Saturday, November 30, 2013

Indian probe begins journey to Mars

India's mission to Mars has embarked on its 300-day journey to the Red Planet.

Early on Sunday the spacecraft fired its main engine for more than 20 minutes, giving it the correct velocity to leave Earth's orbit.

It will now cruise for 680m km (422m miles), setting up an encounter with its target on 24 September 2014.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, is designed to demonstrate the technological capability to reach Mars orbit.

But the $72m (£45m) probe will also carry out experiments, including a search for methane gas in the planet's atmosphere.

MOM tweeted: 'Earth orbiting phase of the #Mangalyaan ended and now is on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun.'

Since launch on 5 November, the craft has progressively raised its orbit around Earth with a series of engine burns.

The manoeuvres were all successful apart from the fourth, carried out on 11 November, during which a problem with the liquid fuel thruster caused the MOM to fall short of the mark.

But the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has made plans for the eventuality that changes need to be made to the 1,350kg spacecraft's course.

'We have planned right now four mid-course corrections; first one will be around December 11 - plus or minus a couple of days depending on the deviation,' the NDTV news channel reported V Koteswara Rao, Isro's scientific secretary, as saying.

On Earth, the majority of atmospheric methane (CH4) is produced by living organisms. The gas has previously been detected in Mars's atmosphere by orbiting spacecraft and by telescopes on Earth.

But Nasa's rover Curiosity recently failed to find the gas in its atmospheric measurements.

If the MOM can detect methane, one possible source could be Martian microbes, perhaps living deep beneath the surface. But CH4 can also be produced by geological processes, including volcanism.

India's PSLV rocket - the second choice for the mission after a beefier launcher failed - was not powerful enough to send the MOM on a direct flight to Mars.

So engineers opted for a method of travel called a Hohmann Transfer Orbit to propel the spacecraft from Earth to Mars with the least amount of fuel possible.

Friday, November 29, 2013

'Death sentence' for tiny dolphin

Measures to protect one of the world's rarest dolphins have been denounced as a 'death sentence' by campaigners.

Only 55 adult Maui's dolphins are known to survive off the coast of New Zealand but their numbers are being threatened by fishing and disease.

The NZ government has proposed extending a protection zone to save the tiny, black and white cetaceans.

But researchers say the actions don't go far enough and argue the Maui's could be extinct within 20 years.

The Maui's are the world's smallest and rarest dolphins and only found on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island.

'Start Quote

New Zealand's failure to protect the world's smallest and rarest dolphin is a bitter blow to marine conservation'

End Quote Dr Barbara Maas Nabu International

They are closely related to another native species called Hector's dolphins which survive in far greater numbers.

In 2012 a survey commissioned by the New Zealand government's Department of Conservation found that there were approximately 55 Maui's left above the age of one.

They estimated there were around 20 breeding females. These give birth to one calf every two to four years.

Conservationists say the introduction of nylon filament nets in the 1970s has been a key factor in the decline of these dolphins.

The Maui's inhabit coastal waters up to a depth of 100 metres but have come into contact with trawlers and with fishermen using set nets which have proved particularly destructive to these animals.

The New Zealand government has recently announced new restrictions on fishing, extending the ban on the use of set nets by 350 square kilometres.

According to the conservation minister, Dr Nick Smith, the move will help reduce the biggest threat to the Maui's.

'We are taking a cautious approach by banning set netting where there is clear evidence the Maui's dolphins go while not unnecessarily banning fishing where they are not.'

But campaigners for the small cetacean and some conservationists are outraged by the government's proposals, saying they amounted to a 'death sentence' for the mammals.

They say that more than 75% of the Maui's habitat still remains unprotected from set netting and trawling.

'These new measures will do nothing to stop the dolphins' decline,' said Dr Elizabeth Slooten from the University of Otago, who has studied these creatures for 30 years.

Court threat

The Maui's have been declared critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who passed a motion urging full protection in waters up to 100m deep.

The International Whaling Commission and the Society for Marine Mammology have also urged the New Zealand government to remove fishing nets from the Maui's habitat.

The German conservation group, NABU International, is to challenge the decision in the New Zealand High Court and is calling for a boycott of seafood from the country.

'New Zealand's failure to protect the world's smallest and rarest dolphin is a bitter blow to marine conservation,' said Dr Barbara Maas from NABU.

'New Zealand has ignored the facts and the advice of the world's scientific community to accommodate the commercial interests of its fishing industry,' she said.

As well as fishing, many campaigners are concerned about the activities of oil companies in New Zealand's waters, particularly their use of seismic surveying, which can impact mammals including whales and dolphins.

In the new protection plan, the New Zealand government says it will deal specifically with this issue.

'A mandatory code of conduct will apply to any seismic survey work in all New Zealand fisheries waters,' said Dr Nick Smith.

Despite these steps, the Maui's are likely to follow the path of the Yantze river dolphins and disappear within two decades unless more is done say campaigners.

'They are not doomed to extinction,' said Dr Maas.

'Genetic variability is still high, they can bounce back but saving them is a race against time.'

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Why China is fixated on the Moon

The Moon could be a 'beautiful' source of minerals and energy, a top Chinese scientist has told the BBC.

Exotic materials including helium-3 and the potential for solar power could prove invaluable for humankind, he says.

The comments come from Prof Ouyang Ziyuan of the department of lunar and deep space exploration.

His first interview with the foreign media provides insights into China's usually secretive space programme.

Prof Ouyang was speaking ahead of the first Chinese attempt to land an unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface.

The Chang'e 3 lander is due to launch imminently, perhaps as soon as Sunday evening, UK time.

It will be the first to make a soft touchdown on the Moon since an unmanned Russian mission in 1976.

No humans have set foot on the lunar surface since America's Apollo missions ended in 1972.

Prof Ouyang is an adviser to the mission and his comments reveal the scale of Chinese thinking about the Moon.

He said the forthcoming venture would land in an ancient crater 400km wide called Sinus Iridum, thought to be relatively flat and clear of rocks, and explore its geology.

He explained that there were three motivations behind the drive to investigate the Moon.

'First, to develop our technology because lunar exploration requires many types of technology, including communications, computers, all kinds of IT skills and the use of different kinds of materials. This is the key reason,' he told BBC News.

'Second, in terms of the science, besides Earth we also need to know our brothers and sisters like the Moon, its origin and evolution and then from that we can know about our Earth.

'Third, in terms of the talents, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system - that is also our main purpose.'

After the first two Chang'e craft orbited the Moon, the next two missions will try to land on it and the following two will attempt to bring samples back to Earth.

Manned expeditions will then take place, according to Prof Ouyang.

'After all of this work, which is that China can make the achievement of arriving at the Moon and safely landing and that we can bring samples back; and once we finish all these unmanned projects, we will send Man there.'

