Astronomers find out where to look for ET, scientists can't find many sharks and the British aren't allowed to release as much carbon as they'd like.

Where to Phone Home

A list of 10 stars capable of supporting solar systems with intelligent extraterrestrial life were presented by Carnegie Institution astronomer Margaret Turnbull at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences in St. Louis, MO, last week. Turnbull compiled the list from a catalogue of 120,000 stars. Five of the stars may only prove to be useful to

SETI astronomers trying to pick up radio signals, while the other half could be held for NASA’s planned Terrestrial Planet Finder, which is scheduled to be launched in 2016. (Read more about it here.)

Japan successfully launched the Astro-F probe, a satellite equipped with a powerful infrared telescope. As part of a collaborative effort with European scientists to map the universe, Japanese astronomers will use the telescope to chart sections of the sky obscured by cosmic dust. Once completed, the All Sky Survey project will give us a clearer picture of how the universe was formed.

Space Adventures, a company that is developing rocket ships for suborbital tourist flights, announced its plans to build a $265 million spaceport in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE government is chipping in $30 million to help construct the spaceport. Space Adventures sent the first three tourists to the International Space Station beginning in 2003 for $20 million per person.

NASA has redesigned its new space shuttle to minimize the amount of insulating foam that could fall off during a launch. Errant foam caused the disastrous explosion of the shuttle Columbia that killed seven astronauts in 2003. A stray bit of foam fell off the Discovery last June, although the results were not as calamitous. The new space shuttle could be launched as soon as May.


Shark-Free Water

Scientists discovered this week that 70% of the world’s oceans do not contain sharks. The fish can only live in the shallowest 30% of ocean and have not adapted to deeper waters. This finding means that sharks are at a greater risk of extinction than was previously thought, since in shallower waters, sharks are more threatened by human contact. Scientists had hoped that reserves of new and previously known shark species might be found in uncharted regions of the ocean.

The World Wide Fund for Nature announced a newly discovered coral reef and called for it to be given protected status. The reef, off the coast of Khao Lak, a popular tourist destination in Thailand, extends over 667 acres and houses 30 types of coral and at least 112 species of fish. A recent report released by the UN stated that coral reefs are diminishing rapidly due to human activities like illegal fishing and climate change. The report predicts that 60% of the world’s coral reefs will be gone by 2030.

A report compiled by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network found that only 14% of the coral reefs affected by the 2004 tsunami are severely damaged or worse. The study stated that humans are actually placing the coral reefs in even greater danger than the tsunami did. It suggests local governments and relief agencies protect reef ecosystems as they rebuild since reefs will help to protect coastlines from damage in the event of future tsunamis.

Elephant seals on the island of South Georgia near Antarctica have been recruited by oceanographers to help them study the movement of ocean currents. Scientists fitted the seals, which travel thousands of miles and dive more than a mile down, with computerized tags that record and transmit information on salinity, depth and temperature. Scientists hope the data will improve our understanding of how the ocean regulates energy around the global climate system.

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Refused the Right to Pollute

The European Commission rejected Britain’s request to be allowed to emit an additional 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Under the EU Emissions Trading System, countries can apply to change the pollution standards they are required to meet. The Commission refused to consider Britain’s proposal, noting that the appeal was filed after the deadline, making it invalid. Britain is considering legal action to challenge the ruling.

Greenland’s government set a quota for hunting polar bears on Wednesday that allows local Inuit hunters to kill no more than 150 bears. The island is now home to about 7,500 polar bears, but their numbers are shrinking due to global warming, which threatens the bears’ icy habitat.

The El Niño weather pattern, a tropical warming that affects air pressure worldwide every four to seven years, could be strengthened by global warming, scientists say. After a 40-year analysis of food production in Africa highlighted the variation in crop levels during El Niño years, analysts figure corn, rice, sorghum, millet and groundnuts would be endangered by a strong El Niño year and that 20 million people could die unless changes are made to farming practices.


The Name’s in the DNA

Researchers at the University of Leicester were able to predict men’s last names based on their Y chromosomes—which, like surnames, are passed from father to son. The scientists hope the technique could eventually be used by investigators to narrow down long lists of suspects. By comparing their success rate with the number of unsolved rapes and murders in Britain last year, the team estimates their method could have helped investigations into 10 murders and 60 rapes. (Read more about it here.)

Researchers studying groups of gorillas in zoos discovered that the primates learn behaviors socially instead of genetically, as chimpanzees and orangutans have been observed to do. These cultural behaviors include tricks for finding food and courting practices. Some scientists think that cultural species will evolve to become more intelligent over time.

An international team of scientists working in Antarctica confirmed that it had captured the first neutrinos found outside a laboratory. The multi-year, $250 million project captured the rare subatomic particle by constructing a massive detection system deep in the Antarctic ice shelf. Physicists believe neutrinos hold the key to understanding supernovas, where they are believed to originate.

A team of Australian biologists discovered that the skin secretions of the dumpy tree frog make an effective mosquito repellent. The team was focusing on the frog because its secretions are already known to have painkilling and hallucinogenic properties. Although the repellent proved slightly less effective than a spray of DEET, the discovery highlights the potential benefits of further research into frog chemical ecology.

Finally, in an effort to compete with top research universities in the US, the European Commission announced plans to found a world-class institute of technology. Supporters of the proposal argue that the flagship school would increase Europe’s competitiveness with the US, India and China by fostering innovation and research. Detractors worry that funding for the school will be diverted from efforts already underway to finance research in Europe.

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Originally published February 24, 2006

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