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Saturday, February 9, 2008

The space shuttle Atlantis is due to dock with the international space station

Atlantis to link up with space station, deliver lab

The space shuttle Atlantis is due to dock with the international space station this afternoon.

It's delivering the long-awaited, $2-billion European-built Columbus science lab. This is also the birthday of the space station's science chief Peggy Whitson. The shuttle is hauling up presents for her, but Whitson says the real gift is the lab.

Columbus was supposed to be launched in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of the explorer's voyage to the New World. But redesign work and contruction delays on the space station, as well as various problems for the shuttle program, have added up to a 16-year delay.

The shuttle crew has completed a post-launch safety inspection of Atlantis. A piece of foam from the external fuel tank hit it on take-off, but wasn't big enough to pose a re-entry threat.

The real work begins tomorrow. Helped by robot cranes and two spacewalkers, the 23-foot lab will be lifted from the payload bay and attached to the space station.


Columbus Module Heading For ISS Aboard Of Atlantis

On February 7, NASA's space shuttle Atlantis successfully lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying European Space Agency's most advanced laboratory, Columbus, into space. Seven astronauts are in charge of getting Columbus safe and sound to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 11-day journey before the mission had run its course.

It took a while before the space shuttle Atlantis was successfully launched - two months of continuous delays and uncertainties - but the mission finally took off on Thursday, with the destination: International Space Station. It is for the second time in seven years that the ISS gets ready to receive a science laboratory, after the U.S.-built Destiny Laboratory Module, activated in February 2001.

On February 9, the space shuttle Atlantis is set to dock with the International Space Station at 18:23 CET. The following day, the Columbus Module will be removed from the space shuttle's cargo by a robotic arm and docked to the starboard hatch of the Harmony module. Columbus will be ready to conduct experiments within hours after it has been docked.

Within the next days, several spacewalks are set to take place, the first of which will include astronaut Hans Schlegel, who will assist the manoeuvre of removing the Columbus Module from the space shuttle. Other two spacewalks will take place while Atlantis is docked to the ISS for installing external science payloads and handrails to the module.

Out of the team of seven, made up of commander of the crew and NASA astronaut Steve Frick, pilot Alan Pointdexter and mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, and also Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts from the European Space Agency, it will be the French astronaut Leopold Eyharts' mission to remain on the ISS for two more months to supervise the Columbus laboratory.

The Columbus laboratory, which is 7m long and weights 12.8 tons, will enable scientists aboard the International Space Station to conduct a series of experiments in a weightless environment on a wide range of topics, such as fluid physics, material sciences, technology, biology and life sciences, in conditions that are not possible on Earth.

After the Columbus Module will be connected to the ISS, the European Space Agency's Columbus Control Center located in the German Space Agency facility in Oberpfaffenhofen will be responsible for monitoring Columbus' activities and provide communications links with control centers from Russia and the United States.

Shuttle Day 2: Crew checks for damage

The crew of Shuttle Atlantis conducted a painstaking laser inspection of the ship's wings Friday, looking for any signs of damage from its trip into space.

Launched Thursday after two months of technical delays, the shuttle was chasing the international space station in orbit with a special delivery: Europe's $2 billion Columbus lab. The shuttle was scheduled to reach it Saturday.

But first the crew of seven astronauts had to determine whether the shuttle was damaged by at least three pieces of foam or other debris that came off the fuel tank two minutes after the liftoff.

There was no evidence that the debris hit Atlantis. But the astronauts were spending much of Friday using a laser-tipped inspection pole to examine the ship's vulnerable wings and nose. The images they gather will be beamed to the ground and thoroughly analyzed over the new few days.

The inspection has been standard procedure ever since a hole in the wing brought down Columbia in 2003, the result of a strike by a slab of fuel-tank foam.

The astronauts awoke Friday to "Book of Love" by Peter Gabriel, a dedication to French Air Force Gen. Leopold Eyharts from his wife and family.

Eyharts greeted his loved ones in English and French, saying, "I know it has been a somehow hard day for them and I want to thank them."

Eyharts will move into the space station for a little more than a month, replacing NASA astronaut Daniel Tani. He plans to help continue setting up and activating the Columbus module, Europe's primary contribution to the space station. : , , , ,
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Collabration news:Is It Too Late for Yahoo?

One of the first questions that Jerry Yang and his top lieutenants pondered after he became chief executive of Yahoo last summer was whether the company could remain independent. They quickly answered yes.
But Mr. Yang, who founded Yahoo along with David Filo in 1995, had a harder time coming up with convincing answers for many of the more complex questions facing the company. How exactly would an independent Yahoo sharpen its focus, shed marginal projects and become a stronger competitor to Google, the runaway leader in online search and advertising?

