Discovery launches safely, automakers vow to produce more flexible-fuel vehicles and Americans eat apes.

Hwang Hit Hard; Discovery and Earth Remain Safe

The space shuttle Discovery executed a near-perfect launch on July 4, with only a few pieces of debris shedding during liftoff and only one of those large enough to cause any damage if it had impacted the shuttle. On Wednesday, Discovery’s crew inspected the leading edge of the shuttle’s wings and the nose for any damage caused during liftoff. The crew used a special robotic arm fitted with a camera and a laser but found no injury to the shuttle.

Infamous South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk admitted in court last Tuesday that he forced subordinates to falsify human cloning data. While Hwang acknowledged that he was in the wrong, he said the blame should not lie solely with him, one of over 30 authors of the 2005 Science paper. Hwang is being tried along with five colleagues facing similar charges. If convicted, Hwang would face at least three years in prison.

Last week, Earth got a visit from a neighbor: asteroid 2004 XP14. The asteroid passed by our planet at a distance of almost 269,000 miles, slightly farther than the moon. It is nearly a half-mile wide—big enough to destroy a small country if it were to ever impact the Earth’s surface. Scientists had predicted XP14 would hit Earth later this century, but have since ruled out that possibility.

Desert varnish, a shiny silica-based coating found on desert rocks, could hold the key to finding evidence of life on Mars, concludes research published in the July edition of the journal Geology. According to the study, varnish collects a history of the life around it, binding traces of organic molecules like amino acids and DNA. If desert varnish could be located on Mars, it would provide a long chronology of the planet’s environment, and it would indicate whether life was present at any point during its formation, which takes tens of thousands of years.

Companies, Government Look to Cut Fuel Expenses

The Big Three American automakers—Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler—have pledged to double their production of flexible-fuel vehicles by 2010. Flexible-fuel vehicles are capable of running on both gasoline and E85, a fuel comprised of 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol. Some critics of the Big Three, whose cars gave off more carbon dioxide in 2004 than the nation’s largest electric utility, have said that the new pledge is little more than an effort to raise their reported fuel economy so they can continue to produce SUVs. These critics say that, since there are only a few ethanol pumps in the country, most of these cars will continue to run solely on gasoline.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill that allows for oil drilling in offshore areas that have been protected for the past 25 years. The bill would permit drilling in waters more than 100 miles from the shore in all cases and between 50 and 100 miles from the shore unless a state passed legislation to prevent drilling every five years. The bill is expected to face fierce opposition in the Senate, particularly from states with large coastal tourism industries, such as Florida.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency has found that new policies regulating lighting—along with individual actions—could cut the world’s lighting bill by 38% by the year 2030. Incandescent light bulbs, the most commonly used light, are very inefficient, converting only about 5% of the energy they receive into light. The biggest energy consumer, however, is fluorescent lighting, which accounts for 43% of the energy used for lighting with efficiency of the tubes ranging anywhere between 15% to 60%. Halogen uplighting was labeled the least efficient of the bunch.

We Appear Unprepared for Disaster

The current state of global preparedness for an avian flu pandemic is disastrous, said Paula J. Dobriansky, the under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, in a recent speech. If a pandemic were to strike, potential death tolls could range from one million to 142 million people, and global GDP could decrease by as much as $4.4 trillion. Avian flu is not yet capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, a prerequisite for a pandemic, but Dobriansky said the economic, social and security ramifications of an outbreak would be so great that a global response to the threat is necessary.

Iranian officials have rejected a deadline for responding to an international proposal designed to alleviate the Iran nuclear crisis, refusing to make a judgment on the proposal until sometime after July 23. The Iranian government has said it accepts that it needs to be flexible when discussing its nuclear development program, but it will not suspend peaceful nuclear research. Iranian officials insist that their late decision deadline is not tactical or meant to waste time.

Committees in both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives approved a deal that would help India develop civilian nuclear facilities. Under the terms of the agreement, the US would provide India with nuclear power technologies in exchange for India opening some of their nuclear plants to international inspection. The deal still awaits a full vote from the House and Senate. Critics say that providing India, a country that hasn’t signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with these technologies creates a double standard and weakens the hard line America is using with Iran and North Korea.

We Witness Our Effects on the Environment

Bushmeat, particularly primate meat, has become something of a delicacy in Western countries, despite laws prohibiting its sale. A survey of seven cities with known bushmeat markets revealed that as much as a third of all bushmeat sold is primate meat, and a primate dinner can cost as much as a filet mignon. Glyn Davies, the director of conservation for the Zoological Society of London, suggested that if Africans could sustainably harvest smaller bushmeat animals, the income generated could support local African peoples, but the sustainable harvesting of great apes would be impossible.

A new computer model created by NASA and several other agencies has predicted that the ozone hole over Antarctica will close around 2068, 18 years later than expected. The model is able to correctly reproduce the area of the ozone hole in the Antarctic stratosphere for the last 27 years. The model factors in current atmospheric conditions, estimates of future Antarctic chlorine and bromine levels and future emissions, making it the most reliable model to date.

A national study of state science education standards revealed there is no consensus on whether or not, nor how, students should learn about human impacts on the environment and environmental impacts on humans. Some states completely ignored the interplay between man and environment, and all but four states emphasized teaching how people affect the environment over how the environment affects us.

Carbon Dioxide Changes Our Ecosystem

The acidification of oceans due to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is threatening the world’s coral reefs and could drastically change the oceanic biosphere, a report funded by the National Science Foundation has concluded. The report, released last Tuesday, said the change in oceanic chemistry could make it difficult for marine organisms to grow their calcium carbonate skeletons and create coral reefs. Corals may therefore be unable to grow faster than they erode.

An experiment designed to test crop yield under predicted future carbon dioxide levels produced fewer crops than expected. The experiment was performed outdoors using new Free-Air Concentration Enrichment technology. Past experiments on crop growth and carbon dioxide took place indoors, where researchers have more control over the air, and yielded more bountiful harvests. Of 12 measures, all but one were lower than in the indoor trials, indicating that higher levels of carbon dioxide will not aid real-world outdoor crop growth nearly as much as had been thought.

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Originally published July 9, 2006

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