A rationale for this long-term programme is that 'there are many ways humans can use the Moon', and he outlined a startling vision for its exploitation.

With no air on the Moon, solar panels would operate far more efficiently, he believes, and a 'belt' of them could 'support the whole world'.

The Moon is also 'so rich' in helium-3, which is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion, that this could 'solve human beings' energy demand for around 10,000 years at least'.

Prof Ouyang highlighted the combination of an extremely thin atmosphere and massive temperature extremes offering a unique possibility for manufacturing that does not exist on Earth.

He also spelled out the potential riches in lunar minerals and metals - a feature highlighted in an exhibition about the Moon which I visited in his home city of Guiyang.

'The Moon is full of resources - mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation.

'But it's unnecessary to get them now because it's very costly.'

Prof Ouyang summed up his vision for the goal of lunar exploration: 'There are so many potential developments - it's beautiful - so we hope we can fully utilize the Moon to support sustainable development for humans and society.'

Coming from a representative of a poorer, less ambitious nation, these ideas might be seen as purely wishful thinking.

But China has been methodically and patiently building up the key elements needed for an advanced space programme - from launchers to manned missions in Earth orbit to unmanned planetary craft - and it is investing heavily.

This comes as China is seen by neighbouring countries in Asia as flexing its muscles, most recently over control of airspace over the South China Sea. Chinese officials stress their desire to cooperate on space projects but lunar exploration is also regarded as a statement of national prowess.

Ouyang has himself been blunt about this in the past, as here in 2006: 'Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power,' he said in an interview with the official newspaper People's Daily. 'It is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people's cohesion.'

One leading British space scientist, Prof Richard Holdaway of the government-funded laboratory RAL Space, has long experience of working with China.

He believes China could have astronauts on the lunar surface by 2025.

'They started from a long way back but now they're catching up fast - they want to monitor what's happening on the ground, they want to be part of the analysis of climate change and a much bigger programme looking at the Moon for mining or as a staging post to other parts of the Solar System.'

I asked him if the idea of a Chinese moonbase extracting minerals was remotely plausible.

'It's perfectly plausible from the technical point of view, absolutely plausible from the finance point of view because they have great buying power, so I think, yes, there's nothing at all to stop them doing that probably within something like 10 years.

So a great deal is riding on the Chang'e 3 launch - national prestige, the quest for technological prowess and the desire to harness all available natural resources.

If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will take six days to reach the Moon and then face the challenge of a soft landing.

But it is clear that a successful mission will pave the way for the next boots to walk on the lunar surface to be worn by Chinese astronauts.

Badger cull to end as targets missed

The badger cull in Gloucestershire is being called off because not enough animals have been killed to meet targets.

The licence has been revoked by Natural England and the cull will end at 12:00 GMT on Saturday, a spokesman said.

An eight-week extension to the original six-week trial was due to end on 18 December.

It is not yet known how many badgers have been killed during the extension period.

During the original six-week period of the original licence, 708 badgers were killed in the county, 942 fewer than the target of 1,650.

TB in cattle

Graham Tibbett, from Natural England, said: 'There is no realistic prospect of the cull removing the number of badgers required by the licence, it has been discussed and agreed by Natural England that the cull will end at 12 noon tomorrow.'

In October, Natural England granted an eight-week extension to the cull after fewer animals than the original target were killed during the initial six-week period.

Government ministers and the NFU say culling badgers will curb TB in cattle, but protesters assert it has little effect.

A similar cull pilot in Somerset ended last month after it also failed to meet its target even after a three-week extension.

In that area there was an estimated 65% reduction in the badger population - the target was 70%.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Earwigs use chemicals for protection

Adult earwigs use a chemical cloud to protect themselves from threats, scientists have discovered.

A team in Germany found secretions from the insects have antibacterial, antifungal and nematode killing properties.

Results also revealed a substance not previously known in insects.

The scientists suggest earwig secretions are multifunctional, serving both to deter predators and to stay safe from illness.

The findings are published in the Journal of Insect Physiology.

Earwigs are known to defend themselves from predators using large pincer-like structures on their abdomens called cerci and by emitting a defensive fluid.

However, little is known about the chemical properties of this secretion.

'There have only been two studies [on earwig secretions] since the 1960s: one regarding the chemistry of the secretion and one regarding behaviour,' said Tina Gasch, lead author from the Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany.

'Since then not much has been done even though they are a really interesting insect Order.'

There are approximately 2,000 species of earwigs. They are known as subsocial insects because they display maternal care: a behaviour rarely found in insects.

Ms Gasch explained that certain aspects of earwigs' lifestyles put them at high risk of infection from pathogens - microscopic organisms that can cause illness - and parasites.

'Earwigs spend a huge amount of time underground. During this period there's lots of threats with bacteria, nematodes and things like that,' she said.

'Also, earwigs like to aggregate and it is known that in aggregations of insects, infectious diseases spread more easily because they are very close together and they sometimes groom each other.'

Ms Gasch explained that she thought earwigs would 'need protection' against these types of microorganisms.

'Start Quote

Earwigs have been neglected for 60 years. They are really abundant and there is much more to learn about their ecology'

End Quote Tina Gasch Justus Liebig University Giessen

To test this theory, she worked with colleagues to investigate the glandular sacs containing the defensive fluid in frozen adult specimens of three different species of earwig: Forficula auricularia, Apterygida media and Chelidurella guentheri.

They then introduced the fluid extracted from these sacs into cultures of common microorganisms found in soil and other areas earwigs are found.

'It was really exciting. We found the secretions were really effective against bacteria, nematodes and fungi,' Ms Gasch told BBC Nature.

All three studied species' secretions showed antibacterial and antifungal activity and the secretions from F. auricularia also killed parasitic worms known as nematodes.

The team also analysed the defensive fluids to determine the chemical compounds within them using a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

'The species differ in their secretions and we also found a new substance that hasn't been detected before in insects,' said Ms Gasch.

But what the PhD student found particularly surprising was the fact that a 'fine sort of mist' was continuously present in the air space around the earwigs.

'It's like a cloud surrounding them and protecting them against microorganisms,' she said.

According to Ms Gasch, this is the first experiment of its kind looking at the chemical properties of earwig secretions and she believes there remains more to discover.

'Earwigs have been neglected for 60 years. They are really abundant and there is much more to learn about their ecology,' she added.

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'Love-test' predicts marriage success

Scientists have devised a new 'love test' that they believe is a better guide to the success of a relationship than the good intentions of newly-weds.

The research suggests that a subconscious response to an image of a partner could be a useful predictor of marriage outcomes.

Those who had a negative gut reaction were more likely be unhappy several years later.

The study is published in the Journal Science.

The lead author, Prof James McNulty from Florida State University, says that the new test gauges the true feelings of newly-weds towards each other, rather than what they say to other people or even admit to themselves.

