Scientists determine the size of UB313, Singapore pilfers our researchers and Britain condemns creationism.

Pluto’s Still the Runt of the Lot

The icy orb discovered last year in the far reaches of the solar system, which reinvigorated debates about the definition of a planet, is actually much smaller than astronomers previously thought. Initial estimates suggested the object, known by the catchy name of UB313 (or Xena), was about 30% bigger than Pluto, but it is now thought to be only slightly larger—approximately 113 km (about 70 miles) longer in diameter. Scientists are still debating whether UB313 should be considered a 10th planet, or whether Pluto should be downgraded in status.

NASA announced plans to look for ice on the moon by colliding a probe with the lunar surface and then looking for traces of ice and water vapor in the resulting plume of debris with an orbiting satellite. The unusual mission is scheduled for October 2008 as part of an effort to search for water on the moon, since water could potentially be turned into fuel when astronauts return to the lunar surface—NASA wants to send a manned mission in 2018.

NASA marked the 25th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch this week as it gears up for its 115th shuttle mission, scheduled for July. In 1981, the shuttle Columbia took two astronauts into space on the program’s maiden voyage. The space shuttle fleet has sent twice as many people into space as all other countries’ programs combined, and remains the only reusable space vessel.

Other Countries Have Space Programs, Too

Both Japan and Russia announced plans to land on the moon within the next decade. Russia’s state-controlled space company said it would send a manned mission by 2015, with the eventual goal of establishing a permanent base there to explore for energy resources and prepare for missions to Mars. The Japanese plans were slightly less ambitious: They hope to launch an unmanned probe to the lunar surface in the short term, and to send a manned mission by 2025.

The first Brazilian in space returned to Earth after a nine-day journey to the International Space Station. The cosmonaut, Marcos Pontes, went up on a Russian rocket, accompanied by an American and Russian who were re-staffing the station. Pontes was originally scheduled to fly to the station on a US shuttle, but NASA’s shuttle fleets have been grounded since the 2003 Columbia explosion.

“It Should be in a Museum!”

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, opened a pair of exhibits focusing on the planet’s changing climate and what effect this is having on the people and ecosystems of the far north. “Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely,” presents the scientific evidence of global warming’s impact on the Arctic region, including melting ice sheets, invasive species moving up from the South, stormier weather and disappearing permafrost. The second exhibit looks more broadly at the changes in the atmosphere that are responsible for global warming.

A 4.2-million-year-old humanoid fossil found in Ethiopia is helping scientists create a more coherent evolutionary chain at the very beginning of human development. The fossil comes from one of eight early human species found in the same area of Ethiopia, providing anthropologists with a clearer sequence from the smaller-toothed Ardipithecus species to the larger-toothed Australopithecus variations.

A meteorite known as “Valley of the Sky” was sold at a New York auction for $93,000 to a private art collector in the US. The meteorite, a dimpled and misshapen 355-pound (161 kg) hunk of iron believed to have originated in the asteroid belt, was discovered in a crater field in Argentina. It was the most expensive item sold at a special auction of “rare space sculptures,” which included small pieces of the moon and other meteorites, including a slice taken from the 15.5 ton (about 14 kg) Willamette meteorite found in Oregon.

China has pledged to protect the highly endangered white dolphin in a new sanctuary. Only 2,000 of the species still exist, and they are under threat from polluting factories, paper mills and chemical plants that have contaminated much of their living space—the Pearl River estuary in Southern China. The new reserve spans about 178 square miles (461 km) large, and its construction will begin by the end of this year.

Stop Stealing Our Scientists!

In more bad news for American science, two prominent California medical researchers have agreed to move to Singapore, part of a slow trickle of scientific talent to the tiny city-state. In recent years, Singapore has begun recruiting top scientists from the US and Europe with the promise of high tech facilities, generous budgets and the freedom to pursue their own interests, especially in fields such as stem cell research. Japan and South Korea have also tried to lure talent to their research programs, but not on the scale at which the government of Singapore has been operating. The country has already spent $4 billion on biotech and plans to spend twice that amount through 2010.

The number of sufferers of the “World Trade Center cough,” a respiratory condition caused by inhaling toxic chemicals released into the air when the twin towers fell on September 11th, 2001, has risen to at least 15,000, the BBC reports. Angry about reassurances from the EPA that the air was safe to breathe in the days after 9/11, some of these victims are now pursuing a class-action lawsuit. The EPA reported this week that chemical pollution dropped 4% between 2003 and 2004, but environmentalists pointed out that toxic chemicals in the US waterways have actually risen by 10% over that time.

Scientists report that pharmaceutical companies are expanding the definitions of disease in order to sell more drugs to non-critical patients. Normal conditions such as menopause, sexual dysfunction and irritable bowel syndrome are, their article says, being inflated into diseases by pharmaceutical companies looking to turn a buck. The pharmaceutical companies deny allegations of what the scientists call “disease-mongering.” (Read more about this here.)

Jared Diamond Goes for Number 3

The shortlist for the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books was announced Wednesday. The group of finalists is headlined, unsurprisingly, by Jared Diamond‘s third shortlisted book—and potential third winner—Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Other finalists are first time author Vivienne Parry‘s The Truth About Hormones, Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku and David BodanisElectric Universe. The winning book will be announced on May 16, and its author will receive a cash prize of £10,000.

Prominent scientific institutions in Britain, including the Royal Society and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, are speaking out against the teaching of creationism in schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. “Young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort, or misrepresent scientific knowledge and understanding in order to promote particular religious beliefs,” reads a statement from the Royal Society. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently sided with the scientists, saying that creationism should not be taught in schools. For shame, America!

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Originally published April 14, 2006


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