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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shuttle Atlantis Poised for Thursday Launch

All seven astronauts are at Cape Canaveral in Florida reviewing procedures and awaiting their construction mission to the International Space Station.

Commander Stephen Frick said to a press gathering, "We're really excited to be here in Florida today, obviously on a tremendous day, and we hope that it stays like this all week long, to have our chance to launch in Atlantis on Thursday and bring the Columbus module up to the International Space Station. Obviously it has been a real long training flow for us, a long time building to this moment, and so we are just absolutely ready to go."

The primary goal of this mission is to install a European-built space laboratory called Columbus. The module is seven meters long and more than four and half meters in diameter. A Japanese laboratory is scheduled for delivery to the space station next year.

NASA's shuttle Atlantis and a massive European laboratory are on track for their planned Thursday launch toward the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis' seven-astronaut crew is slated to liftoff from a seaside launch pad here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) spaceport at 4:31 p.m. EST (2131 GMT), with a 90 percent chance of pristine weather conditions.

"The vehicle is looking good and the weather is looking good, too," said shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters, of the U.S. Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron, in a morning briefing.

Commanded by veteran shuttle astronaut Stephen Frick, Atlantis' STS-122 crew will haul the European Space Agency's (ESA) 13-ton Columbus lab to the ISS during a planned 11-day mission. Three spacewalks are on tap for the spaceflight, but NASA may extend the mission by two days to add fourth excursion to inspect a balky ISS solar array joint.

NASA test director Jeff Spaulding said shuttle workers detected a small leak in ground equipment late Wednesday after loading super-chilled liquid hydrogen into Atlantis' tanks, but the glitch is not expected to hinder plans for tomorrow's launch.

"It's on the ground side only," Spaulding told reporters. "It is not a vehicle issue at all."

NASA space shuttles use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen reactants to power their three fuel cells during orbital flight.

Spaulding said engineers will spend the bulk of today testing Atlantis' communication systems and loading the final pieces of cargo into the shuttle's middeck. A pair of experiments and some last-minute food items are on that list, he said.

Frick and his STS-122 crew, meanwhile, plan to visit Atlantis at the pad today as part of the prelaunch preparations, NASA officials said.

At 8:00 p.m. EST (0100 Dec. 6 GMT) tonight, pad workers are expected to retract the shroud-like Rotating Service Structure that protects Atlantis from weather at its Pad 39A launch site.

NASA has a slim window that closes on Dec. 13 in order to launch Atlantis to the ISS while the angles between the station's solar arrays and the sun are favorable for docked operations. If weather foils Thursday's launch attempt, NASA could try again as early as Friday at 4:09 p.m. EST (2109 GMT).

Winters said the weather outlook offers an 80 percent change of favorable launch conditions on Friday, but will dip to about 60 percent on Saturday.

Atlantis' STS-122 mission will mark NASA's fourth shuttle flight of the year and the second to deliver a new pressurized module to the ISS.

NASA will broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

Alan Poindexter
Atlantis pilot Alan Poindexter explains. "Columbus is the main contribution of the European Space Agency and it is the first pressurized module that is non-U.S. or non-Russian, and it adds a lot of laboratory space as well as interior volume to the space station."

The European Space Agency's Daniele Laurini takes us inside witha virtual trip. "I have a short animation. We are flying to the station. We are slowly entering into Columbus, and we zoom into the facilities that we have installed for launch. We have four major facilities dedicated to research in physiology, biology and material sciences, and in general experimentation. We slowly go back to node two and magically, through the laptop display, we go to the outside."

Atlantis astronauts plan three space walks to install the Columbus laboratory.

NASA managers say the weather looks good for Thursday's launch. If all goes as planned, Atlantis will return to the Kennedy Space Center on December 17th, wrapping up the fourth and final shuttle flight of the year.

Saturn's moon Titan contains chemicals that on Earth can serve as building blocks for complex organic molecules.

The atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, seen here, contains hydrocarbons that could be the starting point for microbial life .

Saturn moon home to life's building blocks

Scientists don't know how it happened, but the oxygen-starved atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan contains chemicals that on Earth can serve as building blocks for complex organic molecules.

Scientists used an instrument on the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft and found heavy negatively charged ions in Titan's upper atmosphere, despite the absence of oxygen.

On Earth, oxygen is needed to ionise molecules in the lower ionosphere.

Titan's atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and methane, a combination that is leaving scientists wondering how the negative ions, which have 10,000 times the mass of hydrogen, formed.

Cassini collected the data during 16 different encounters of Titan.

"Their existence poses questions about the processes involved in atmospheric chemistry and aerosol formation," says Dr Andrew Coates, with University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The molecules have additional rings of carbon and can become what are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Scientists believe these polycyclic molecules can serve as a starting point for simple microbial life.

The research, reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, builds on an earlier discovery of smaller complex molecules called tholins above Titan's surface.

Tholins, which have up to about 8000 times the mass of hydrogen, are believed include some chemical precursors to life.