'Start Quote

Gut level responses seem to be pretty powerful in predicting whether people stay happy'

End Quote Prof James McNulty Florida State University

'These immediate gut level responses seem to be pretty powerful in predicting whether people stay happy,' he told BBC News.

His team interviewed 135 newly-wed couples just after their nuptials.

The researchers asked them to evaluate their marriage related to positive and negative adjectives such as 'good', 'bad', 'satisfying' and 'dissatisfying'.

They then measured their gut reaction to each other using their intriguing 'love test'.

This involved showing one partner a photograph of the other for a fleeting third of a second. They then had to answer as quickly as possible, whether certain words such as 'great', 'awesome', 'horrible' and 'scary' were positive or negative words.

The speed with which they answered was an indication of their true feelings, say the researchers.

The test is based on the psychological principle of association. The theory is that after fleetingly seeing a picture of their partner, the newlywed is in a positive or negative state of mind.

Awesome or scary?

If they are in a positive state of mind they will identify positive words such as 'great' or 'awesome' more quickly than negative words such as 'scary and horrible' and vice versa.

Prof McNulty and his team found that the conscious answers of the newly-weds were all positive and very happy about their relationships, as you might imagine.

But the gut reactions from the love test varied considerably.

The researchers interviewed the couples every six months for the next four years.

They found that on average, those who had negative gut reactions were more likely to say that they were unhappy as the marriage wore on. Some even divorced.

'Everyone wants to believe they are in a good relationship and people can convince themselves that they are - but these gut-level reactions are more indicative of how people feel immediately about their relationships,' he said.

The test, according to the authors, measures the presence or absence of negative emotions.

'People can have love and negative emotions at the same time and this test probably taps into both of those,' said Prof McNulty.

However, he was at pains to state that the research was not developed enough to be able to offer it to people before they tie the knot.

He pointed out that overall the scientists found a trend, but some of those who had a negative response stayed happy, while others who had a positive gut reaction became unhappy.

For those about to take the leap, Prof McNulty said that gut reaction could be something they listen to.

'I think the best advice would be to attend to your gut level responses about how you think about seeing your partner. I don't think that should be the only factor people should consider, but it should be one of them'

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Comet Ison grazes past Sun's surface

Comet Ison has made its closest approach to the Sun, passing about 1.2 million km above the star's surface.

Astronomers continue to examine the great ball of ice and dust, to see how it is coping with the encounter.

If Ison survives the immense heat and tidal forces and stays intact, it could brighten into a spectacular feature in the night sky.

An armada of special Sun-observing telescopes in space and on the ground are following Ison's progress.

Astronomers are hopeful the comet will pull though, but are realistic about the chances.

Prof Tim O'Brien, associate director of the UK's Jodrell Bank Observatory, said: 'It's like throwing a snowball into fire. It's going to be tough for it to survive.

'But luckily, it's a big object and it moves fast, so it won't spend too much time close to the Sun. There is a lot of uncertainty.'

Comet Ison came from the Oort Cloud, a mysterious, icy region at the furthest reaches of our Solar System.

Comet Ison

  • Discovered on 21 September 2012 by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok

  • A so-called 'sungrazer', it approaches our star at a distance of just 1.2 million km from the surface

  • Ison brushes past the Sun on 28 November; the heat at 'perihelion' is expected to exceed 2,000C

  • The encounter could cause Ison to break up completely, but if it survives, the comet could put on a bright display in the sky during December

It has been hurtling towards the Sun, travelling at more than a million kilometres an hour. If it pulls through, what remains of the comet will head back out to the Oort Cloud, and beyond.

Its orbital trajectory suggests this will be the one and only time the inner Solar System sees Comet Ison.

Before the encounter, astronomers estimated Ison's nucleus to be several kilometres in diameter, which would have helped it to withstand the solar assault - at closest approach, it experienced temperatures up to about 2,000C, and would have been squeezed by Sun's enormous gravitational field.

If the comet does remain largely intact, scientists say the energy of our star should excite the dust and gas in Ison's core, allowing it to blaze a trail across the heavens.

Sex-starved flies live shorter lives

Sexual frustration impairs the health of fruit flies and causes premature death, according to new research.

Scientists found that male flies who were stimulated to mate but prevented from doing so, had their lives cut short by up to 40 percent.

Those allowed to copulate not only lived longer but suffered less stress.

The research is published in the Journal Science.

In the experiment, the flies were put in close proximity to genetically modified males who had been altered to release female sex pheromones.

'Start Quote

We immediately observed that they looked quite sick very soon in the presence of these effeminised males'

End Quote Dr Scott Pletcher University of Michigan

These hormones are used by flies to judge whether a potential mate is nearby, so when males secreted this sexually charged scent, it instantly aroused other males.

But crucially, they were not able to mate.

The flies that were tantalised but denied any action showed more stress, a decrease in their fat-stores and had their lives cut short dramatically.

'We immediately observed that they looked quite sick very soon in the presence of these effeminised males,' explained Dr Scott Pletcher at the University of Michigan, US, co-author of the research.

The common fruit fly has a very short life of about 60 days. This makes them an ideal organism to study aging as the genes that regulate a fly's lifespan have been found to closely parallel those in humans.

The team were interested in the neurons involved in aging. A brain chemical called neuropeptide F (NPF) - which has previously been linked to reward - was found to be instrumental.

When flies were exposed to an excess of female pheromones but had no opportunity to mate, their NPF levels increased.

Mating would usually regulate the neuropeptide to normal levels but when it stayed high, it caused the detrimental physiological consequences.

The mere act of reproduction normally reduces a fly's life by about 10-15%, but the amount that their life was cut short in this study was unexpected.

'In that context mating can be quite beneficial, which is contrary to dogma. It suggests that the brain is somehow balancing this information about the environment through sensory input,' Dr Pletcher told BBC News.

'Evolutionarily we hypothesise the animals are making a bet to determine that mating will happen soon.

'Those that correctly predict may be in a better position, they either produce more sperm or devote more energy to reproduction in expectation, and this may have some consequences [if they do not mate],' Dr Pletcher added.

Female power

Timothy Weil, lecturer at the University of Cambridge zoology department who was not involved with the study, said the work suggested that less successful males could lose out in the race to pass on their genes.

'Sex and food are the biggest drivers of animal behaviour and the female fly here seems to have the power. It could be a way for females to select for the best mates as the males who are not mating as much have negative health effects,' he said.

'The work suggests that acting upon these physiological changes is important for the health of the animal,' Dr Weil added.

In a separate study on roundworms, also published in Science, a team found that the presence of male pheromones reduced a female's lifespan.

Dr Pletcher said this parallel finding was encouraging because worms and flies have similar pathways, 'which have so far been held up in mice and likely in primates too'.

