Sunday, January 31, 2010

Conspiracy of Science - Earth is in fact growing

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After Armageddon

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

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A whiff of hypocrisy in pope's pronouncement

The American journalist (and militant atheist) HL Mencken once defined religious puritanism as being motivated by the "haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy", and there are not a few Catholics – and many lapsed Catholics – who would agree that the maxim also fits the papacy and old-style authoritarian priests with their disapproving fondness for telling their flocks what not to do.

As with many papal pronouncements, even if reading between the lines to interpret Benedict XVI's speech as an outright criticism of homosexual behaviour and, less ambiguously, of transsexualism, it is impossible to avoid the strong whiff of institutional hypocrisy: it is not so long ago that Donald Cozzens, a former Catholic seminary principal in the US, was estimating that half the church's priests in training in America were gay. A number of well-known British Catholics are also homosexual.

The church's argument heard more frequently from evangelical Anglicans, busy tearing their own denomination apart over the issue – that accepting homosexuality is going against 2,000 years of Christian teaching – is not strictly accurate. Although the Bible, in a few scattered references, appears uniformly hostile, the texts are more nuanced and complicated to interpret than seems the case at first glance – and, in any event, Christians have reinterpreted other biblical passages on issues such as slavery as they have fallen out of time.

Attitudes to homosexuality have varied over the years, as have church punishments for it. Early Christian writers such as saints Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome thought all sexual activity was inherently disgusting: the historian Reay Tannahill said in her book Sex in History: "It is undoubtedly a tribute (if an ambiguous one) to such men … that much of what the modern world still understands by 'sin' stems not from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or from the tablets handed down from Sinai, but from the sexual vicissitudes of a handful of men who lived in the twilight days of imperial Rome."

Sodomy proved a convenient excuse when disaster struck: the Emperor Justinian ascribed a plague which devastated Constantinople in AD 541 to God's revenge for "the defilement of males … perpetrating vile acts" and the Council of Toledo in 693 prescribed the exile until "struck down by damnation" of any priest or bishop caught in gay flagrante. It was only in the 13th century that St Thomas Aquinas laid down the doctrine that the genitalia had been designed by the Creator only for procreative purposes – an argument still wheeled out by church leaders today.

But despite the punishments and the fearful warnings, church penalties varied: in 6th century Wales homosexuals were given three years' penance, in 8th century Burgundy, 10 years – about the same as for oral sex. Pope Gregory III described homosexuality as "a vice so abominable in the sight of God that the cities where its practitioners dwelt were appointed for destruction by fire and brimstone". But the penalty he imposed – one year's penance – was only a third of that imposed on priests caught going hunting.

In England homosexual offences only became part of civil law after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1533 when Henry VIII found it convenient to use the alleged immorality of monks as an excuse for seizing their orders' property for himself.

The degree of zeal with which gay people were persecuted varied over time, depending on the degree of contemporary moral panic, and punishments varied according to the power and status of the accused: kings such as Henri III in France, and Edward II and James I in England maintained their catamites with impunity and, in one notorious case, Ralph, bishop of Tours, installed his partner as bishop of Orleans with papal blessing.

Despite all the pulpit condemnations it seems probable, based on admittedly sketchy court records, that the incidence of homosexuality has not been significantly diminished, or increased, over time or cultures. It has certainly not been wiped out. In Oxbridge college chapels there are instances of medieval dons being buried with their special friends – a practice that would cause the Church of England conniptions today. The Roman Catholic church officially still resolutely condemns homosexuality as evil and a moral disorder but there are some who hope for change: one anonymous Jesuit priest expressed the hope that "once the church is aware of the destructive impact of its policies on hundreds of thousands of lives it will have to change its policies". That may be a triumph of optimism over experience.
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

SmartFish Concept Attempts to Swim to the Sky

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The objective of team SmartFish is to sell or license this revolutionary general aviation aircraft technology to the aviation industry.
The SmartFish technology, which is highly innovative in terms of safety, economy and emotion, can be used for a wide range of applications, from UAV to high performance sports planes to business jets that can accommodate up to 20 passengers. Please check the News section for the latest updates.
Smart Fish’s USPs are as follows:

