China gears up for space super-fruit, animal rights activists back off and US lawmakers pair better fuel efficiency with expanded drilling.

The Biggest Thing in the Universe

A team of astronomers using the Subaru and Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, have discovered the largest structure ever seen in space. The structure, which spans some 200 million light-years, is a three-dimensional filament of galaxies that contains 30-some enormous gas clouds—thought to be the precursors to massive galaxies. The structure is surprisingly dense, containing four times the number of galaxies expected in a space its size.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has found what may be hydrocarbon lakes on the surface of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Using its radar system, Cassini detected dark patches—indicating a smooth surface—dotting the landscape around Titan’s north pole. The dark patches, which appeared in images taken on July 21, may be liquid methane or ethane lakes, which some scientists had speculated might exist on the moon.

China plans to launch a satellite filled with 2,000 seeds from a variety of crops into space, hoping the seeds produce better crops when they return to Earth. Scientists expect exposure to micro-gravity and cosmic radiation will cause genetic mutations in the seeds that will lead to plants with higher crop yields. According to the state press, China has previously found that tomato and pepper seeds launched into space result in 10% to 20% increases in yield and crops with a higher vitamin content.

Yang Liwei, China’s first Taikonaut, discussed his experience training for space flight and viewing the Earth from space with youths brought together at Beijing’s 36th Committee on Space Research Scientific Assembly. Yang rode the Chinese rocket Shenzhou-5 into space in October 2003, after eight years of training. At the assembly, Yang also remarked on his survival training in the Russian wilderness as well as claims that the Chinese space rocket is just a copy of the Russian Soyuz.

American Hunter Gets a Different Kind of Bird Flu

A US duck hunter and two state wildlife employees showed traces of an uncommon strain of bird flu in their blood, researchers reported this week. The strain, known as H11N9, is not related to the much-feared H5N1 strain of avian influenza and is not known to be dangerous to humans. But the finding is one of the first to suggest that hunters, who are frequently exposed to waterfowl, are at risk of contracting bird flu.

Attacks by animal rights activists in Britain decreased significantly in the first half of 2006, the country’s drug industry announced. There were just 15 attacks on private homes in the first six months of this year, fewer than half the number during the same period in 2005. Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, attributes the drop to better policing and new legislation intended to curb extremists.

German anthropologists and a US company announced plans to sequence the DNA of Neanderthals. The enterprise should illuminate longstanding questions about human evolution, such as whether humans and Neanderthals interbred. A Connecticut biotechnology company, 454 Life Sciences, developed the sequencing technology—which works even with the small amounts of DNA researchers have been able to recover from Neanderthal remains.

Climate Change From Ocean’s Floor to Planet’s Parks

Methane gas escaping from the ocean floor likely plays a role in climate change, say scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was previously known that small bubbles of the gas emanating from the bottom of the ocean dissolve into the surrounding waters, but the researchers report that large blowouts of methane gas also escape from the ocean floor. Such huge releases of methane are at least 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide and send nearly all the gas into the atmosphere.

Global warming is putting 12 famous national US parks in serious jeopardy, said a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Within 25 years the glaciers in Glacier National Park could be gone. So could Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bears, which are threatened by food scarcities. Over the last 50 years, temperature increases in the American West, where all 12 parks are located, have been double those in the rest of the nation, said the National Resources Defense Council.

More than 150 new coal-fired power plants are being planned in states across the US. The renewed interest in coal plants follows years of increasing demand for natural gas, driving up its price. If all the coal-fired plants are actually built, national emissions of greenhouse gases would increase by 10%, according to the US Public Interest Research Group.

Texas and Illinois are competing for the honor of hosting the world’s first clean coal power plant. The plant would release almost none of the gases associated with global warming. Instead, the gases would be sequestered in underground reservoirs. The $1 billion project is a leap forward because it makes coal, an abundant resource, almost greenhouse-gas-neutral, said Jeff Jarrett, the assistant secretary of fossil energy for the Department of Energy.

Lawmakers Wrangle Over Energy

Congress may add a provision requiring increased vehicle fuel efficiency to a bill that would also loosen restrictions on offshore oil drilling. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) said that adding the fuel efficiency provision could help garner the extra support needed to pass the bill. Drilling is now allowed along the coast of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alaska. If passed, the bill would open a small area of Florida to drilling and other parts of the east and west coasts to energy exploration.

Democratic lawmakers accused the federal government of suppressing a State Department report that contains information vital to the pending US-India nuclear energy deal. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), co-chair of the House’s bipartisan task force on proliferation, called for the release of the document, which he says reveals the names of Indian entities “known to be engaging” in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Some Democrats, including Markey, accused the State Department of withholding the report because it would injure the administration’s push to complete the deal.

Texas has edged out California as the nation’s top producer of wind power, according to a report released by the American Wind Energy Association. Texas produces 2,370 megawatts of wind-power a year—enough to power 600,000 homes. So far this year, Texas has accounted for 46% of the nation’s increase in wind power. The state has also signed two agreements to develop offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pollution Knows no Borders

The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet met 30% of the requirements in the Clean Air Act and regularly misses its deadlines set for fulfilling the goals, a Congressional report reveals. The Government Accountability Office found that the EPA has not met 239 of the Act’s mandates. Of the mandates that have been met, only 12 have been completed on time. A separate panel—convened by the US, Canada and Mexico—found that air pollution in North America fell by 15% between 1998 and 2003. 

Canada lags behind the US in reducing the release and transfer of industrial pollutants such as lead, benzene and mercury. During the five-year period between 1998 and 2003, the total release and transfer of these pollutants in the US decreased 17%, a study released by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation says. During that same time period, levels in Canada increased by 6%.

Contamination of Chinese grain by heavy metals like mercury and lead is costing China’s farmers more than 20 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) per year. According to the Chinese State Environmental Protection website, approximately 12 million tons of grain are contaminated annually. Neither the report nor the Chinese government revealed whether humans consumed the contaminated grain.

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Originally published July 27, 2006


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