Giant prehistoric toilet unearthed

A gigantic 'communal latrine' created at the dawn of the dinosaurs has been unearthed in Argentina.

Thousands of fossilised poos left by rhino-like megaherbivores were found clustered together, scientists say.

The 240-million-year-old site is the 'world's oldest public toilet' and the first evidence that ancient reptiles shared collective dumping grounds.

The dung contains clues to prehistoric diet, disease and vegetation says a study in Scientific Reports.

'Start Quote

It's a warning to predators. If you leave a huge pile you are saying: 'Hey! Watch out!''

End Quote Dr Lucas Fiorelli Crilar-Conicet

Elephants, antelopes and horses are among modern animals who defecate in socially agreed hotspots - to mark territory and reduce the spread of parasites.

But their best efforts are dwarfed by the enormous scale of this latrine - which breaks the previous record 'oldest toilet' by 220 million years.

Fossil 'coprolites' as wide as 40cm and weighing several kilograms were found in seven massive patches across the Chanares Formation in La Rioja province.

Some were sausage-like, others pristine ovals, in colours ranging from whitish grey to dark brown-violet.

'There is no doubt who the culprit was,' said Dr Lucas Fiorelli, of Crilar-Conicet, who discovered the dung heaps.

'Only one species could produce such big lumps - and we found their bones littered everywhere at the site.'

The perpetrator was Dinodontosaurus, an eight-foot-long megaherbivore similar to modern rhinos.

These animals were dicynodonts - large, mammal-like reptiles common in the Triassic period when the first dinosaurs began to emerge.

The fact they shared latrines suggests they were gregarious, herd animals, who had good reasons to poo strategically, said Dr Fiorelli.

'Firstly, it was important to avoid parasites - 'you don't poo where you eat', as the saying goes.

'But it's also a warning to predators. If you leave a huge pile, you are saying: 'Hey! We are a big herd. Watch out!'

The predator in this case was the formidable Luperosuchus, a crocodile-like carnivore up to 8m in length.

But the dung patches were equally intimidating.

A density of 94 poos per square metre was recorded by the researchers. And the excrement was spread across patches 900 square metres in size.

Prehistoric coprolites are nothing new, but it is extremely rare to find an accumulation as old and substantial as this one - because faeces degrade so easily.

A sheet of volcanic ash has preserved the ancient dung piles 'like Pompeii', said Dr Fiorelli.

The coprolites are like time capsules.

'When cracked open they reveal fragments of extinct plants, fungi, and gut parasites,' said Martin Hechenleitner, a fellow author on the study.

'Each poo is a snapshot of an ancient ecosystem - the vegetation and the food chain.

'This was a crucial time in evolutionary history. The first mammals were there, living alongside the grandfather of dinosaurs.

'Maybe with these fossils we can glimpse into the lost environment which gave rise to the dinosaurs.'

Wind-blown midges carry virus to UK

A virus that hit farms in the UK last year came from midges blown across the Channel from France and Belgium, scientists have confirmed.

The Schmallenberg virus, which emerged in the Netherlands and Germany in 2011, can lead to sheep and cattle having stillborn or deformed offspring.

The disease has affected more than 8,000 farms across Europe.

The findings, in Scientific Reports, could help farmers understand more about the control of livestock viruses.

Research by zoologists at Oxford University shows the disease was introduced from across the Channel by infected midges from at least 10 farms in France and Belgium.

Schmallenberg virus

  • Discovered in the German town of Schmallenberg in November 2011

  • Spread rapidly to many European countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the UK

  • Thought to be spread by infected midges

  • Causes relatively mild illness in adult cattle and sheep - but where infection takes place during the early stages of pregnancy, it can result in congenital disorders and stillbirths of lambs and calves

  • One of a class of emerging viruses spread by insects (arboviruses)

  • The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control suggests a low likelihood of any risk to public health

Modelling data suggests Schmallenberg spreads more widely than previously thought, and is dependent on wind direction.

About half of infected farms across Europe did not go on to spread the disease further.

'We found that most birth defects in sheep were caused by Schmallenberg infections approximately five to six weeks after conception,' said Dr Luigi Sedda.

'The lag time between infection and detection makes it difficult to control the virus, particularly as it spreads so quickly.'

The findings could help farmers and policymakers understand more about the spread of viruses such as Schmallenberg and plan how best to control them, say the researchers.

The virus is not a notifiable disease in the UK, unlike in Germany and the Netherlands.

'One of the problems with diseases like Schmallenberg is the lack of a national strategy for reporting or control,' said Prof David Rogers.

'Previous tests in Belgium have shown that the disease is far more widespread than the reported cases, as animals that are not at the critical stage of pregnancy may carry the disease unnoticed.

'There are probably many 'stepping stones' in the path of the disease that we don't see because four out of five farms may not have susceptible pregnant animals when the midges arrive.'

A vaccine against Schmallenberg became available earlier this year, but it is not clear how many farmers have chosen to vaccinate.

The virus has infected more than 1,000 farms in England and Wales, and more than 30 in Scotland, according to the latest figures.

Europe plans space science future

Europe has fixed a broad plan for the big space science missions it will launch over the next two decades.

It will likely lead to a large X-ray telescope being launched in 2028, and to an orbiting observatory to detect gravitational waves going up in 2034.

Together, these two ventures will cost in excess of 2bn euros (£1.7bn).

They join a venture already approved known as Juice, which will see a big satellite sent to observe Jupiter and its icy moons in 2022.

The path ahead was set by the Science Policy Committee (SPC) of the European Space Agency (Esa), which is meeting in Paris, France.

The committee's decision should now give clear direction and certainty to Europe's research and industrial base.

'These big missions take a long time to put together - of the order of 20 years,' says Dr Fabio Favata, head of Esa's Science Planning and Community Coordination Office.

'Of course, when you fix things you trade flexibility for stability, but this gives the community the opportunity to plan. They now understand what will be the 'pillars', what will be the 'cornerstones',' he tells BBC News.

The SPC gathering was asked to approve a set of scientific 'themes' that will guide the selection of Esa's next Large Class mission opportunities. The agency tries to launch one of these flagship endeavours every six years.

The themes are titled the 'hot and energetic Universe', and the 'gravitational Universe'.

And although these fields do not endorse a specific X-ray telescope or gravitational wave detection concept, their prescription is so tight that only two candidates can have real confidence of making it through the forthcoming selection process.

These are the two consortia that narrowly lost out to the Juice team in the last L-Class competition in 2012.

The X-ray telescope proposal currently goes by the name of Athena+. It would be roughly four tonnes in mass and have a 12m focal length. With a survey capability and sensitivity a hundred times better than today's best space telescopes, Athena+ would be used to study the origin of the monstrous black holes that reside at the centres of galaxies, among other objectives.

