Madonna won't be launched into space, Russia returns to nuclear power, and a new bird species is discovered in India.

Space Turbulence

Thunderstorms in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia could influence storms in the upper atmosphere, according to new data from NASA satellites. The conclusion marks the first time scientists have connected weather patterns between Earth and space. The research may help scientists make forecasts of turbulence in space, which can cause troublesome radio transmissions and data reception from the global positioning satellite.

Last Tuesday, a fireball streaked across the bright afternoon sky in New Zealand, fast enough to make a sonic boom that sent nearby Kiwis into panic. On Wednesday, a farmer found the culprit—a four-by-two-inch piece of “almost weightless” meteorite.

Russia voted against allowing Madonna to add astronaut to her resume—at least, under its supervision. Although the Material Girl, who expressed a wish to go to the International Space Station, had the support of 52 legislators in the Russian parliament, the motion to launch the pop star was overwhelmingly defeated. Her consolation prize was being proclaimed “under the influence of the devil” by some Orthodox Christians in Russia.


Planetary Matters

From now on, Pluto will be known as minor planet 134340 Pluto, according to a new designation by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. After a controversial decision last month to demote Pluto from planet to “dwarf planet,” the icy orb joins the ranks of the large asteroid Ceres and the distant object UB313. UB313, popularly known as Xena until now, has been given an official name of Eris, after the Greek goddess of discord. The name was

“too perfect too resist,” said Eris’s discoverer Michael Brown, since the object’s finding began the controversy that ended in Pluto’s being ditched from the hallowed nine.

Equipped with nothing but a 4-inch lens and a digital camera, NASA’s Sleuth Telescope has spotted a rare transiting planet some 500 light years away. Transiting planets—those that pass directly in front of a host star—make especially valuable targets for researchers because the starlight behind them yields information about the planet’s atmosphere and density. Astronomers are particularly excited that this Jupiter-sized planet lies squarely in the field of view of NASA’s Kepler mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2007 and will provide more details about moons and rings circling this faraway world.

According to astronomers at theUniversity of California, Santa Cruz, about 13 billion years ago, the number of bright galaxies in the universe skyrocketed. Analyzing three dark patches of sky with the Hubble Space Telescope, the researchers saw hundreds of bright galaxies about 900 million years after the Big Bang. But looking back 200 million years earlier, they found only a handful. During that timespan, there must have been a lot of small galaxies colliding and merging to form big ones, the scientists concluded. The new finding lends support to an idea known as the hierarchical theory of galaxy formation.


From Climate Change, Civilization

Early human beings formed civilization as a last-ditch effort to survive climate change, a warming which cannot be attributed to their activities. As a result of drier weathernomadic groups had to join in order to efficiently take advantage of scarce natural resources, said British scientist Nick Brooks, who formulated his theory based on his study of a civilization that existed in southwest Libya 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Two recent summits have stressed that cooperation from China is necessary to curb greenhouse gas emissions and deter global warming. At the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, the 10-member group emphasized that growing Asian nations must start using cleaner fuel and that European countries should move toward promoting energy conservation. China, South Korea, and Indonesia have refused to adopt mandatory emissions caps, complaining that these would prevent economic growth.

A small, “green” investment bank announced Tuesday that it has raised $1 billion, which it will invest to help companies in developing countries reduce their carbon emissions. The bank is betting that the carbon credits these companies earn by reducing emissions will be bought by European countries that haven’t yet met their own emissions goals.

Children of immigrants are more likely to study math and science in college than those whose parents were born in the United States, reports a new study published in the journal Child Development. First-generation American students of a variety of ethnicities typically chose math or science because they aspired to higher-paying jobs than the children of native-born parents.


Rare Birds, Flu Birds

A bird-watching astronomer discovered a rare new species of bird in India. Scientists confirmed it was a new species of babbler bird, Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum). They were able to make the identification without killing any of the birds, as is the standard practice. There are only fourteen of the species known to be in existence. The multi-colored bird was the first new bird species discovered in India since 1948.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Maryland company MedImmune, have artificially constructed three versions of a live vaccine of the deadly H5N1 virus, which has infected 244 people and killed 143 since its first outbreak in 1997.  Instead of using an inactive version of the virus, researchers used a live, but weakened, version to stimulate cross-protection—the ability to fend off similar strains of the rapidly mutating H5N1—in mice and ferrets. Since June, MedImmune has been testing its vaccine in human volunteers in Phase 1 safety trials.


Costs of Pollution

It would cost China roughly $136 billion to clean up the pollution the country produced in 2004 alone, says the nation’s State Environmental Protection Administration. The figure—roughly 7 percent of China’s gross domestic product that year—would be primarily needed for water clean-up. The study aimed to determine the financial impact of pollution, a byproduct of the country’s rapid economic growth.

Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman came under fire for her handling of breathing problems suffered by thousands after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Congressmen from New York and New Jersey claim that Whitman misrepresented the air quality in lower Manhattan and at Ground Zero, leading rescuers to work without respirators. Thomas Kean, the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission and former governor of New Jersey, said the charges merely represent political jockeying. He said he is shocked that Democratic congressmen “would misuse the heroic service of thousands for their political gain in an election season.”


New Energy Pledges

Russia is reviving its nuclear power program in response to growing energy consumption and dwindling gas reserves. The country plans to build between 40 and 60 new nuclear power plants over the next 30 years, increasing the nation’s power generating capacity by 300 gigawatts. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power, said, “There is no alternative to the development of nuclear power in Russia, which must replace power generated using natural gas.”

A new Environmental Protection Agency proposal to increase biofuel production aims to increase the amount of renewable fuel sold to 3.71 percent of all gasoline sales, up from the current level of 2.78 percent. According to EPA officials, the new “renewable energy standard” will create new markets for farm products, provide greater energy security, and reduce toxic pollution from cars. Critics of the program, including some environmental groups, are dubious that renewable fuels will improve air quality.

A federal court ruled to temporarily block the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to open up Arctic oil drilling near Teshepuck Lake, citing a lack of evidence that the sensitive wetlands could be protected. A large area of tundra inside the National Petroleum Reserve, Teshepuk Lake is prized for its wildlife, including caribou and migrating waterfowl. Its 1.7 million acres of land also store 1.4 billion barrels of oil.

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Originally published September 18, 2006

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