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Saturday, September 22, 2007

craft laws in nano world

Arizona State University's College of Law has secured a federal grant to write new regulations for an emerging science that dabbles with the tiniest of tiny things.

ASU law professors and students will use the $314,000 Department of Energy grant to build a regulatory model for bioenergy products that use nanotechnology.

The Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law also will create a comprehensive public database of local, national and international regulations dealing with the technology

Nanotechnology describes the science of building and manipulating things at the "nanoscale" level, or one billionth of a meter. The technology is used to make consumer products such as stain-resistant pants, cholesterol-busting canola oil and sunscreens.

The emerging science is largely unregulated, and several groups have called for tighter oversight to prevent consumer harm.

"There is an urgent need to find some way to do this," said Gary Marchant, executive director of ASU's Center for the Study of Law, Science & Technology, which received the grant. "Everybody is scrambling to figure out how to do this."

In addition to the database, ASU researchers will evaluate proposed and existing regulations dealing with nanotechnology and whether those regulations are evenly applied. They will propose ways to regulate the science on an international level and coordinate national regulatory strategies.

Proposed regulations will need to be flexible because the science is growing so fast, Marchant said. Yet, the regulations are pivotal to ensure research companies and investors are comfortable spending money on research without the fear that rules will be changed later on. Marchant cited a 2006 report that indicated the uncertain regulatory framework is impeding investment in nanotechnology.

Joining Marchant in the study will be Kenneth Abbott, School of Global Studies professor, and Douglas Sylvester, who specializes in intellectual-property law. The law school's science and technology center has about 20 student researchers who are familiar with the technology.

Green tech becoming big industry

At GoingGreen 2007, CEOs of global businesses and tech start-ups share ideas and engage in debates on emerging green opportunities.

What kind of clean tech product will thrive over the long term?

"Something that doesn't defy laws of physics, and there are plenty of those," said Rodrigo Prudencio, a partner with Nth Power LLC. The venture capital firm helped Evergreen Solar and Imperium Renewables to get off the ground.

Nobody at the AlwaysOn Going Green conference was making bold predictions about what might become the Google of green tech, but the sector is expected to continue expanding at a rapid clip.

Clean tech companies receive the third largest amount of venture capital, a staggering increase to $2.4 billion last year from $917 million in 2005, according to research by Clean Edge. Ninety percent of venture-backed, green tech companies that made initial public offerings last year are listed on the Nasdaq market.

"There will be new ways to squeeze that last bit out of a kilowatt and new ways to create that kilowatt," said Steve Eichenlaub, managing director of Cleantech Investments at Intel Capital. He and other investment experts offered these tips:

Don't burn out by shooting for every initial public offering. "You still have to be careful," said JonCarlo Mark, senior portfolio manager at CalPERS. "There will be money lost in certain technologies and investments, but there's a need to diversify from fossil fuels."
Although unglamorous, technologies that improve energy efficiency, from manufacturing plants to workplaces to homes, will be in high demand as businesses and consumers seek to reduce expenses and carbon emissions. "All companies making incremental improvements in the energy economy are gonna move the needle," said Prudencio.
Renewable sources of energy that don't lean on government subsidies or tax incentives look promising.
Think globally, far into the future. For instance, the need for water filtration and treatment will balloon as the world's population exceeds 8 billion within the next decade, and more people migrate to coastal regions.
"Climate change aside, anything that takes hazardous waste out of the market is gonna be a huge market for investment," said Keith Casto, a partner of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold who heads the law firm's international climate change practice. Companies that use recycled components in manufacturing can save money they might otherwise spend on a dwindling supply of raw materials.

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MIT observations give precise estimate of Mars surface ice

An MIT-led team of planetary scientists has found that the southern pole of Mars contains the largest deposit of frozen water in the inner solar system, outside of Earth.

The new results show that water, not carbon dioxide, is the predominant frozen liquid found in the southern polar region of Mars, said Maria Zuber, MIT professor of geophysics.

Zuber said scientists have suspected that the southern polar cap of Mars is comprised of a thin veneer of carbon dioxide that rests atop a layer of dust and ice. However, scientists have also observed a surrounding area much larger than the polar cap that is dark and smooth, and it was uncertain whether that region was also composed of dust or ice--or both.

"What we found is that water ice is the dominant constituent beneath a thin dust veneer," said Zuber, lead author of a paper on the work appearing in the Sept. 21 issue of Science.

Ever since carved channels were first observed on the surface of Mars, scientists have suspected that water once flowed across the surface.

Scientists also wondered whether the Martian poles held large reserves of water. However, because the Mars atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide with only trace amounts of water, some researchers theorized that the polar caps were frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice.

