The Russians lose another satellite, evolution wins out in Utah and California opens one stem cell institute, sues another.

Leningrad, We Lost Another One

The Russian Federal Space Agency failed to place an Arab commercial satellite into orbit this Wednesday. The wandering satellite is the most recent in a string of setbacks for the agency, which lost an important European satellite in October, as well as two other satellites and an experimental space vehicle that same month. Experts from the company that built the Arab satellite are working to recover it and set it back in place, but chances for success are slim.

Despite repeated problems with foam pieces shedding on its shuttles, NASA is optimistic about the chances of resuming launches by May. Engineers have been scrambling to eliminate the possibility of another disaster like the explosion of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, caused when foam struck the spacecraft’s wing. The agency acknowledges that the shuttles will always shed smaller pieces of foam but, if they can ensure that larger pieces remain attached, they hope to squeeze in three missions by the end of the year.

Three researchers at Maryland institutions have been awarded a $1 million grant from NASA to study the possible effects of solar radiation on astronauts traveling to Mars. The grant is part of a NASA initiative proposed by President Bush, which includes more missions to the moon and a manned mission to Mars. NASA will spend 8.7 million dollars in geospace grants on 27 new projects.

Pictures from the world’s largest optical telescope got even clearer thanks to an artificial star. Astronomers at Europe’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile created a spot of light in the night sky by beaming a powerful laser miles into the thermosphere. They then used the light as a reference point from which to calculate and correct the distorting effects of our atmosphere.

The European Space Agency has decided to go ahead with plans to build and launch CryoSat-2, a copy of the CryoSat-1 satellite that was lost last year when its rocket launcher malfunctioned and the satellite crashed shortly after taking off from northern Russia. The new satellite has the same mission: To study the effects of global warming on the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica by traveling along an unusual flight path over the poles. Many European ministers and prominent scientists argued that the research was too important to scrap.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged to spend roughly a half billion dollars over the next few years to launch his country’s first satellite, with the eventual goal of establishing a Venezuelan space program. Thirty scientists will travel to China this year—followed by twice as many next year—to begin construction of the satellite with the assistance of the Chinese space program. The Simón Bolívar satellite, as Chavez has already dubbed it, is scheduled for launch in late 2008.


Evolution Is on a Roll

In a blow to supporters of intelligent design, the Utah House of Representatives killed a bill that would have forced public school science instructors to teach alternate theories to evolution. Representatives who opposed the bill argued that the state shouldn’t have the authority to weigh in on scientific theories. Senator Chris Buttars, who introduced the bill in the Utah senate, told the AP, “I don’t believe that anybody in there really wants their kids to be taught that their great-grandfather was an ape.”

Scientists unearthed the fossilized remains of a beaver-like mammal in China that dates back over 160 million years. The ancient beaver was furry, with a broad, scaly tail and webbed feet and appears to have been specifically adapted to aquatic life. The finding challenges our current understanding of mammalian evolution, which holds that at the time of the dinosaurs, mammals were relatively primitive and lived only on land.

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To Stem Cell, Or Not to Stem Cell?

Philanthropists have just given the University of Southern California $25 million to build a new stem cell research center, school officials said this week. The Broad Institute, named for donors Eli and Edythe Broad, will open in 2008 as part of an initiative—authorized by California voters in 2004—that hands out $300 million a year in stem cell research grants.

Taxpayer groups and an anti-stem cell nonprofit are suing the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the state-funded embryonic stem cell research center. California voters authorized stem cell research grants in November 2004 despite federal restrictions on funding and research put in place by the Bush administration. The lawsuits relate to financial issues, not bioethical ones, and many observers think the Institute will emerge unscathed.

At an international conference in Britain, 60 leading researchers, ethicists and lawyers from 14 countries called for the establishment of international regulations regarding stem cell research. The group argued that conflicting national policies are hindering cross-border collaboration. They believe that uniform standards would encourage international cooperation and set ethical limits on research around the world.

Prosecutors in South Korea have begun questioning Hwang Woo-suk, the stem cell expert who was found in January to have fabricated some of his work. The former national hero is also suspected of misusing government funds. Hwang blames most of the false data that’s ruined his career on his collaborators.


Finally Getting Proactive

FEMA officials said that the agency’s top priority at the moment is preparing for a potential earthquake along the New Madrid Fault located along the Mississippi River. A majority of the structures in Memphis, TN, and St. Louis, MO, predate earthquake-safe building requirements, the officials said, and would not withstand even a medium-size quake. Over the next 50 years, the probability of a magnitude 6 or higher earthquake in the region is 25 to 50%.

Donald Powell, President Bush’s adviser on Gulf Coast recovery, said last Thursday that new, improved levees aren’t the sole answer to protecting New Orleans and the Louisiana coast from future hurricanes. Restoring the levees must be part of a system of defense, which includes restoring wetlands and refurbishing pump systems. It is unclear, however, how much money will be allocated to his project, the final requirements of which will be submitted at the end of 2007.


Radiation Across the Nation

American and British government scientists performed a nuclear experiment, detonating explosives around radioactive material in an underground vault, 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NV. Scientists released a video blog of their experiment, which was the 22nd such test at the site since 1997. The experiment is legal under the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons because it was not a full-scale blast.

The Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia agreed to jointly construct a new nuclear plant in Lithuania. For years, the three countries have relied on the Soviet-built Ignalina reactor in Lithuania, which must be deactivated in keeping with Lithuania’s 2004 invitation to join the EU. The Baltic states have until 2009—when the plant goes off-line—to find alternate sources of energy, or else rely on imported gas and oil from Russia, an unpopular move in nations which only gained independence from the USSR 15 years ago.


Digging Out a Lost City

Excavations at the base of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, continue to uncover artifacts from a centuries-old village buried by ash during an eruption in 1815. The massive eruption is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people, and buried most evidence of the Tamborans—a wealthy kingdom with ties to peoples all over Southeast Asia. Archaeologists hope that careful digging could uncover what they’re hailing as the “Pompeii of the East.”

Papua New Guinea has one of the planet’s most extensive stretches of natural rainforest, but it won’t have it for long, according to a report from the group Forest Trends. Large-scale illegal logging operations, conducted primarily by Malaysian companies for export to China, are savaging the island’s forest cover. At the current pace of deforestation, the rainforests of New Guinea could be gone in a decade, with little economic benefit for the underpaid New Guinean workers.

A 25-mile wide bulge in Yellowstone Park may have triggered some previously unexplained geothermal activity over the past years. The bulge rose 5 inches between 1997 and 2003, probably due to an underground movement in molten rock. Scientists from the US Geological Survey are claiming that the bulge caused a rise in temperature, new steam vents and the awakening of the Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin.


Research Aid to Africa

Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry announced it will give scientists working in Africa free access to the 1.5 million pages and 2,500 articles in its vast journal archives. By opening up access to scientific knowledge, the organization hopes to foster the nascent African scientific community. The announcement was met with praise and calls for more journals to follow suit.

A demonstration was held outside the University of Oxford‘s new biomedical center, drawing hundreds of people who support the center’s right to conduct animal testing. Supporters of such testing planned the march to coincide with a slightly smaller rally being held to protest vivisection as cruel and unnecessary. At one point, the groups faced off across police barriers, but no violent incidents or casualties were reported.

Finally…science wonks were treated to the National Science Foundation‘s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, which tracks international trends in research and development. Among other findings, the study questioned the conventional wisdom that places like China are outpacing the EU in research spending. Included with the report was a companion piece suggesting ways of improving US science and math education through increasing teachers’ salaries and emphasizing problem-solving skills.

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Originally published March 3, 2006

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