Long range cruise speed of Mach 0.85
Long range up to 10’000km
Low fuel consumption
Low CO2 emissions
Huge internal volume and therefore a roomy cabin
Lower manufacturing cost compared to conventional design due to lower part count
Lower operating and maintenance cost than conventional designs
Reduced moving parts/simplified rudder control
Stall almost impossible, due to the fact that AOA’s of 40 degrees or more can be flown
Simple maintenance
High crashworthiness

Fun to fly
Easy to operate
Beautiful design
High marketing potential
SmartFish differs from conventional aircraft by its innovative aerodynamic design, while relying on standard technologies for building materials and propulsion.

Backed through results from preliminary wind tunnel tests and scale model flight data we are convinced that a SmartFish aircraft has many potential advantages over conventional aircraft of comparable size and propulsion system, such as improved efficiency (per freight transported) and a much bigger internal volume. Because of the simplicity of the design we anticipate that manufacturing costs (for design and assembly), maintenance costs, and operating costs will be potentially lower than those for conventional aircraft.
The SmartFish proof of concept will be realized in collaboration with following companies: Extra (world leader in aerobatic aircraft) for system integration and test flights, Leichtwerk for interpretation statics and dynamics, LTB Borowski for composite manufacturing, Liebherr Aerospace for Landing Gear System development, DLR (German Aerospace Center) for flutter analysis and inlet optimization, RUAG Aerospace for wind tunnel testing, and EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology for verification of different simulation results.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Indohyus and Cetacean Relations

Indohyus by Carl Buell
Indohyus restoration by Carl Buell

Meet Indohyus
The image above, created by artist Carl Buell, shows a charming little animal called Indohyus, about the size of a modern raccoon, that lived some 50,000,000 years ago in what is now northern India. Indohyus is a member of the Raoellidae, an obscure, extinct family of hoofed mammals closely related to the artiodactyls (even-toed hoofed mammals, currently represented by pigs, hippos, camels, deer, etc.) Raoellids are only known from Eocene-aged (56–34 million year-old) fossils from southern and southeastern Asia.
Like any good group of obscure, extinct mammals, the raoellids were primarily known from fossil teeth. Until this week, that is, when a team of scientists led by Hans Thewissen described new cranial and postcranial fossils of Indohyus in the journal Nature. These new fossils are helping to provide a more complete picture of raoellid appearance, life habits, and possible relationships.
She is heavy, she’s my sister
As the restoration above shows, Indohyus was a long-legged animal, with the characteristic “double-pulley” ankle that gives artiodactyls a little extra swing to their step. Yet despite it’s relatively graceful profile, the walls of the bones of Indohyus are much thicker than in most other mammals. This is an adaptation commonly seen in aquatic animals, where thick bones act as ballast—helping them move underwater without automatically floating to the surface. Thewissen et al. suggest that the heavy skeleton of Indohyus allowed it to walk along the bottom of rivers and lakes, possibly as protection from predators or to help it search for food. Analysis of isotopes within the fossils add some additional weight (no pun intended) to this aquatic hypothesis.
The semi-aquatic lifestyle of raoellids seems to have been the start of something very big. Key features in the skull of Indohyus led Thewissen and his team to the conclusion that raoellids were the closest known relatives (or sister group) to whales.
Indohyus by Carl Buell
Indohyus by Carl Buell