Zuber's team identified the composition of the southern polar cap by calculating its density. Their results show the density of the polar cap as well as the surrounding smooth layered deposit region is about 1,220 kilograms per cubic meter, which indicates that it is made of mostly water, with about 15 percent silicate dust mixed in.

(The density of water ice is 1,000 kilograms per cubic meter, and the density of dry ice is 1,600 kilograms per cubic meter.)

Zuber and her colleagues used topographical and gravitational data gathered by three Mars orbiters to find the volume and mass of the ice cap, allowing them to calculate its density.

"It's a really simple experiment but you have to measure things very precisely," Zuber said, who is head of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

The experiment reveals that the southern Martian polar region is the largest body of frozen water on the planet and the largest, outside of Earth, in the inner solar system, which includes Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury.

Until now, scientists were puzzled by the observation that a large percentage of the southern polar region surface does not reflect much light, as it would if there were ice on the surface. This study shows that much of the ice is covered in a layer of dust, but it remains unknown why the dust only covers certain areas, Zuber said.

She plans to undertake a similar density study of the northern polar cap, which does not appear to have a covering of dust, but which is abuts against a large apparent dune field that is not now thought to contain significant ice.

Zuber is the lead investigator for gravity for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and deputy principal investigator for the altimetry experiment aboard the Mars Global Surveyor. The team also used data from the Mars Odyssey satellite.

Such collaborations between teams "really increase the value of what any single experiment could show on its own," Zuber said.

Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, an MIT postdoctoral associate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is also an author on the paper. Other authors are Roger Phillips of Washington University; Sami Asmar, Alexander Konopliv, Jeffrey Plaut and Suzanne Smrekar of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech; and Frank Lemoine and David Smith of the Planetary Geodynamics Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The research was funded by the NASA Mars Program.

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21st-century pack mule: MIT's 'exoskeleton' lightens the load

Researchers in the MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics Group have created a device to lighten the burden for soldiers and others who carry heavy packs and equipment.

Their invention, known as an exoskeleton, can support much of the weight of a heavy backpack and transfer that weight directly to the ground, effectively taking a load off the back of the person wearing the device.

In the September issue of the International Journal of Humanoid Robotics, the researchers report that their prototype can successfully take on 80 percent of an 80-pound load carried on a person's back, but there's one catch: The current model impedes the natural walking gait of the person wearing it.

"You can definitely tell it's affecting your gait," said Conor Walsh, a graduate student who worked on the project, but "you do feel it taking the load off and you definitely feel less stress on your upper body."

The research team was led by Hugh Herr, principal investigator of the Biomechatronics Group and associate professor in the MIT Media Lab. Earlier this summer, Herr and his colleagues unveiled the world's first robotic ankle for lower-limb amputees.

Eventually Herr hopes to create assistive leg devices that can be useful for anyone. Herr said he envisions leg exoskeletons that could help people run without breathing hard, as well as help to carry heavy loads.

"Our dream is that 20 years from now, people won't go to bike racks--they'll go to leg racks," he said.

Exoskeleton devices could boost the weight that a person can carry, lessen the likelihood of leg or back injury and reduce the perceived level of difficulty of carrying a heavy load.

The person wearing the exoskeleton places his or her feet in boots attached to a series of tubes that run up the leg to the backpack, transferring the weight of the backpack to the ground. Springs at the ankle and hip and a damping device at the knee allow the device to approximate the walking motion of a human leg, with a very small external power input (one watt).

Other research teams have produced exoskeleton devices that can successfully carry a load but require a large power source (about 3,000 watts, supplied by a gasoline engine).

When the MIT researchers tested their device, they found that although the load borne by the wearer's back was lightened, the person carrying the load had to consume 10 percent more oxygen than normal, because of the extra effort to compensate for the gait interference.

The team hopes to revise the design so the exoskeleton more closely mimics the movement of a human leg, allowing for more normal walking motion. The most important result of this study, says Walsh, is that the team's spring-based, low-energy design shows promise.

"This is the first time that it has been tested," he said. "We didn't know what to expect."

Other Biomechatronics Group members who contributed to the project were Daniel Paluska, Ken Pasch, Andrew Valiente and William Grand. The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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Tropical Storm Warning For Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Warning For Gulf Coast
The low pressure weather system which Thursday morning moved across Florida into the Gulf of Mexico is expected to transform into a tropical system over the next couple of days, several forecasters warned. The National Hurricane Center dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft to investigate, which found a broad circulation centered about 115 miles west-southwest of St. Petersburg, Florida but which doesn't yet have tropical characteristics.