The gravitational wave observatory goes by the name of Lisa, which stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

It would fire lasers across millions of km of space to try to measure the disturbance in the fabric of space-time resulting from exploding stars and merging black holes. It is a concept that has been studied for the better part of 20 years already. Indeed, Esa is about to fly a small satellite called Lisa Pathfinder to demonstrate some of the key technologies.

The agency will call for proposals to take the 2028 launch opportunity early next year. There will then be a design phase with various technical reviews before a formal adoption of a mission in about 2018.

'It's very important that Esa takes a long-term perspective,' argues Dr Kirpal Nandra, the chairman of the X-ray Athena+ collaboration.

The JUpiter ICy moon Explorer

  • Recently selected by Esa as a flagship mission

  • Would launch on Ariane rocket in 2022

  • Journey to Jupiter system takes eight years

  • Will study gas giant as well as moons

  • Fly-bys planned for moons Callisto and Europa

  • First mission to orbit an icy moon - Ganymede

  • Would end mission by crashing into surface

'If we don't take such a long-term view then there's a danger universities won't hire people in high-energy astrophysics and black holes and galaxy clusters - because they won't see a future in these areas. But now they can, and they can be pretty much guaranteed that some exciting times lie ahead, especially for the young people just starting out on their careers.'

A call for a gravitational wave detection mission will not go out to the community for about five years, and with a launch opportunity no earlier than 2034, it means many of those people who have worked on Lisa will be long retired by the time an observatory of its ilk is taken into orbit.

The advantage is it provides more time to mature the complex technology and to find the international partners needed to fly the most capable architecture possible - something that was compromised back in 2012 when the Americans said they could not afford to participate.

This forced European mission designers to de-scope the proposed laser observatory.

'We've been through a very lean period with the US, but I don't think that will persist indefinitely,' says Dr Henry Ward, a Glasgow University scientist in the Lisa collaboration.

'And indeed, at a meeting in Paris recently, the Americans were talking about a contribution being realistic in the timeframes we're now discussing. The amount of money we have on the table is going to make a difference to the architecture we are able to fly.'

The L-Class missions of Esa are part of the agency's mandatory programme. That is, all member states contribute to Esa's costs according to the relative size of their economy. This means Germany, the UK, France and Italy contribute the most - in that order. There tend, however, to be additional contributions in the form of instruments, which member states will offer to the projects to secure leadership roles.

The UK has traditionally been very strong in both X-ray astronomy and gravitational wave research, and so scientists in Britain will be looking to the UK Space Agency to play a strong hand when the 2028 and 2034 opportunities come up for adoption.

'The decision this week is about themes, but we know pretty much what sort of missions will deliver those themes,' says Dr Chris Castelli, a UKSA delegate to Esa's Science Policy Committee. 'That said, we are some years away from adoption, and we need to take a careful look at the technologies we could fly, and only then work out what everyone's participation should be - what Germany's and the UK's participation should be, etc.'

It is interesting to note that the next big science mission to go into orbit will be the billion-euro Gaia star-mapper, due for launch on 19 December. Gaia was proposed as a mission back in 1993, illustrating just what an undertaking these types of project have become.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Comet Ison to graze past the Sun

Astronomers are anxiously waiting to see if a comet survives its encounter with the Sun.

Comet Ison will reach its closest approach to our star at approximately 1835 GMT on Thursday.

It has been billed as a potential 'comet of the century', but the Sun's heat and gravitational tug could destroy it before it has a chance to light up the skies.

Some scientists believe it is already starting to buckle under the onslaught.

Prof Tim O'Brien, associate director of the UK's Jodrell Bank Observatory, said: 'It's like throwing a snowball into fire: it's going to be tough for it to survive.

'But luckily, it's a big object and it moves fast, so it won't spend too much time close to the Sun. There is a lot of uncertainty.'

Comet Ison came from the Oort Cloud, an mysterious, icy region at the furthest reaches of our Solar System.

It has been hurtling towards the Earth, travelling at more than a million kilometres an hour.

Comet Ison

  • Discovered on 21 September 2012 by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok

  • A so-called 'sungrazer', it approaches our star at a distance of just 1.2 million km from the surface

  • Ison brushes past the Sun on 28 November; the heat at 'perihelion' is expected to exceed 2,000C

  • The encounter could cause Ison to break up completely, but if it survives, the comet could put on a bright display in the sky during December

Now it is entering the most perilous stage of its epic journey.

It will pass the Sun at a distance of just 1.2 million km, effectively grazing its surface.

Professor Mark Bailey, from Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, said: 'It's going to be exposed to the worst that the Sun can throw at it.

'It will be getting exposed to more and more intense solar heat, and that will start to sublimate the ices (turning them into gas) at an increasing rate.'

The Sun's intense gravitational field produces tidal forces that will also have a major effect on the comet.

Scientists fear it could follow the path of Comet Lovejoy, which broke apart after it passed near the Sun in 2011. Or it could run out of fuel and fizzle out. Hopefully, Ison's large size could protect it.

Astronomers estimate that its nucleus could be several kilometres in diameter, helping it to withstand the solar assault.

If it does remain largely intact, the heat from the Sun will excite the dust and gas in its core, allowing it to blaze a trail across the night skies. But whether it really will be a 'comet of the century' is unclear.

'If it survives, the best chance of seeing it will be in early December,' explained Dr Robert Massey from the Royal Astronomical Society.

'I very much doubt Ison is going to be the sort of object where you go out in the morning, just before sunrise, and see this amazingly spectacular thing across the night sky.

'It's much more likely, at the optimistic end, that it's visible with the naked eye, and with binoculars - you could see the comet's head and a nice long tail coming from that.'

There has been some debate already about whether Ison is starting to break up, and telescopes such as the Esa/Nasa Soho Sun-observing satellite will be trained on the star during the approach.

'There is a lot of uncertainty, but it's going to be exciting to watch,' added Prof O'Brien.

Northern Hemisphere, Looking East-Southeast

New species of wild cat in Brazil

A new species of wild cat has been identified in South America by using molecular markers, researchers claim.

By comparing DNA sequences, the team revealed that two populations of tigrina in Brazil do not interbreed and are evolutionarily distinct.

Results also show the two populations have contrasting interactions with the closely related pampas cat and Geoffroy's cat.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

There are at least seven species of small wild cat in the genus Leopardus in Central and South America, which are thought to have first colonised the region during the late Pliocene (2.5 - 3.5 million years ago).

A team of researchers led by Dr Eduardo Eizirik from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil collected samples of DNA from pampas cats (Leopardus colocolo) in the north of the country, Geoffroy's cats ( L. geoffroyi) from the south and two separate populations - north eastern and southern - of tigrina ( L. tigrinus).