The Telltale Involucrum
Indohyus shares several dental features with early whales, including a front-to-back arrangement of the incisors, high crowns on its back molars, and similar wear facets. But the clincher is a little thickened lip of bone on the inside of the middle ear cavity, known as the involucrum, which likely assists in hearing underwater. Until this week, only whales were known to possess this feature. But one of the new Indohyus skulls shows that this little raoellid had a lovely little involucrum as well (see it here, and be amazed).
Shaking the Tree?
We know from the fossil record that, back when whales had ankles, they had double-pulley ankles. But exactly where whales fit into the artiodactyl family tree has been a matter of some debate. Molecular studies showed a close relationship to hippos, but there is a 35 million year gap between the oldest fossil whales (50 million years old) and the presumed origin of the Hippopotamidae (15 million years ago). Some researchers have held up the pudgy, long-faced anthracotheres as relatives of both hippos and whales, but the middle ear of Indohyus is very strong evidence that the little, long-legged raoellids were the whales’ closest kin.
That still leaves the question of how raoellids are related to other artiodactyls. Thewissen et al. propose a phylogeny showing that, as raoellids are the sister group to whales, then whales + raoellids form the sister group to all other artiodactyls. This keeps a close relationship between the whales, raoellids, and artiodactyls (as shown by their similar ankles), but removes whales from a close relationship to any particular artiodactyl lineage, such as hippos or anthracotheres.
Still, the classification of cetaceans has changed quite a bit in the past 15 years or so, and it will be interesting to see what future studies and discoveries have to say on the topic.
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThewissen, J. G. M., Cooper, L. N., Clementz, M. T., Bajpai, S., and Tiwari, B. N. 2007. Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India. Nature vol. 450, 20/27 December 2007, pp. 190–195.
Elsewhere online:
And a big thanks to Carl Buell for graciously granting permission
to reproduce his excellent art in this post!

—Matt Celeskey.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Boston Gets A Boa (Boston Arcology)

Can the Dubai real-estate slump be blamed on ambitious projects that tried to recreate mini magical kingdoms? Don’t know, however that’s not stopped the designers from their creative thinking so let’s overview a challenging project that’s aimed for Boston residents. Christened The Boa (Boston Arcology), this floating city isn’t worried about the threat of rising oceans, because it’s equipped with “techniques of today and has been researched to be totally feasible.” Read on to know more…

Highlights of the Boa:
  • It will be capable of housing 15,000 people distributed in hotels, offices, retail, museums, condominiums, and a new city hall.
  • The massing of Boa takes its cue from the built environment of Boston proper and as such exudes a rigorous geometric format. That format is further emphasized by the scaling of the golden rectangle whose proportions are: 1: 1.618.
  • Within this golden rectangle, Boa’s design alignments have a unique relationship with the Boston common.
    What appear to be random projections of massing are actually fashioned as a vertical construct of the “common.” These diagonals are held in check by a fixed border as if a rigid urban edge.
  • Because of its scale, Boa is positioned perpendicular to the waterfront, preserving view corridors and general development massing.
  • Sky gardens will be inserted into the three main towers every 30 floors. These sky gardens provide landscaped glass enclosed atria. In addition to their practical application of additional sunlit units, the “sky gardens” will create a sense of neighborhood presence and support a range of sustainable initiatives.
    Vertical commuting within Boa will be supported by a series of local and express transfer floors.
  • Boa is geared to an all pedestrian environment. Accordingly, only select horizontally based areas will be fitted with moving walkways and/or electric train carriers.
  • Boa is designed to expand the horizon of sustainability and will seek LEED certification.
  • Boa will eliminate the need for cars within the urban structure to create a carbon neutral entity. Some of these elements are secured wind turbines, fresh water recovery and storage systems, passive glazing system, sky garden heating/cooling vents, gray water treatment, solar array banding panels, and harbor based water turbines.
  • A massive park system platform (pedestrian only) will be more than double the current green space allocation for the waterfront of Boston.
Boa is a floating city within a city, and is technically feasible, with the method as follows:
The foundation of Boa is a series of poured concrete cells, which are combined to form a buoyant platform. The grid of these cells serves as the foundation for the rigid steel
  • Though seemingly counter-intuitive, concrete is in fact a viable and durable floating solution. Oil rigs, barges, and even ships from WWII all employed this use of concrete to create buoyant objects. With new self sealing concrete, and other technologies, such structures can be monitored indefinitely.
  • By proportional height, width, length, and weight, this buoyant platform is estimated to 90 feet, with an additional 15 feet of “buffer.” Assuming approximately 30-40 ft current depth in the ocean bed, a “retaining pool” would be sunk into the harbor, giving a waterline to base dimension of 105 feet. This becomes the fixed “pool” in which Boa floats as water seeks its own level.
  • Boa is proposed as a three phase master plan. Though capable of program changes and opportunities, the project is geared to a ten year build-out. Because it is built in the harbor, it will have minimum impact on existing functions. Further, Boa is designed not to encroach on existing channels.
Designer: E. Kevin Schopfer, AIA, RIBA
Renderings: Tangram 3DS
Boa - Boston Arcology Urban Housing by E. Kevin Schopfer, Aia, Riba with Tangram 3DS
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'

