substances as the drugs of choice among drug abusers.

According to a study released at the American Urological Association's annual meeting, a "wait-and-see" approach is appropriate for men who have low-risk prostate tumors that have not spread. But many patients still opt for treatment, preferring not to take any chances.

And a Mayo Clinic study found a sharp rise after 2003 in the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer there who decided to have mastectomies rather than lumpectomies. Researchers said one possible explanation is that magnetic resonance imaging is detecting more growths than mammography.

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A Hidden Risk of Biofuel Crops

Such non-food crops as reeds and wild grasses may seem an attractive alternative to corn for making biofuel, but scientists warned last week that many of the crops being discussed qualify as invasive species. As such, they could spread to adjacent farms and other land, doing economic and ecological harm in the process.

In other news, researchers say the encroachment of conifer forests on Arctic tundra threatens to accelerate warming in the far north in areas now covered by reflective snow much of the year.

A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that we may experience fewer rather than more hurricanes as the world warms. But there may be a "modest increase" in the intensity of the storms.

The Washington Post looked at how symbols can overshadow substance when it comes to climate change initiatives. When the 2 million residents of Sydney, Australia, turned off their lights for an hour, it was a dandy publicity stunt—that didn't really save a significant amount of energy.

And the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured local television meteorologist Mike Fairbourne, who is among thousands of scientists who have signed a petition saying that human influence on global warming is exaggerated. The petition drive is the work of several staff members at the non-profit Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine.

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Hybrid Auto Sales? 'I'm Selling Every One I Can Get My Hands On'

With the price of gasoline nearing $4 a gallon, many American motorists are deciding that hybrid cars represent a technology whose time has come. Dealers are selling them as fast as they are delivered. But it takes a lot of driving to offset the sticker price.

In other technology news, the Brooklyn Bridge, which remains a powerful symbol of engineering and imagination, celebrated its 125th birthday last week. Thousands of people turned out for the party last Thursday. The bridge opened on May 24, 1883.

And a touring exhibit called "Building America's Canals" reveals the engineering challenges that were overcome in constructing the historic waterways that aided westward expansion. Created by the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pa., the exhibit is currently in Williamsport, Md.

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New Fossil Finds in Texas, Denmark, Yemen

A fossil rediscovered in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., could provide new insights into the origins of modern amphibians. Experts say the 290-million-year-old fossil, found in Texas in the 1990s, suggests the creature had features of both frogs and salamanders.

Elsewhere, Danish scientists reported the oldest and most northerly fossil of a parrot ever discovered. Found on Denmark's Isle of Mors, the fossil is estimated to be 54 million years old.

And dinosaur footprints have been found for the first time on the Arabian Peninsula. The 150-million-year-old tracks—more than 100 in all—were made by plant-eating ornithopods and sauropods. The footprints are said to suggest herding behavior along a coastal mudflat in the late Jurassic period.

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After 422 Million Miles, Phoenix Touches Down

Mars was a big news-maker last week, with the successful landing on Sunday of the Phoenix Mars Lander. The probe performed perfectly, which was a relief in the wake of the 1999 disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander.

Earlier in the week, scientists reported that radar imaging from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft detected as many as seven layers of ice and dust under the planet's north pole. Phoenix will dig down into the polar soil to determine what's there. Elsewhere on the planet, the Mars rover Spirit uncovered evidence of ancient hot springs, a discovery with possible implications for life.

In other space news, astronomers said they were just plain lucky to witness the beginning of a supernova, the fiery death of a star. It was detected by a NASA X-ray satellite while observing another, more advanced supernova.

And astrophysicists reported that much of the missing matter in the universe appears to be clustered in the space between galaxies in a vast web-like structure. But they say they cannot fully account for the majority of normal matter believed to have been created by the big bang.

Ten years ago this month the Astronomical Journal accepted a paper for publication that revealed a dark side to gravity. So-called "dark energy," a force that repels gravity, has become the most profound problem in physics, according to National Geographic.

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