Mr. Yang, a cerebral, highly analytic executive who, by all accounts, cares deeply about the company he helped build and its workers, appears to have run out of time to answer those questions. A $44.6 billion bid from Microsoft is once again forcing Mr. Yang and his board to consider the viability of Yahoo as an independent company.

This time, Mr. Yang, 39, faces enormous pressure as he decides whether to try to rescue the company from the clutches of Microsoft, or accept the bid and watch Yahoo become part of Microsoft’s arsenal in its no-holds-barred brawl with Google.

Some analysts and several current and former Yahoo executives are, meanwhile, wondering whether things would be different had Mr. Yang been quicker at making some of the tough choices that Yahoo faced.

“He came on board, announced a 100-day strategic review and promised there would be no sacred cows,” said Mark Mahaney, an analyst with Citigroup. “One hundred days went by, and no cows were slaughtered.”

It took until last week, more than six months into Mr. Yang’s tenure, for him to announce that Yahoo would cut 1,000 employees. At the same time, however, Mr. Yang warned investors that he had decided to make larger-than-expected investments in the business. The announcement sent the company’s shares down to their lowest level in more than three years, precipitating Microsoft’s bid.

“Why couldn’t those things be hashed out in the first 100 days?” Mr. Mahaney asked.

Yahoo declined to make Mr. Yang available for an interview. But other Yahoo executives strongly defended his short tenure, saying Mr. Yang had quickly set priorities and laid out a precise strategy for making Yahoo more competitive.

“We have moved quickly and aggressively to implement our strategy,” said Hilary Schneider, an executive vice president in charge of Yahoo’s network of advertisers and publishers.

By most measures, Mr. Yang is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley history. He helped build Yahoo from an early directory of Web sites into a sprawling Internet giant that offers services from online dating to e-mail that are used by nearly 500 million people around the globe. His wealth is estimated to top $2 billion.

Early on, as Yahoo’s business grew, Mr. Yang and Mr. Filo recognized that they did not have the experience to run the company. They called themselves Chief Yahoos and hired others to fill the chief executive post: Tim Koogle and then Terry S. Semel. Mr. Filo worked as an architect of Yahoo’s computer systems. Mr. Yang played the role of strategic adviser and represented Yahoo in front of investors and business partners.

Last June, Yahoo investors became increasingly disenchanted with Mr. Semel, as Yahoo struggled to compete with Google in the online search business and faced growing threats from successful social networks like MySpace and Facebook.

Mr. Semel resigned and Mr. Yang was unexpectedly thrust into the chief executive job. He inherited a long list of problems, including a demoralized work force and a company that had grown bureaucratic and cluttered with too many projects.

At the time, Mr. Yang said his years as a Yahoo strategist had prepared him well for the job. And he dismissed speculation that his tenure would be short-lived.

But many Yahoo executives, as well as some of Mr. Yang’s friends, say he accepted the job only reluctantly, out of a sense of responsibility and care for his company.

Mr. Yang himself, at times, suggested that some of the burdens of his new role weighed heavily on him. Speaking to Yahoo advertisers at a conference in October, he described the chief executive job as “lonely.”

“As a founder everybody loves you,” he said. “When you become C.E.O., you can tell somewhat the behaviors change.” He later added: “You have to make tough calls.”

Mr. Yang is generally well liked by Yahoo’s workers, and his appointment helped improve employee morale. He took steps to restore aspects of the company’s start-up culture, for example, by being more open about the challenges facing it. He held some meetings with executives in the middle of the cafeteria.

Mr. Yang and Yahoo’s president, Susan L. Decker, also moved quickly to hash out a strategy. The two thought that Yahoo’s business plan was basically sound but that the company needed to be better managed and had to get out of some businesses that were not vital to its future. They reorganized to make business units more accountable, and they made some acquisitions to build Yahoo’s advertising and e-mail technology.

“They have moved faster than they have in the past and focused on increasing the value they provide to the advertiser,” said David W. Kenny, chief executive of Digitas, an interactive marketing agency that is part of the Publicis Groupe.

Mr. Yang and Ms. Decker also began meeting regularly with an expanding group of top executives in the offices of Stone Yamashita Partners, a consulting firm in San Francisco. According to executives who attended those meetings, Mr. Yang and Ms. Decker were quick to outline Yahoo’s top priorities: becoming a starting point for consumers on the Web, developing technology and relationships to sell ads on Yahoo and other Web sites, and opening up Yahoo to outside programmers and publishers.