'We used several different types of molecular markers to investigate the evolutionary history of these species,' explained Dr Eizirik.

'These [molecular markers] evolve at different rates, which helps in the sense that they provide information on different time frames,' he said.

By comparing these different chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA marker sequences the scientists could track patterns of interbreeding - or hybridisation - between the cat species and populations.

The markers revealed that the southern population of tigrina were actively breeding with Geoffroy's cat in areas where the two species came into contact. In contrast, they found evidence for ancient hybridisation between the north eastern tigrina and the pampas cat.

But what surprised Dr Eizirik and his colleagues most was the lack of evidence for recent mating between the north eastern and southern tigrinas.

'This observation implies that these tigrina populations are not interbreeding, which led us to recognise them as distinct species,' Dr Eizirik told BBC Nature.

'This species-level distinction between the tigrina populations we really did not expect to find,' he said.

It is the rarer north eastern populations that will keep the original scientific name of Leopardus tigrinus because they live geographically closer to the type locality and the more common southern form that will acquire the newly recognised scientific name of Leopardus guttulus.

'Recognising a distinct tigrina species in Brazil highlights the need for urgent assessment of its conservation status...and it may be found to be threatened,' Dr Eizirik told BBC Nature.

'[These results] illustrate how much is still unknown about the natural world, even in groups that are supposed to be well-characterised, such as cats,' he explained.

'In fact there are many basic aspects that we still don't know about wild cats, from their precise geographic distribution and their diets to even species-level delimitation, as in this case.'

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

Birth and death of stars captured

A new image has captured the birth and death of stars in one of our closest galactic neighbours - the Large Magellanic Cloud.

It also shows the remnants a supernova explosion caused by the death of a massive star that has run out of fuel.

Located about 163,000 light-years away, the LMC is visible with the naked eye from the Southern Hemisphere.

The detailed image was taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Its nebulae - the thick clouds of gas around young and old stars - house active star-forming regions.

Their brilliant glow is caused by the intense heat generated when new young stars are born, stars that burn very brightly but live relatively short lives when compared with our own Sun.

Due to its unique shape, the cluster on right of the image has been nicknamed the Dragon's Head Nebula, though its official name is the catchy NGC 2035 (new general catalogue).

Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer who worked at the Chile observatory for many years, said that a lot of imagination was needed to see a dragon's head.

'Most of these names were given when the telescopes were not as good as they are today, so you have to imagine a blurry thumbnail version of it,' he explained.

And the vibrant colours of the nebulae give clues to how hot the young stars are inside them.

The blue stars are huge, hot stars that live a short but very bright life, while the redder ones are much colder.

As a star ionises surrounding gas, it kicks the electrons out of atoms which then radiate light in signature spectral lines.

The darker lines that are visible are clusters of dust mixed in with the gas - their darker colour results from light absorption rather than light emission.

Once massive stars burn their fuel, they become increasingly unstable until they collapse and violently explode as supernovas, remnants of which are visible on the left of the image.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a small satellite galaxy - smaller than the Milky Way, or the nearby Andromeda Galaxy, which can also be seen with the naked eye.

While it spans 14,000 light-years, the LMC contains less than one tenth of the mass of the Milky Way, which covers some 100,000 light-years.

It was named after Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese-born navigator, who noticed the nebulae on his voyage to the Southern Hemisphere.

Dr Hainaut said that pictures like this were very beautiful, like art.

'The next step is that you realise we are watching little pieces of the Universe next door. Just to see all these stars that are being born - it's a really nice story to see that our Universe is moving and evolving,' he told BBC News.

Diplodocus skeleton to be auctioned

A diplodocus skeleton, which is believed to be one of only six relatively complete specimens in the world, will be auctioned later.

The 17m-long (56ft) dinosaur was dug out of a quarry in Wyoming, US, before being assembled in Rotterdam.

It was then taken to Summers Place Auctions, in Billingshurst, West Sussex, where it is expected to make between £400,000 and £600,000.

The Natural History Museum has ruled itself out of bidding for the skeleton.

The dinosaur, named Misty, was discovered by the teenage sons of German palaeontologist Raimund Albersdoerfer.

They had travelled to the US to help their father dig up a different skeleton before being allowed to try and find their own fossils. It was then they came across the diplodocus.

'Sorry to see her go'

The Natural History Museum, in London, said it would not buy the dinosaur despite its famous diplodocus only being a cast of one displayed in Pittsburgh.

And that skeleton cast is itself made up of two different diplodocuses.

Auctioneer James Rylands said: 'We will be sorry to see her go - the downside of being an auctioneer is that once you've sold something you very seldom get to see it again.

'Hopefully this won't be the case with Misty. It's more likely to be bought by a museum.

'There's a fast developing museum market in Asia and the Middle East.

'The other big thing is upmarket shopping malls or hotels, especially in the US, because of their high ceilings and atriums.

'Within the context of a shopping mall you can make a real wow statement.'

The auction is expected to begin at 14:00 GMT on Wednesday.

Smartphone app to 'ID' fireballs

Researchers have designed a smartphone app that sends back information to users about their meteor sightings.

Called Fireballs in the Sky, it was developed by a team at Curtin University in Australia.

The app can return details on what created the fireball and where it came from in the Solar System.

Prof Phil Bland, who helped develop the app, said it could be used from anywhere in the world.

'If we get enough observations we can determine a trajectory and send that information back to you - for instance, you might get a message that the rock that made your fireball came from the outer asteroid belt, or that it was a chunk of a comet,' he commented.

Users are asked to point at the sky where they think the fireball started and click on their phones. Then they are asked to do the same for where they think it ended.

Prof Bland told BBC News that the app used a phone's accelerometer, GPS, and compass to provide data of sufficient quality that it could be used to create a crowdsourced smartphone fireball network.

'Essentially, members of the public can help us track anything that's coming through the atmosphere,' he said.

With enough observations the team can work out where the fireball came from and send that information back to users.

'Its wonderful to see one of these things; its even more amazing to know where the object that made your fireball came from in the Solar System,' Prof Bland said.

The app was the brainchild of the Desert Fireball Network, a Curtin University project designed to track down meteorites as they fall to Earth, by capturing meteors and fireballs on camera.

The researchers have placed cameras in various remote locations throughout Australia. And capturing fireballs in images as they streak through the sky allows the team to calculate the orbit and origin of meteorites - and to determine where they have landed.

Researchers did similar analysis to track the origins of the Chelyabinsk asteroid that broke up over Central Russia earlier this year.

'Australia is a really great country for meteorite searching because it is flat and there's not much vegetation or grass around, making it easy to see a small black rock on the ground,' Prof Bland, who leads the Desert Fireball Network, explained.