By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports: “Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

“The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions.

He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from “ uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

Mr Paul said: “The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America.”

He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane Katrina. He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. “I suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal performance of the Christian states,” he added.

He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

“The non-religious, proevolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”
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The Prophesy Chronicles guest Jerry Pippin

The Prophesy Chronicles guest Jerry Pippin (Host Paul Richard Price)

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EXOPOLITICS RADIO: Dr. Carl Johan Calleman on money,
hierarchy collapse and the new era

EXOPOLITICS RADIO: Dr. Carl Johan Calleman on money, hierarchy collapse and the new era (Part 1)

EXOPOLITICS RADIO: Dr. Carl Johan Calleman on money, hierarchy collapse and the new era (Part 2)

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David Lynch: Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain

The inside story on transcending the brain, with David Lynch, Award-winning film director of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mullholland Drive, Inland Empire (filming); John Hagelin, Ph.D., Quantum physicist featured in "What the bleep do we know?;" and Fred Travis, Ph.D., Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition Maharishi University of Management.

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Human Transformation, Earth Changes & the New World

Presentation by Angelika Whitecliff at the Earth Transformation - New Science, Consciousness & Contact - Conference, Hawaii, May 16, 2008 [90 mins]. From the difference between the consciousness of ETs & yogis to the coming 'supra-consciousness' which unites all and transcends human cycles, find out why the Earth is unique in the universe and the goal of human evolution from now to the birth of the coming 'Supra-human' being. For Angelika's latest articles, visit:

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Are the Governments of the World
Preparing For a 2012 Apocalypse?

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Futurists predict fewer butchers, more space pilots –
and spare legs for top football stars

by Adam Gabbatt
Scientific advances and onset of climate change will radically change careers, says report commissioned by government.
Forget the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker: in 20 years some of the most popular jobs could include vertical farmer, space pilot and body part maker, according to a government commissioned report.

Shape of Jobs to Come predicts advances in science and technology, coupled with the expected onset of climate change, could make for career paths that are virtually unrecognisable today.

The research company Fast Future was asked by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to compile a list of jobs as part of the government's Science: [So what? So everything] campaign, launched last year to encourage a better understanding of science.

The company asked a network of "futurists and future thinkers" to consider likely science and technology developments before suggesting specific jobs. The result was a list of 110 roles, whittled down to 20 for the study.

Traditional roles within medicine and farming are expected to rely much more heavily on the use of computers and robots, while careers in social work are predicted to expand, to deal with the continuing increase in popularity of social networking sites.

Some of the most exciting developments are expected to come in medicine, where the study predicts the creation of new limbs and organs will become a reality, meaning body part makers will be in demand. Nano-medics will also be an aspirational career, with possible advances leading to the development of a nano boat, which would navigate through the body destroying cancerous cells.

Rohit Talwar, chief executive of Fast Future, predicted the generation of extra limbs would be invaluable to the military, but could see more use in sport. "If you're spending £80m on a footballer and for £2m you can have a couple of spare legs, then you're going to do it," he said. "The level of medicine will probably tell you very accurately when their legs will fail, or what kind of strains they're likely to suffer from. So you might say as a preventative measure, rather than three months' recovery let's have an artificial limb ready so we can replace their leg and have them back playing again within a few days or weeks."