But to achieve those, Yahoo also had to cut some things. In particular, it had to prune its sprawling Internet portal so that employees could be reassigned to crucial projects.

“You can’t place your chips on every spot and every color and every number,” said Dan Finnigan, an executive vice president who ran Yahoo’s HotJobs site and left last year. “Businesses like travel, shopping, music and even HotJobs were all great products, but none were going to make a huge difference in the fight with Google unless we used them to drive the main search business.”

Many other executives agreed that Yahoo had to focus on fewer things. To stress the point, Mr. Yang invited Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, to give a pep talk to some 300 Yahoo vice presidents. Mr. Jobs told them that years earlier many Apple insiders wanted the company to compete with Palm’s personal digital assistants. Mr. Jobs said he decided against it, and noted that had Apple gone after Palm, it might not have been able to develop the iPod.

But cutting was not easy for Mr. Yang, who choked up in front of employees years ago when Yahoo made its first significant layoffs after the dot-com crash. When a group of executives presented options, he stalled.

“Instead of saying yes or no, there were no decisions,” said a person who attended many of the meetings. “These decisions are agonizing for him. It’s his caring about the people and the company that make him both great for this job and difficult for the job.”

One top executive countered that Mr. Yang had already shuttered some projects and turned Yahoo into a more efficient company, without jeopardizing profitable businesses.

Some analysts said the only move that could have averted Microsoft’s bid was for Yahoo to outsource its search advertising business to Google — something the company is now considering.

Jordan Rohan, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, noted that this decision would have required Mr. Yang to admit defeat in a critical area. “It would also have required a sense of urgency that Jerry has not necessarily shown,” he said.

On Wall Street, patience was running thin. Yahoo shares kept declining, from a high of more than $34 in October to about $24 at the end of the year and a low of $18.58 last week.

“We are still trying to do too many things, and fund them in a way that we need to in order to win,” said a senior executive who has grown disillusioned with Mr. Yang. “With the stock at $24 or $25, we’d be having a very different conversation now. But there were decisions made that were na├»ve that have left us in a position where we can’t control our destiny.”

Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have concluded.
The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy.

These studies for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development.

The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example.

The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions.”

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change has said that the world has to reverse the increase of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to avert disastrous environment consequences.

In the wake of the new studies, a group of 10 of the United States’s most eminent ecologists and environmental biologists today sent a letter to President Bush and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urging a reform of biofuels policies. “We write to call your attention to recent research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming,” the letter said.

The European Union and a number of European countries have recently tried to address the land use issue with proposals stipulating that imported biofuels cannot come from land that was previously rain forest.

But even with such restrictions in place, Dr. Searchinger’s study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the United States leads indirectly to the destruction of natural habitats far afield.
International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits,” said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who said the United Nations had recently created a new panel to study the evidence.
“There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change,” he said. “We fully believe that if biofuels are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, there urgently needs to be better sustainability criterion.”

The European Union has set a target that countries use 5.75 percent biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. Proposals in the United States energy package would require that 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents, supporting a burgeoning global industry.

Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural giant, announced Thursday that its annual profits had risen 75 percent in the last year, in part because of rising demand for biofuels.

Industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately attacked the new studies as “simplistic,” failing “to put the issue into context.”

“While it is important to analyze the climate change consequences of differing energy strategies, we must all remember where we are today, how world demand for liquid fuels is growing, and what the realistic alternatives are to meet those growing demands,” said Bob Dineen, the group’s director, in a statement following the Science reports’ release.

“Biofuels like ethanol are the only tool readily available that can begin to address the challenges of energy security and environmental protection,” he said.

The European Biodiesel Board says that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gasses by 50 to 95 percent compared to conventional fuel, and has other advantages as well, like providing new income for farmers and energy security for Europe in the face of rising global oil prices and shrinking supply.

But the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated.

Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

“This land use problem is not just a secondary effect — it was often just a footnote in prior papers,”. “It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”

For instance, if vegetable oil prices go up globally, as they have because of increased demand for biofuel crops, more new land is inevitably cleared as farmers in developing countries try to get in on the profits. So crops from old plantations go to Europe for biofuels, while new fields are cleared to feed people at home.

Likewise, Dr. Fargione said that the dedication of so much cropland in the United States to growing corn for bioethanol had caused indirect land use changes far away. Previously, Midwestern farmers had alternated corn with soy in their fields, one year to the next. Now many grow only corn, meaning that soy has to be grown elsewhere.

Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. “Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,” he said.

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