"Understanding how they form could provide valuable insight into the origin of life in the solar system," says planetary scientist Dr Hunter Waite, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Murky brown mist

Scientists suspect organic solids from the murky brown mist that surrounds Titan have been raining down on its surface for billions of years.

The late Professor Carl Sagan coined the term tholins from the Greek word tholos, or mud. Scientists believe Titan's natural tholins could be part of the chemistry needed for life.

Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system and the only one with a dense atmosphere.

It is believed to resemble primordial Earth and scientists are studying it to try to understand how life evolved here.

Cassini, a joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency, has been circling Saturn and its eclectic collection of moons and rings since 2004.

Its next pass by Titan is scheduled for later this week, when the probe's infrared camera will attempt to image what may be a large lake of hydrocarbons on the moon's southern hemisphere.

Sunlight may save kids' sight

Exposure to sunlight may boost kids' dopamine levels, which reduces their chances of myopia, scientists say

Exposure to sunlight could be a critical factor in stopping children from becoming short-sighted, Australian researchers have found.

The findings, presented to the Australasian Ophthalmic and Visual Sciences Meeting in Canberra this week, appear to overturn the long-held view that education and close work are the key drivers of myopia.

Instead they suggest the ability to develop myopia is strongly influenced by environmental factors.

They will also be a boon to public health officials in the region as myopia is reaching epidemic proportions across urban Asia.

Dr Ian Morgan, of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Vision Science, says there has been a dramatic escalation in myopia rates in East Asia during the past 30 years.

Morgan says 90% of conscription-aged males in Singapore are now myopic.

This compares with figures from the 1960s to the 70s when only 20-30% of 17-year-old males had myopia.

During the same period, rates of myopia in Australia have increased from about 15% to 20-25%.

Morgan says it has been suggested there may be an East Asian genetic susceptibility to environmental risk factors associated with intensive education and urbanisation.

But he says this can be discounted because those of South Asian, or Indian, ethnicity growing up in Singapore are as myopic as the Chinese and Malay populations.

"This phenomenon cannot plausibly be explained in terms of changes in gene pools," the Australian National University researcher says.

"A gene pool doesn't change that fast."

Playing outside
Instead Morgan and colleague Dr Kathy Rose, of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney, have found the time children spend outdoors is the critical factor.

A comparison of children of Chinese origin living in Singapore and Sydney, which matched the subjects for age and parental myopia, shows the rate of myopia in Singaporean children is 10 times higher.

But Morgan says the Sydney-based children spend significantly more time in near-work activity, reading twice as many books per week.

The key difference in their weekly activities was in time spent outdoors with Sydney-based children outside almost four times longer than their Singapore counterparts.

"What children are doing in Australia at the moment seems to be right," he says.

Morgan believes the exposure to sunlight cuts myopia rates by encouraging the release of dopamine.

Dopamine is known to inhibit eye growth and myopia is a condition caused by excessive eye growth.

Morgan says while they will begin experiments to assess this theory, the findings are concrete enough to inform public health policy.

"The findings provide a means of prevention and are enough to start authorities thinking about time outdoors as a public health strategy."

Morgan says a prevention strategy is needed because severe myopia increases the risk of retinal detachment, which can lead to blindness.

He says Singapore faces the serious public health threat of having as much as 10% of its population developing a serious retinal problem later in life.

Benefits of Sunlight

However surprising it may be, some doctors are now describing sunlight as beneficial rather than a cancer risk to be avoided at all costs. Though the dangers of sun exposure–like skin cancer and blindness–should still be taken into consideration, sunlight is still a part of a healthy lifestyle.

Sunlight can reduce the effects of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder—more commonly known as seasonal depression. Doctors have suggested taking walks daily for people who suffer from this disorder, even when the sky is overcast. This has shown to help improve seasonal depression even more than the use of sunlamps.

It appears, through years’ long studies of people who live in sunnier climates and people who are exposed to sunlight through their work situations, that sunlight can actually decrease risk of colon and breast cancer.

In another study, patients who were put in hospital rooms that were sunny requested less pain medication than patients in windowless rooms. Whether the pain is lessened by the sunlight or the patients’ awareness of their pain levels decreased during the study is unclear.

People who are suffering from jet lag can use the sunlight in the area of their destination to reset their internal clock. Exposure to daylight can hasten the body’s ability to get on a sleep schedule that matches the time zone they are in.

Sunlight provides the body with the means to produce Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps the body in various biological functions: It promotes calcium absorption, which in turn deters bone loss; it may help maintain a healthy immune system; it could possibly be a part of the process of cell differentiation.

Of course, it is always smart to practice moderation in everything. However, the connection between good health and sunlight can not be ignored.

New fossil haul could offer clues to when humans first set foot on Cyprus

Scientists study extinct dwarf hippo graveyard

An abattoir used by early Cypriots, a cemetery where animals went to die, or simple a shelter that ultimately proved a death trap?

Cypriot and Greek scientists are trying to unravel the riddle of a collapsed cave brimming with the fossilized remains of extinct dwarf hippopotamuses that were descendants of a group believed to have migrated here as far back as a quarter million years ago.