The team considered factors as diverse as the rise of space tourism, the risk of a deadly virus and the onset of climate change in compiling the list – three events which could lead to people working as space pilots or tour guides, quarantine enforcers and climate change reversal specialists. Talwar said improvements in science could see new jobs created within existing fields, with insurance policies developed to cover the cost of a new leg, while cosmetic surgery could go beyond merely improving parts of a person's body to replacing sections of it.

However, the career for life , would truly become a thing of the past, said the study. "Students coming out of university now could easily have eight to 10 jobs in their lifetime, across five different careers," he said. "Technology is advancing so fast and industries are changing so fast that what looks like a solid job today disappears tomorrow."

Gordon Brown said he hoped it would inspire young people to gain skills and training for these new careers. "A priority for this government is to prepare Britain for the economy of the future and to make sure our young people can seize the opportunities that innovations in science and technology will bring."

Talwar said schools should concentrate on scientific subjects and improving all-round skills to equip children. "If I was a parent today the key thing I would want to make sure is that my kids were well versed in science and technology and were learning things like problem solving and how to make complex decisions."

• This article was amended on 14 January 2010. The original named the chief executive of Fast Future as Rohit Palwar. This has been corrected.
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Does my bum look big in this?
'It better be... because it's good for your health

By Fiona Macrae
When a woman asks: 'Does my bum look big in this?' she should hope the answer is yes, according to health experts.
That's because having a big bottom is good for your health - or at least better than having a big tummy.
Studies show that having a generous rear end and thighs, rather than a pot belly, cuts levels of 'bad' cholesterol and raises levels of the 'good' cholesterol that protect against hardening of the arteries.
It also cuts the risk of diabetes, a review in the International Journal of Obesity reports. The findings add to a welter of research on the benefits of having a pear-shaped body.

The Oxford University researchers gathered together various studies on the health benefits of lower body, or ' gluteofemoral' fat, then tried to work out why it is better for us than fat stored around the middle.

Ideas include it acting as a 'buffer', mopping up fats which could have dangerous effects elsewhere in the body. It may also make higher levels of hormones known to affect appetite and weight.
Finally, it breaks down more slowly than belly fat. While this makes it harder to shift, it also means it produces fewer chemicals called inflammatory cytokines which have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Researcher Konstantinos Manolopoulos said: 'The fat around our thighs and hips is different to the fat we accumulate around our tummy.

'There is "good" fat and "bad" fat - just like there is good and bad cholesterol.
The cells in lower body fat work differently from the cells in upper body fat.'
The findings tie in with studies showing that the ratio of a person's waist to their hips is a better predictor of heart disease than BMI, the GPs' rule of thumb for judging healthy weights.
In future, drugs that alter the way fat is stored around the body could be used to combat heart and other diseases.
Fotini Rozakeas of the British Heart Foundation said: 'This research helps us better to understand how fat acts in the body in order to develop new approaches in reducing heart and circulatory disease.
'If you are overweight, obese, or if your waist size has increased, it is important to make changes to your lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet and doing regular physical activity, to reduce your risk of heart health problems.'

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Horizons Spacecraft Now Closer to Pluto Than Earth

Written by Nancy Atkinson

Artist concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft crossed a milestone boundary today: it is now closer to its primary destination, Pluto, than to Earth. But New Horizons –the fastest man-made object — is not yet halfway to the dwarf planet. That won't happen until February 25, 2010. New Horizons is now 1,440 days into its 9.5-year journey and well past 15 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun. But there is a long haul yet to go: there are still 1,928 days until operations begin for the close encounter, and 2022 days until the spacecraft reaches the closest point to Pluto in the summer of 2015. It is exciting to think what we will learn about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in five and a half years. Will our perspectives change? Hard to believe they won't.

New Horizons is currently traveling at about 50,000 kph (31,000 mph) (relative to the Sun) and is located about 2.4 billion kilometers (1.527 billion miles) from Earth.

The spacecraft launched in January 2006.