However, things are likely to change fast over the next days as it moves west-northwestward over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and away from the Bay area. The National Weather Service said that current conditions favor the low-pressure system becoming a subtropical or tropical cyclone today before making landfall. The storm might move across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, although areas such as the Florida Panhandle will be affected as well.

"We're certainly continuing to watch it and hoping it moves west before it fully develops," said Mr. Mark Bowen, chief of Bay County emergency services. "It's still not too late for folks to prepare," he added.

It seems unlikely the storm could be stronger than a Category 1 hurricane, with top winds of 95 mph. However, flooding and wind damage can occur even at much lower wind speeds. The federal Minerals Management Service announced that oil industry workers have left five production platforms in the gulf, and three drilling rigs have been evacuated. However, there has been no known decrease in the production of oil and natural gas in the Gulf. A typical tropical storm carries sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph. Katrina, which killed hundreds of people and flooded most of New Orleans, entered land as a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds of more than 111 mph.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami advised people with interests along the northern Gulf coast to monitor the system.

"With Louisiana still suffering from the ravages of Katrina and having so many residents living in travel trailers and mobile homes, we feel it's prudent at this time less than 36 hours out from the onset of landfall, to recommend the governor make the declaration," Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said. The state's governor, Kathleen Blanco, declared a state of emergency late Thursday, putting the National Guard on alert and school buses, ambulances and evacuation shelter workers on standby.

In Mississippi, officials handed out sandbags Thursday in coastal areas, as Gov. Haley Barbour warned residents in a telephone message not to panic but to be prepared.


Tropical storm warnings have been posted for parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast as a subtropical depression looms in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.

The warnings are in effect from Apalachicola, Fla., westward to the mouth of the Mississippi River -- including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

According to the NHC's advisory, maximum sustained winds are near 35 mph with higher gusts.

"Some strengthening is forecast during the next 24 hours, and the depression could become a subtropical or tropical storm" later Friday, the advisory said.

The depression is moving toward the northwest near 8 mph. A turn to the west-northwest is expected during the next 24 hours. Coastal storm surge flooding of 1 to 2 feet above normal tide levels can be expected in areas of onshore flow.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a precautionary state of emergency, advising parishes to call for the evacuation of residents in low-lying areas and those living in trailers. The governor has school buses, ambulance support, National Guard transportation assets and shelter staff on standby, according to a statement from her office.

Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser said school would be in session Friday for the entire parish. No decisions have been made about evacuations, as the system has yet to organize or strengthen, he said.

"We have deployed flood-fighting equipment Tropical storm warnings have been posted for parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast as a subtropical depression looms in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.

The warnings are in effect from Apalachicola, Fla., westward to the mouth of the Mississippi River -- including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

According to the NHC's advisory, maximum sustained winds are near 35 mph with higher gusts.

"Some strengthening is forecast during the next 24 hours, and the depression could become a subtropical or tropical storm" later Friday, the advisory said.

The depression is moving toward the northwest near 8 mph. A turn to the west-northwest is expected during the next 24 hours. Coastal storm surge flooding of 1 to 2 feet above normal tide levels can be expected in areas of onshore flow.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a precautionary state of emergency, advising parishes to call for the evacuation of residents in low-lying areas and those living in trailers. The governor has school buses, ambulance support, National Guard transportation assets and shelter staff on standby, according to a statement from her office.

Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser said school would be in session Friday for the entire parish. No decisions have been made about evacuations, as the system has yet to organize or strengthen, he said.

"We have deployed flood-fighting equipment to those flood-prone areas of our parish, and feel that we are as prepared as possible in the event that this weather system threatens," Nungesser said in a statement.

He and other parish leaders planned to meet again Friday morning.

Emergency managers in St. Bernard Parish said they'll follow the lead of New Orleans when it comes to evacuations.

Residents in Jefferson Parish are being asked to clean out the storm drains, and emergency crews are preparing to open shelters for people living in FEMA trailers. Parish pump stations are working and fully staffed. to those flood-prone areas of our parish, and feel that we are as prepared as possible in the event that this weather system threatens," Nungesser said in a statement.

He and other parish leaders planned to meet again Friday morning.

Emergency managers in St. Bernard Parish said they'll follow the lead of New Orleans when it comes to evacuations.

Residents in Jefferson Parish are being asked to clean out the storm drains, and emergency crews are preparing to open shelters for people living in FEMA trailers. Parish pump stations are working and fully staffed.