The free app was produced in collaboration with the software company ThoughtWorks and Curtin Geoscience Outreach. and follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Badger cull legal challenge launched

Rock guitarist Brian May has launched a legal challenge at the High Court to try to stop the culling of badgers.

The Queen musician's Save Me organisation has filed an 'urgent' judicial review claim, calling for an immediate halt to culling.

In October, Natural England granted an eight-week extension to the cull after fewer animals than the original target were killed in the initial six weeks.

A lawyer said he hoped a review could be heard as soon as this Friday.

A Save Me spokesman said the decision to grant an extension in Gloucestershire went against the advice of Natural England's own scientific advisor.

They claimed an urgent review was needed because the extension was already in operation and the period of the extension might elapse before a formal review could be applied.

The eight-week extension to the cull is due to end on 18 December.

John Cooper QC, who is representing the group, said: 'From the material I have seen already, it is clear that appropriate procedures have not been taken in relation to this action, which will inevitably lead to the destruction of more wildlife if the government remains unchallenged.

'In all the circumstances and for the grounds we have set out, we assert that the decisions made by Defra, the Secretary of State and Natural England, separately and or cumulatively were unreasonable and should be immediately revoked.'

'Consequences to wildlife'

The Save Me claim names Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Natural England as defendants.

Other Interested Parties are named as the National Farmers' Union and the Badger Trust.

A Defra spokesperson said: 'Natural England's experts carefully considered all the information and recommended the licence to continue culling should be granted.

'This was in line with the chief veterinary officer's advice, which has been backed by the British Veterinary Association.

'We need to do everything we can to get on top of bovine TB which is spreading across the country and devastating our cattle and dairy industries.'

Ministers and the NFU say culling badgers will curb TB in cattle, but protesters assert it has little effect.

Seahorses stalk prey by stealth

Seahorses may appear slow and awkward but they are ferocious and ingenious predators, according to a new study.

The beautiful creatures are famously bad swimmers, but they have a secret weapon to sneak up on their prey.

Their peculiar snouts are shaped to create very few ripples in the water, effectively cloaking them as they creep up and pounce on tiny crustaceans.

'Start Quote

People don't often think of seahorses as amazing predators, but they really are'

End Quote Dr Brad Gemmell University of Texas

To their victims, seahorses are more like sea monsters, say scientists from the University of Texas at Austin.

'The seahorse is one the slowest swimming fish we know of, but it's able to capture prey that swim at incredible speeds,' said Brad Gemmell, author of the study in Nature Communications.

The prey, in this case, are copepods - extremely small crustaceans that are a favoured meal of seahorses, pipefish and sea dragons (Syngnathidae).

When copepods detect waves from predators, they jolt away at speeds of more than 500 body lengths per second - the equivalent of a 6-foot human swimming at 2,000 mph.

Deadly strike

'Seahorses can overcome one of the most talented escape artists in the aquatic world,' said Dr Gemmell.

'In calm conditions, they catch their intended prey 90% of the time. That's extremely high, and we wanted to know why.'

Seahorses dine by a method known as pivot feeding. Their arched necks act as a spring - allowing them to rapidly rotate their heads and suck their prey in.

But this suction only works at short distances. The effective strike range for seahorses is about 1 millimetre. And a strike happens in less than 1 millisecond.

Until now it was a mystery how such apparently docile creatures managed to get close enough to their prey without being spotted.

To find out, Dr Gemmell and his colleagues studied the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae, which is native to the Bahamas and the US.

They filmed the movement of water around the fish in 3D using holography - a technique where a microscope is fitted with a laser and a high-speed digital camera.

They found that the seahorse's snout is shaped to minimise the disturbance of water in front of its mouth before it strikes.

Above and in front of its nostrils is a 'no wake zone' and it angles its head precisely to attack its prey.

Other small fish with blunter heads, such as the three-spine stickleback, have no such advantage, the researchers found.

'It's like an arms race between predator and prey, and the seahorse has developed a good method for getting close enough so that their striking distance is very short,' said Dr Gemmell.

'People don't often think of seahorses as amazing predators, but they really are.'

Giant wind farm dropped by developer

Plans for a huge wind farm off the north Devon coast have been shelved.

Developer RWE Innogy is pulling the plug on the 240-turbine Atlantic Array project, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) told the BBC.

The scheme, which had not yet received the go-ahead, had attracted criticism, with environmentalists worried about its impact on marine wildlife in the Bristol Channel.

RWE Innogy said it was 'not the right time' for the project.

'Start Quote

We all need electricity, but there are more appropriate places'

End Quote Derek Green Manager of Lundy Island nature reserve

The Atlantic Array was planned in an area of 200 sq km (77 sq miles) about 16.5km (10 miles) from the north Devon coast, 22.5km (14 miles) from south Wales coast and 13.5km (8 miles) from Lundy Island nature reserve.

The turbines would have been 220m (720ft) tall and capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of electricity - enough for up to 900,000 homes, the developer has said.

RWE said it was 'not viable... to continue with development in the Bristol Channel Zone'.

RWE's director of offshore wind, Paul Cowling, said: 'This is not a decision we have taken lightly.

'However, given the technological challenges and market conditions, now is not the right time for RWE to continue to progress with this project.'

'Anti-green ideology'

DECC told the BBC the scrapping of the scheme was a matter for the developer, but the decision 'was made on purely technical grounds and reflects the many complex challenges of constructing offshore wind farms'.

But BBC South West political editor Martyn Oates said: 'Sources have told us that this will not go ahead because of problems in financing it.

'Just last week, [green energy group] Regen SW said that the government's recent announcement that it is going to cut back on green levies to support renewable energy was already undermining investment in the region and putting jobs at risk.

'And in terms of investment and jobs, this is a really big project, the company (RWE) says it would provide thousands of jobs.'

Friends of the Earth's head of campaigns, Andrew Pendleton, said: 'The government's wanton green-bashing is starting to cost jobs and threaten the future security of our energy supply.

'The UK has some of the finest offshore clean energy resources in the world and harnessing it is becoming cheaper.

'But anti-green ideology at the heart of the coalition is sending the development of world-beating clean power into reverse.'

But DECC told the BBC: 'The UK still expects to deploy significant amounts of offshore wind by 2020 and we remain well placed to meet our 2020 renewable energy target.'

Atlantic Array

  • Up to 240 turbines

  • Turbines will be up to 220m (720ft) high

  • Capacity: 1,200 MW, enough to power about 900,000 homes

  • About 16.5km (10 miles) from the closest point to shore on the north Devon coast, 22.5km (14 miles) from the closest point to shore on the South Wales coast and 13.5km (8 miles) from Lundy Island

  • Connected to mainland at Alverdiscott, Devon

Derek Green, manager of Lundy Island, said: 'If it's true then we are absolutely delighted.

'It is fantastic news for tourism and wildlife in the Bristol Channel and in particular for Lundy.'