New Horizons will be taken out of hibernation in early January to repoint the communications dish antenna to keep up with the changing position of the Earth around the Sun. It was last awoken in November to download several months of stored science data from the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, to correct a recently discovered bug in the fault protection system software, (last thing anyone wants is to have the spacecraft go into safe mode at closest approach), and to upload instructions to run the spacecraft through early January. Telemetry shows that New Horizons is in very good health and almost exactly on its planned course.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern wrote in his last PI's Perspective notes that the science team will meet in January to discuss which Kuiper Belt Objects they hope to "fly by and reconnoiter after Pluto. Those searches will begin next summer and continue through 2011 and 2012. Hopefully, they’ll net us four to 10 potential targets."

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Super-Earth: Astronomers Find a Watery New Planet

An international has spotted a new planet 2.7 times bigger than Earth, circling a dim red star called GJ 1214, just 40 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus

Back in the mid-1990s, when astronomers were just beginning to find new planets around distant stars, nearly every new discovery got front-page headlines. Today, with the extrasolar-planet count up to about 400, it takes something extraordinary to make news.

See the best pictures of 2009.
But extraordinary may be too understated a descriptor for the discovery reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature: an international team led by Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau has spotted a "super-Earth," a planet 2.7 times bigger than Earth, circling a dim red star called GJ 1214, just 40 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. "It's spectacular," says Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, who is the world's most prolific planet hunter and is credited with discovering 70 of the first 100 exoplanets. "It's a top-of-the-top discovery in the quest for Earth-size planets." (See the top 50 space moments since Sputnik.)

While the new planet, dubbed GJ 1214b, is too big to be considered Earth-like, it comes pretty close. But GJ 1214b's relatively compact size — smaller than the vast majority of planets identified so far — is only one reason for astronomers' enthusiasm. Another is GJ 1214b's likelihood of bearing the stuff of life: water.

If you're looking for a world where life might thrive, a planet must be at the right temperature for water to exist in liquid form. So it needs to orbit its star in the so-called habitable zone, a "Goldilocks" location that allows a planet to be neither too hot nor too cold. In that respect, GJ 1214b is again a near miss. Its surface temperature hovers at a sweltering 190°C (374°F), which is well above the boiling point of water, at least in Earth's atmospheric pressure. Fortunately, GJ 1214b's atmosphere makes the pressure a lot higher than on Earth — "crushing," as Charbonneau describes it — and increases the odds of liquid water. (Under pressure, water can remain liquid above 100°C, or 212°F.)

Astronomers were further able to estimate the planet's makeup by calculating its size, based on the amount of light that GJ 1214b blocked when it passed in front of its star, as well as its mass (6.6 times Earth's mass), based on the wobble in the wavelength of starlight caused by GJ 1214b's gravitational pull on its star. That analysis revealed the new planet's density: about one-third of Earth's. Because water has a much lower density than rock, astronomers figured that the "most plausible scenario is a planet made mostly of water, with a significant atmosphere," says Charbonneau. So despite its high temperature, GJ 1214b's high atmospheric pressure and relatively low density mean liquid water could exist there after all.

Nevertheless, it's too soon to suggest that astronomers have found the site of potential exoplanetary life. "What you want [for life] is a nice toasty ocean with a little bit of atmosphere. That's not going to happen here," says Charbonneau. "I think it would be foolish to say categorically that [GJ 1214b] doesn't have life. But we have no basis for thinking it could."

If it does, astronomers will be able to look for it in unprecedented detail. Since GJ 1214b is only 40 light-years away, which is practically next door in cosmic terms, its atmosphere can be studied more closely than that of any other exoplanet, both with the Hubble Telescope and with the infrared-sensitive Spitzer Space Telescope. Charbonneau's team has already applied for observing time on both scopes to do just that.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the discovery of GJ 1214b is that the planet was found at all. Planet hunters usually focus their attention on Sun-like stars — that is, large and hot — on the assumption that if you're looking for life, you should look in a place that is as similar to our solar system as possible. Charbonneau, however, focused on about 2,000 small, dim, red stars known as M-dwarfs, nearby Earth. M-dwarfs are much more numerous than Sun-like stars; of the 300 stars closest to Earth, says Charbonneau, 220 or so are M-dwarfs. They're also much cooler than Sun-like stars, so their habitable zones are close-in. A planet in the Goldilocks position around an M-dwarf doesn't take a year to orbit, as Earth does; it takes only a few days (1.6 days, in the case of GJ 1214b). So astronomers need to wait only a few days to spot a planet passing by, and only a few weeks to confirm the orbit with several passes. (See pictures of different nations' space programs.)