Paleontologists have unearthed an estimated 80 dwarf hippopotamuses in recent digs at the site located just outside the resort of Ayia Napa on the island's southeastern coast.

But possibly hundreds more may be lying beneath an exposed layer of jumbled fossils embedded in the crevices of an ancient coral reef formation that now overlooks the coastline.

Scientists hope the new fossil haul dated to 9,000-11,500 B.C. could offer vital clues to solving the long-standing quandary over when humans first set foot on this east Mediterranean island.

"It's about our origins," said Ioannis Panayides, the Cyprus Geological Survey Department official in charge of excavations carried out in conjunction with the University of Athens. "Knowledge of our geological history makes us more knowledgeable about ourselves."

Until the Ayia Napa discovery, the earliest trace of humans on the island dated back to 8,000 B.C. But signs of human activity like stone tools and the remains of fires at the cave could turn back the clock on the first Cypriots by as much as 2,500 years.

"That's very significant, but we can't be certain yet. The task of examining is laborious and time consuming," said University of Athens Professor George Theodorou tasked with examining some 1.5 tons of fossils.

The dwarf hippopotamuses were herbivores just like their modern-day cousins but only a fraction of their size, measuring roughly 0.70 meters (2.3 feet) tall and 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long.

Their physical traits also differed. Unlike modern hippos whose upturned nostrils that sit high up on the snout are appropriate for swimming, Cypriot hippos had lower-slung nostrils better suited to foraging on land.

According to Panayides, the fossils show the Cypriot hippos had legs and feet adapted to land rather than water, enabling them to stand on their hind legs to reach low-lying tree branches.

Panayides explained that was the result of a "remarkably swift" evolutionary adaptation to their new environment — a characteristic shared by dwarf hippos unearthed in other Mediterranean, islands including Sicily and Crete.

Hippos arrived in Cyprus in more familiar dimensions between 100,000 to 250,000 ago, but they likely shrank to adapt to a more hilly island landscape. A reliance on footpower to secure their next meal prompted the massive girth reduction.

Scientists are also perplexed as to just how hippos arrived on an island that has never been physically linked to another land mass.

Panayides said paleontologists theorize the hippos may have either swum or floated here from what is now Turkey to the north and Syria to the east during a Pleistocene ice age. They may have clung onto tree trunks and other debris during the crossing.

Lower sea levels at the time mean the island was much larger than its present-day 9,250 square kilometers (about 3570 square miles), so it was significantly closer to neighboring land masses. By some estimates, what is now Syria was a mere 30 kilometers (18 miles) away — less than a third of its present-day distance.

Digs over the last century uncovered dwarf hippo fossils — and in much lesser quantities the fossilized remains of dwarf elephants — at 40 separate locations across the island.

One such cave discovered in Akrotiri west of the southern coastal resort of Limassol some 20 years ago produced evidence of fire, stone tools and scorched bones indicating the dwarf hippos were hunted by what are believed to be the earliest humans to inhabit the island.

Carbon dating on hippo fossils found there showed the site dates back to 8,000 B.C. Evidence of human activity at Ayia Napa means the island may have been settled by sea-faring humans as much as 2,500 years before the current scientific consensus.

human footprint at the Ayia Napa site could bolster the theory that the island's earliest inhabitants could have driven the dwarf hippos to extinction through hunting, said Panayides.

Panayides said indications that hippo bones at the Ayia Napa cave had been crushed as if trampled on by other hippos compounds the mystery as to why successive generations kept coming back to the cave.

Shelter is the most likely explanation, but Panayides didn't rule out the possibility the hippos returned to an ancient burial ground to die.

Panayides said it is hoped that DNA could be extracted to determine the hippos' exact origins.

New scam uses disrobing blonde to trick unsuspecting Internet users

A little striptease for your Web passwords?

In a new online striptease, the buxom, beautiful blonde who promises to remove her slinky scraps of lingerie doesn't want your money. She's interested in your brain. Really.

The creation of online scammers, she's trying to trick unsuspecting Internet users into helping the scammers break the online barriers that banks and e-mail services set up to thwart crooks.

The striptease is the latest attempt to defeat so-called CAPTCHA systems, which is short for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Those safeguards require users to prove they are human by reading wavy, oddly shaped jumbles of letters and numbers that appear in an image and typing them out.

In the new scam, an icon of an alluring woman suddenly appears on a Windows computer infected by a virus. After clicking on the icon, the user sees a photo of an attractive woman who vows to take off an article of clothing each time the jumble of figures next to her is entered.

But the woman never fully undresses, and after several passwords are entered the program restarts, possibly enticing unsuspecting users into trying again.

Trend Micro researchers say the scam appears to be isolated for now to spammers trying to register bogus e-mail addresses and flood chat rooms with unwanted pitches. But they worry schemes to infiltrate financial institutions could soon appear.

Paul Ferguson, network architect at Trend Micro, speculated that spammers might be using the results to write a program to automatically bypass CAPTCHA systems.

"I have to hand it to them," Ferguson said, laughing. "The social engineering aspect here is pretty clever."

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