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HSBC shuts wholesale lending arm

HSBC shuts wholesale lending armHSBC continued the restructuring of its US mortgage business, which has suffered heavy losses on subprime loans, by announcing the closure of its wholesale lending arm with the loss of 750 jobs.

HSBC, which is under pressure from activist shareholder Eric Knight to review its strategy, said the move reflected the strategy of focusing on providing mortgages through its 1,300 consumer lending branches in the US.

These loans, which HSBC holds on its own books, have better delinquency rates than the industry average.

"Today's market requires a strong and flexible business platform, and we will focus on our branch network as the primary point to provide our HSBC Finance customers with loans and mortgages," the bank said.

The move follows HSBC's decision in March to stop acquiring portfolios of loans from other mortgage lenders, which led to heavy losses after delinquencies on blocks of subprime mortgages.

The wholesale lending arm, called Decision One, originated non-prime loans through brokers which it then securitised. But since the credit squeeze in the summer investor demand for such securities has dried up. It has warehoused loans of $349m on its books.

Michael Geoghegan, HSBC's chief executive, said the unit was a small part of its US business. The closure will result in the loss of 750 jobs in South Carolina and Arizona, adding to the thousands of job cuts already announced by the US mortgage industry. There will be an after-tax charge of $65m for restructuring costs.

more news....

HSBC to close subprime unit

HSBC Holdings Plc , Europe's biggest bank, said on Friday that it would close its U.S. subprime mortgage unit, cutting 750 jobs and taking $945 million in charges and write-downs, because the business is no longer sustainable.

For London-based HSBC, which is under pressure from activist investors to shake up its corporate governance, it was the latest blow from the meltdown in the U.S. market for loans to home buyers with poor credit histories.

HSBC Finance, the U.S. consumer finance arm of HSBC, said the closure of Decision One Mortgage would result in about 750 people losing their jobs. Decision One has operations in Fort Mill, South Carolina, Phoenix, Arizona and Charlotte, North Carolina.

It's no longer sustainable and not the right place to allocate capital in the future," said Michael Geoghegan, group chief executive at HSBC Holdings.

Dozens of U.S. subprime lenders have curtailed operations, closed down or filed for bankruptcy protection. The subprime crisis has roiled the U.S. housing industry and played a central role in nearly 90,000 job cuts.

HSBC Finance will record an impairment charge of about $880 million, reflecting a write-down of Decision One assets on its books. It also will incur about $65 million in after-tax charges for restructuring that includes employee termination benefits and facility closures.

HSBC acquired Decision One when it bought Household International Inc. in 2003 for $14 billion. Decision One is a small part of HSBC's U.S. operations, which include auto lending and credit cards.

HSBC, the world's fourth biggest bank, with a market value of more than $200 billion, has been criticized for the underperformance of its share price in the last five years and its purchase of Household, which has exposed it to the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.

HSBC's charge for bad debts was $6.35 billion in the first half of the year, up 63 per cent from $3.89 billion in the same period last year as it continued to suffer from past loans to the hard hit U.S. subprime mortgage sector.

This year, HSBC Finance got new leadership, which quickly put together a team to examine and monitor credit risk under Chief Executive Brendan McDonagh.

HSBC Finance has closed two of its three channels for subprime mortgage lending. McDonagh told Reuters in an interview that the company will continue to originate subprime loans through its network of more than 1,350 branches.

"Historically, loans originated in branch offices generally perform better," McDonagh said in a telephone interview. "You are in direct control of the relationship, you underwrite on a one-to-one basis."

Before Friday's announcement, Decision One restructured its operations as defaults on risky subprime loans to people with weak credit escalated. The unit centralized loan processing and underwriting and reduced the number of operating centers to two from 17.

Decision One relied on a network of independent mortgage brokers to find borrowers and to submit loan applications, a model that has been curtailed or discontinued by other lenders burned by lax underwriting standards and outright fraud.

In the first six months of this year, HSBC sold about $371 million in loans originated by Decision One to its U.S. bank and recorded a pretax loss of $400,000 from those deals.

In contrast, HSBC booked a $17 million pretax gain on Decision One loan sales during the fourth quarter of 2006, its financial statements show.

Decision One disclosed its plans in a management conference call with its staff that earlier on Friday Reuters reported would take place.

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Arctic ice ebbs to record level: scientists

Arctic ice ebbs to record level: scientists

Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest level ever this week, shattering a record set in 2005 and continuing a trend spurred by human-caused global warming, scientists said on Thursday.

"It's the biggest drop from a previous record that we've ever had and it's really quite astounding," said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.

Sea ice freezes and melts seasonally, but never has it ebbed to this small a patch, the data center said in a statement. Compared to 2005, the previous record-low year for Arctic sea ice, this year saw a decrease of more than 386,100 square miles.