M-dwarfs are so small, moreover, that an Earth-size planet casts a relatively big silhouette as it passes in front of it, making the telltale dimming of starlight easy to spot. It's so easy, in fact, that Charbonneau didn't even need a giant telescope to see it. Instead, he got away with the kind of scope a serious backyard amateur might use. In other words, says Charbonneau, "we did it on the cheap."

They also did it fast. "We thought it would take us two years to find something like GJ 1214b," says Charbonneau. "It took just six months. Either we got really lucky, or these planets are common." If they are, then it wouldn't be surprising for astronomers to find planets that are slightly smaller and slightly cooler — in short, more Earth-like — as well.

Charbonneau's group isn't the only one looking. An international consortium of observatories just announced the discovery of several other super-Earths around Sun-like stars, though these new planets are far too hot to sustain life and too far away to be able to study. Separately, NASA's Kepler Mission will present the first results of its planet search at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington in January. "[The Kepler team] has already submitted 28 scientific papers based on 43 days of data or less," says MIT planet theorist Sara Seager. "It's going to be a big year for planets."

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Russia's Armageddon plan to save Earth from collision with asteroid

Asteroid strike
Computer generated simulation of an asteroid strike on the earth 150m years ago.
Photograph: Don Davis/AFP/Getty Images

Space scientists in Russia are preparing to boldly go where no man has gone before, except for the actor Bruce Willis.
The head of the Russian space agency said today that it was considering a Hollywood-style mission to send a spacecraft to bump a large asteroid from a possible collision course with Earth.
Anatoly Perminov told the Russian radio station Golos Rossii: "People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow us to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people."
The mission would be aimed at an asteroid called Apophis, he said, which is expected to pass close to the Earth in 2029 and again in 2036. "Calculations show that it's possible to create a special-purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision. The threat of collision can be averted."
The Hollywood action films Deep Impact and Armageddon both featured space missions scrambling to avert catastrophic collisions, the latter led by Willis.
But the creation of a system to deflect asteroids has long been the subject of scientific debate. Some experts have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid and gradually change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with it and alter its momentum, or using nuclear weapons.
Perminov said details of the project still needed to be worked out. But he said the agency would invite Nasa, the European Space Agency and others to participate.
When Apophis was discovered in 2004, astronomers made headlines when they said there was a one in 37 chance that the 350-metre-wide rock would collide with Earth in 2029. Further studies ruled out such an impact, but there remains a one in 250,000 chance it could strike in 2036.
Perminov said he had heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," he said.
Nasa has estimated that if the asteroid hit the Earth, it would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square miles would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.
Nasa experts have already discussed the option of landing an astronaut on an asteroid to test whether it could develop techniques to deflect a doomsday rock.
Breaking it up with an atomic warhead could generate thousands of smaller objects on a similar course, which could have time to re-form. Scientists agree the best approach, given enough time, would be to nudge the object into a safer orbit.
Matt Genge, a space researcher at Imperial College London, has calculated that something with the mass, acceleration and thrust of a small car could push an asteroid weighing a billion tonnes out of the path of Earth in just 75 days.
Perminov said: "We will soon hold a closed meeting of our collegium, the science-technical council, to look at what can be done. "There won't be any nuclear explosions. Everything will be done according to the laws of physics."
Mirrors, lights and even paint could change the way the object absorbed light and heat enough to shift its direction over 20 years or so. With less notice, mankind could be forced to take more drastic measures, such as setting off a massive explosion on or near the object to change its course.

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