That is about the size of Texas and California combined, or nearly five times the size of the United Kingdom, the center said. It is more than double the drop between 2005 and 2002, the previous record-holding year.

"That's a dramatic change in one year," Meier said of this year's sea ice decrease. "Certainly we've been on a downward trend for the last 30 years or so, but this is really accelerating the trend."

The minimum amount of ice occurred on Sunday and freezing has already begun in some places, according to satellite imagery used by the center.


Melting sea ice, unlike the melting glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica, does not contribute to global sea level rise, much as an ice cube in a glass of water does not make the level of liquid rise when it melts.

However, without the bright white of sea ice to reflect the sun's rays, the Earth loses what some climate scientists call its air conditioner. The less ice there is, the more dark water there is to absorb the warming solar radiation.

This year's record was caused by a "perfect storm" of interacting factors, Meier said by telephone.

These included a long-running high pressure system that kept skies cloudless over the Arctic, along with a circulation pattern that pushed ice out of the Arctic towards Greenland, instead of letting it circle around the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska as it usually does.

Also, there was thinner ice to begin with, Meier said.

While this particular year's ice minimum cannot be directly attributed to anthropogenic -- human-caused -- global climate change, the trend that brought it about can, he said.

"This year, the reason why (the ice) was so low was not because there's more anthropogenically generated carbon dioxide dumped in the last year, it's because of this high pressure ... but you can't really explain the overall trend without invoking anthropogenically global warming," Meier said.

He also noted that the decrease in Arctic sea ice was forecast in models used by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which this year said with 90 percent probability that global warming exists and that human activities contribute to it.

However, the sea ice is diminishing much faster than any of the models predicted, Meier said.

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Indonesians tune in to digital Koran

Indonesians tune in to digital Koran

With her tiny earphones and slim digital player, Jakarta office worker Mira Indriarti looks like any other young music lover -- only she's not listening to the latest tunes, but to a recording of the Koran.

Digital Koran is increasingly popular in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, where such gadgets sell especially well during the fasting month of Ramadan when religious fervor is high and reading the scripture is an essential part of the observance.

Indriarti said she bought the gadget because she wanted to study the Koran to be a better Muslim.

"I can listen to the recital or read the verses and the translation anywhere," she said. "It's uncomfortable if I read a Koran book on the bus and people around me may look at me in amazement."

The device, the size of an iPod digital player, carries the entire text of the Koran, in Arabic with an Indonesian translation, and its audio recitation. Fans say it provides a handy alternative to the bulky printed version of the holy book.

"Sales have been good this month. On average we sell 50 a day," said Arief Syaifullah, who sells digital Koran.

"Indonesian Muslims are becoming more technology savvy in their religious activity," he told Reuters.

Many Indonesians traveling on the haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia carry the device because it contains prayers to be recited during the annual ritual, he added

The Koran is in Arabic, a language most Indonesians do not understand, and to memorize the verses students must recite them repeatedly.

The most popular voice in the digital Koran is that of Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca known for his precise and emotional recital of the holy verses.

Many of the digital Koran sold in Indonesia are made by a South Korean company, which also markets the products in the Middle East, Britain and the United States.

Prices of the gadgets, sold under the brand name Iqra'a, range from 900,000 rupiah ($98) to 1.9 million rupiah, which is equivalent to a month's salary for many Indonesians.

For a similar price, Indonesians can buy a PDA, or personal digital assistant, or mobile phone that can be installed with Koran software, some of which can be downloaded for free on the Internet.

The latest digital Koran produced by the Korean company looks like an iPod and has similar features to the popular music player, including a full color LCD screen and a video player.

In addition to the Koran, translated into nine different languages, it includes the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, prayers, prayer time and the direction toward Mecca that Muslims face to pray.

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Carnegie Mellon building robot for lunar prospecting

Carnegie Mellon building robot for lunar prospecting

Researchers in the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science are building a robotic prospector for NASA that can creep over rocky slopes and then anchor itself as a stable platform for drilling deep into extraterrestrial soils.

Called "Scarab," this four-wheeled robot will never leave the Earth. But it will demonstrate technologies that a lunar rover will need to find concentrations of hydrogen, possibly water and other volatile chemicals on the moon that could be mined to produce fuel, water and air that are essential for supporting lunar outposts.

Scarab is equipped with a Canadian-made drill for obtaining meter-long geological core samples and features a novel rocker-arm suspension that enables the robot to plant its belly on the ground for drilling operations.

"A lunar prospector will face a hostile environment in the perpetual darkness of craters at the moon's southern pole, where ground temperatures are minus 385 degrees and no energy source is at hand," said William "Red" Whittaker, the Fredkin Research Professor and principal investigator of the NASA-funded project. "It's a place where humans can't work effectively, but where Scarab will thrive, even while operating on the electrical power required to illuminate a 100-watt light bulb."

Robotic prospecting on the moon poses substantial, sometimes conflicting challenges. Scarab must be agile enough to travel miles over sandy, rock-strewn soil, but also serve as a stable drilling platform. Operating for months in total darkness, it cannot rely on solar energy or batteries for power. Instead it will use a radioisotope source that places a premium on energy efficiency. To navigate in total darkness, Scarab must rely on new, low-power, laser-based sensors.

"As a consequence of the power restrictions, it's not very speedy," said David Wettergreen, associate research professor of robotics and leader of Scarab's software and autonomy development. With a top speed of just four inches per second, Scarab tries the patience of even the most laid-back observer. When faced with particularly large obstacles or drilling tasks, it may pause to store up extra power.

To optimize efficiency, the robot must be as light as possible. But to operate the coring drill, the vehicle also has to be massive enough to apply sufficient downward pressure on the drill and counter the torque of the rotating drill. Researchers estimate it must weigh at least 250 kilograms, or about 550 pounds.

The suspension allows Scarab to make the most of its weight by enabling it to lower its 5-1/2-foot-by-3-foot body to the ground for drilling operations. "One of the design innovations was to put the drill in the center of the robot," Wettergreen said, rather than attaching it to an arm. "Scarab can apply its entire mass onto the drill, so that everything is assisting the drilling operation."

The suspension also makes it possible for Scarab to raise its body as much as 21 inches off the ground, so it can straddle rocks or lean as it negotiates steep slopes.

"It's a good combination vehicle that does two things very well," said John Caruso, project manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "Scarab is successful because it achieves the design simplicity of a single-purpose machine while accomplishing the multiple purposes of driving and drilling in darkness."

Also important is that the vehicle has been developed as an integrated package based on the requirements of an entire prospecting mission, Caruso said. NASA hasn't announced such a mission as yet, he noted, but developing the technology now will ultimately lower the technical risk for such an undertaking. Glenn Research Center is developing radioisotope power sources for deep space and lunar applications.

The drill is being built by the Northern Centre For Advanced Technology Inc. in Sudbury, Ontario, and will be capable of processing and analyzing the geologic cores it obtains.

Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center are collaborating to evaluate navigational sensors and algorithms for operation in darkness, such as a "light striper" being built at Carnegie Mellon that detects obstructions by shining laser beams and then looking for distortions in the beams.

Researchers at the Robotics Institute have been working since March to build the robot and develop its autonomous navigation and scientific software. The carbon-composite body was designed and built by a team of engineers headed by John Thornton, a student who also builds streamlined racers featured in Carnegie Mellon's annual Buggy Races.

Development work continues on software that can use all of Scarab's motions to best advantage and enable it to navigate autonomously in the dark. A field experiment planned for the end of the year will put driving and drilling in the dark together in a complete demonstration of the lunar mission concept.

The project is funded through NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and its In-situ Resource Utilization program.

Whittaker has announced that he is assembling a team to compete for the Google Lunar X-Prize and its $20 million grand prize for operating a privately funded robot on the moon by 2012. That effort is separate and distinct from the NASA-funded Scarab project, which is developing technologies that could be used on the moon but are being tested on Earth. .

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Origin of Nature's Most Powerful Magnetic Bursts

 Origin of Nature's Most Powerful Magnetic Bursts

University of Arizona astronomers have pinpointed the origin of powerful bursts from nature's most magnetic objects. The bursts are from "magnetars," some of the most enigmatic objects in the universe.

Magnetars are a type of neutron star, which are superdense stars that pack the mass of a sun into a body the size of Manhattan Island. Tiny magnetars possess magnetic fields that are at least 100 trillion times as powerful as Earth's magnetic field. They occasionally produce powerful bursts, hurling high-energy radiation cascading across space. The origin of these energetic eruptions and the strong magnetic fields is a mystery.

Astronomers discovered a magnetar with the NASA's X-Ray Timing Explorer in July 2003, when it brightened by about 100 times its usual faint luminosity. They continued monitoring it regularly with the European Photon Imaging Camera, known as EPIC, on the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Observatory until March 2006, when the object faded to its pre-outburst brightness.

As the magnetar faded, EPIC recorded changes in the energies of the X-rays released.

Tolga Guver, who is a visiting graduate student at the UA, working with Assistant Professor Feryal Ozel of the UA physics and UA astronomy departments, compared the magnetar's changing X-ray spectrum with predictions from a computer model. They developed the model to describe the physical properties of a magnetar's surface and magnetic field in detail.

Guver, Ozel and their collaborators found that the data was best fitted with a model that traced the outburst to just below the surface of the magnetar and confined it to an area about 3.5 kilometers (about two miles) across.

"This is the first time both the surface emission and its subsequent reprocessing in the magnetosphere have been incorporated into the same computer model," Ozel said.

This is a breakthrough because we can now distinguish between surface and magnetospheric phenomena,'' Guver said.

Determining both the size and the location of the powerful burst is like "performing anatomy on a distant, tiny star,'' Ozel added.

Their model also allowed Guver, Ozel and their colleagues to determine spectroscopically the strength of this object's magnetic field. The magnetar's magnetic field is around 600 trillion times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field.

The scientists say they are encouraged because the measurement is similar to an earlier estimate made based on how fast the source is "spinning down," which is the change in the spin period over time. They said it boosts their confidence that their model is correct.

"It is tremendously exciting to be able to compute exotic quantum phenomena that appear only in these ultrastrong magnetic fields and to see these predictions appear in actual data,'' Ozel added.

The astronomers say that they don't yet understand the mechanism of the outburst, which is probably somehow magnetically triggered.

The researchers say they plan to use their computer model to study more magnetars, using more data from X-ray observatories, in the quest for answers.

They are publishing their results in today's edition (Sept. 20, 2007) of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper's authors are Guver, Ozel, Ersin Gogus of Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey, and Chryssa Kouveliotou of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.



Scientists have identified the most magnetic object known in the Universe, the result of the first direct measurement of a magnetic field around a peculiar neutron star first observed nearly 25 years ago.

By following the fate of a tiny proton whipping about at near light speed close to the neutron star with NASA's Rossi X-ray Explorer satellite, scientists calculated this star's magnetic field to be up to 10 times more powerful than previously thought -- with a force strong enough to slow a steel locomotive from as far away as the Moon.

This object, named SGR 1806-20, is one of only ten unusual neutron stars classified as magnetars, thousands of times more magnetic than ordinary neutron stars and billions of times more magnetic than the most powerful magnets built on Earth. The strength of its magnetic field is approximately a million billion (10^15) gauss (100 billion tesla), according to a team led by Alaa Ibrahim, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University conducting research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Other magnetars could be just as magnetic, although direct measurements have not yet been made, the team said. The Sun's average magnetic field (or dipole), in comparison, varies between 1 and 5 Gauss. Results are published in two articles in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"If this magnetar were as close as the Moon, it would rearrange the molecules in our bodies," said Ibrahim. SGR 1806-20, however, is a safe 40,000 light years from Earth. (One light year is about six trillion miles or 9.5 trillion km.) "Although one would not want to get close to such an object, we now have a method of probing from afar to learn about the physics of matter under extreme gravitational and magnetic forces."

A neutron star is a compact sphere approximately 10 miles (16 km) wide, the core remains of a collapsed star once roughly ten time more massive than the Sun. In 1979, scientists observed a huge outburst from a neutron star, which, upon further analysis, marked the discovery of a new class of neutron stars now known as Soft Gamma-ray Repeaters (SGR). Scientists theorized that these objects must be highly magnetic in order to burst with such magnitude, and they coined the term "magnetar".

Scientists have estimated SGR magnetic fields by measuring the spin rate of the star along with the spin-down rate, that is, the rate at which the star's spin is slowing. Two scientists who have led this effort are Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Dr. Kevin Hurley of the University of California at Berkeley. This is an indirect measure of magnetic field strength, for strong magnetic fields are thought to put the brakes on a spinning neutron star. The long-standing estimate has been over 10^14 Gauss.

Ibrahim's team identified an energy feature in many of the bursts emanating from SGR 1806-20. In analyzing the bursts spectral features, which is a graph showing the energy level emitted by light close to the neutron star surface, the team found a specific energy manifested at 5,000 electron volts.

This energy level, Ibrahim said, corresponds precisely to the energy needed to excite a proton trapped in an immense 10^15 Gauss magnetic field. This fits the magnetar "starquake" model, analogous to an earthquake, in which the surface of the neutron star momentarily cracks open and ejects protons. The quake itself is the source of the bursting seen in magnetars, or SGRs, and the ejected protons get trapped in the star's strong magnetic field loops.

These results on the proton feature meet theoretical predictions made by a number of scientists, including Drs. Silvia Zane of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom and Roberto Turolla of the University of Padova, Italy. However, other theorists expected the effect to be very difficult to observe.

Dr. Jean Swank of NASA Goddard, a co-author and the Rossi Explorer Project Scientist, noted that while electron signatures have provided key information about typical neutron stars powered by rotation and gravitation, protons are now revealing their presence in magnetars, providing exciting new information about these mysterious objects.

Co-authors of the Astrophysical Journal Letter reports are Dr. William Parke of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Samar Safi-Harb of the University of Manitoba, Canada, in addition to Swank, Zane, and Turolla. The Rossi Explorer was launched in December 1995. NASA Goddard manages the day-to-day operation of the satellite and maintains its data archive.

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Velociraptor Had Feathers

The terrifying velociraptors that ripped apart everyone they could catch in Jurassic Park should have been given feathers by the director Steven Spielberg.

Researchers now say that the dinosaurs, which leapt into the public imagination when they were featured in the hit 1993 film, were misrepresented. After analysing fossilised bones they have discovered that the velociraptor was not the smooth-skinned creature portrayed in the film, but had feathers.

The discovery means that as well as being more decorative than the creatures that appeared in the film they could have been an even more terrifying predator because the feathers would probably have been improved their manoeuvrability.

Scientists have suspected for several years that velociraptors were feathered beasts, but only now have they been able to identify what they believe is conclusive proof. Close analysis of a velociraptor forelimb unearthed in Mongolia in 1998 reveals that quill knobs were present on the fossilised bone. Quill knobs, which are found on many modern bird species, are where the flight or wing feathers are anchored to the bone by ligaments.

"A lack of quill knobs does not necessarily mean that a dinosaur did not have feathers," said Alan Turner, of the American Museum of Natural History, and the lead author of the study. "Finding quill knobs on velociraptor, though, means that it definitely had feathers. This is something we'd long suspected but no one had been able to prove."

Velociraptors had short forelimbs compared with modern birds' wings, which has led researchers to conclude that they were flight-less but had probably descended from an extinct creature that had been able to fly. That the velociraptors had retained at least some feathers suggests that they continued to have a role, even if not for flight.

The researchers said that one of the most likely functions of the feathers was to display to other velociraptors, perhaps in courtship rituals or as a show of strength against aggressors. Other functions could have included use as a shield to protect eggs, a temperature control to prevent the dinosaurs from getting too hot or cold, or to help them to manoeuvre while running.

Mark Norell, one of the researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, said: "The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds."

The fossil analysed for the study came from a velociraptor that was estimated to have been 5ft (1.5m) long, 3ft tall and weighing 33lb (15kg) when it died.

The research was a joint project of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the Field Museum, Chicago. In their report the authors say: "We present direct evidence of feathers in Velociraptor mongoliensis based on the presence of quill knobs on the posterior forearm. Their absence does not necessarily indicate a lack of feathers. Their presence, however, is a direct indicator of feathers."

The six quill knobs were found spaced about 0.16 inches (4mm) apart and the researchers estimated that the limb would have had 14 secondary feathers on the forearm, similar to the 12 in Archaeopteryx, which is the earliest known bird.

his image released by the Smithsonian Institution's American Museum of Natural History shows the ulna, or forearm bone, of a Velociraptor the terrifying predator made famous in the movie Jurassic Park, found in Mongolia and dating from the Cretaceous Period, approximately 80 million years ago. An enlargement of the lower central portion of the ulna show the presence of quill knobs, bumps on the bone where the feathers anchor, researchers report in the Friday, Sept. 21, 2007, edition of the journal Science. (AP Photo/American Museum of Natural History, Mick Ellison)

Velociraptor, the terrifying predator made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park," appears to have had feathers in real life.

A close study of a velociraptor forearm found in Mongolia shows the presence of quill knobs, bumps on the bone where the feathers anchor, researchers report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

Dinosaurs are believed to be ancestors to modern birds. Evidence of feathered dinosaurs has been found in recent years, and now velociraptor can be added to that list.

"Finding quill knobs on velociraptor ... means that it definitely had feathers. This is something we'd long suspected, but no one had been able to prove," Alan Turner, lead author on the study and a graduate student of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and at Columbia University in New York, said in a statement.

The velociraptor the researchers studied was about three feet tall and weighed about 30 pounds. The size of these animals was exaggerated in the movie.

It had short forelimbs, compared to a modern bird, the researchers said, indicating it would not have been able to fly, even though it had feathers.

The feathers may have been useful for display, to shield nests, for temperature control or to help it maneuver while running, they said.

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