Lundy's owners, the Landmark Trust, have spent the last 40 years 'preserving a special way of life'.

'We were concerned that by bringing development so close to the island that it would overwhelm it,' said Mr Green.

'There are many turbines near Landmark Trust properties which we haven't opposed.

'But we have always said that offshore wind farms should be built offshore and this suite was in the middle of the Bristol Channel.

'We all need electricity, but there are more appropriate places.'

Other critics also welcomed the move.

Steve Crowther, from local campaign group Slay the Array, said: 'This was clearly an ill-conceived scheme in completely the wrong place.'

China to send 'Jade Rabbit' to Moon

Chinese officials say they intend to land the country's first unmanned probe on the Moon next month.

The probe has been named Yutu or 'Jade Rabbit', after the character that Chinese folklore says lives on the Moon's surface.

In recent years, China has made considerable progress in its space programme.

In June, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked their craft with an experimental space laboratory.

In 2007, the country despatched an unmanned spacecraft called Chang'e to orbit the Moon.

The craft stayed in space for 16 months before being intentionally crashed on to the Moon's surface.

A specific date for the latest launch, first announced in August, has not been given but officials said on Tuesday that it would happen in early December.

If all goes according to plan, the lunar probe will land on the Moon sometime in the middle of the month.

A landing vehicle will carry the rover, which will explore an area called the Bay of Rainbows, surveying the surface over three months.

The name Jade Rabbit was chosen after an online poll in which millions took part.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third country after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently.

The military-backed space programme is a source of national pride.

China is one of only three countries to have managed to independently send humans into space, the others being Russia and the US.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Earliest Buddhist 'shrine' uncovered

Archaeologists digging at Buddha's birthplace have uncovered remains of the earliest ever 'Buddhist shrine'.

They unearthed a 6th Century BC timber structure buried within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal.

The shrine appears to have housed a tree. This links to the Buddha nativity story - his mother gave birth to him while holding on to a tree branch.

Its discovery may settle the dispute over the birth date of the Buddha, they report in the journal Antiquity.


Every year thousands of Buddhists make a holy pilgrimage to Lumbini - long identified as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.


  • Located in the south-western Nepali plains 300km from Kathmandu and very close to India's border

  • Birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who later become the Buddha

  • Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997

  • Surrounded by large zone in which only monasteries can be built and no commercial premises

  • The site has a number of ancient ruins of monasteries, a sacred Bo Tree and a bathing pool

Yet despite the many texts chronicling his life and teachings, it is still uncertain when he lived.

Estimates for his birth stretch as far back as 623 BC, but many scholars believed 390-340 BC a more realistic timeframe.

Until now, the earliest evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the 3rd Century BC, in the era of the emperor Ashoka.

To investigate, archaeologists began excavating at the heart of the temple - alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

They unearthed a wooden structure with a central void which had no roof. Brick temples built later above the timber were also arranged around this central space.

To date the buildings, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.

'Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the 6th century BC,' said archaeologist Prof Robin Coningham of Durham University, who co-led the international team, supported by the National Geographic Society.

'This is the earliest evidence of a Buddhist shrine anywhere in the world.

'It sheds light on a very long debate, which has led to differences in teachings and traditions of Buddhism.

'The narrative of Lumbini's establishment as a pilgrimage site under Ashokan patronage must be modified since it is clear that the site had already undergone embellishment for centuries.'

The dig also detected signs of ancient tree roots in the wooden building's central void - suggesting it was a tree shrine.

Tradition records that Queen Maya Devi gave birth to the Buddha while grasping the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden.

The discovery could aid conservation efforts at the holy site - which has been neglected despite its Unesco World Heritage status.

'These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha,' said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal's minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation.

'The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.'

Launch for UK-built space cameras

A Russian Progress freighter has launched to the International Space Station (ISS) carrying a pair of UK-built Earth observation cameras.

One of the imagers is a high-resolution video unit that will return short snatches of the planet's surface up to about 150 times a day.

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire made the cameras for a Canadian start-up called Urthecast.

The company hopes to build a business around space station imagery.

One of the customer sectors for the hi-res video, for example, is likely to be news organisations that want moving pictures of major events, such as war zones and regions of the Earth hit by natural disasters.

The movie camera should be able to pick out details as small as a metre across from the ISS's altitude of 400km.

This means it ought to be possible to discern large crowds and moving vehicles.

The second camera will provide static imagery at a resolution of 5m per pixel. Urthecast hopes to have both units operational in the New Year, shortly after they have been installed on a special gantry at the rear of the station by spacewalking astronauts.

The Progress-53 cargo ship lifted clear of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz rocket at 02:53 local time (Tuesday, 26 November - 20:53 GMT, Monday).

Scott Larson, the CEO of Urthecast, was at the Kazakh spaceport to witness launch.

'There are a lot of very happy Canadians, a lot of very happy Brits and a lot of very happy Russians,' he said. 'It is truly spectacular. We are just incredibly grateful and thankful to have the opportunity to come here, and for all the hard work that has gone into it.'

The Progess docking at the ISS is planned for Friday. As well as the cameras, the freighter is carrying general hardware, food, and fuel needed by the station's astronauts.

Higgs boson book wins popular prize

A book telling the story of the hunt for the elusive Higgs Boson has won the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll scoops the £25,000 prize for his book The Particle at the End of the Universe.

His work beat five other titles that ranged across topics that broadly focussed on life in its many forms and its internal workings.

But the judges were unanimous in their decision to give Carroll the prize.

Prof Uta Frith, from University College London and chair of the judges, said of the winning work: 'It is an exceptional example of the genre and a real rock star of a book. Though it's a topic that has been tackled many times before.

'Carroll writes with an energy that propels readers along and fills them with his own passion. He understands their minds and anticipates their questions. There's no doubt that this is an important, enduring piece of literature.'

Each runner-up received £2,500 at a ceremony at the society's headquarters in London.

Previous winners of this prize have included Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson.

Emily Flashman, from the University of Oxford and another member of the judging panel, said that the Higgs boson book stood out from the very beginning 'as an outstanding piece of science writing'.

'It takes a difficult subject, makes it interesting, accessible and exciting. It tells the whole story of the experiment to find the Higgs boson.

'It's clearly a populist choice but it stood out on its own merit,' she told BBC News.

The full shortlist for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books was:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, published by Bloomsbury

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, published by OneWorld Publications

Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen, published by Princeton University Press

Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, published by Profile Books

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, published by Granta

Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)

SpaceX aims for telecoms market

The US SpaceX company will make its play on Monday to grab a big slice of the market for launching the world's TV and telecoms satellites.

The California outfit is set to place an important new platform in orbit for SES to serve its television customers in India and parts of South East Asia.

It is the first time SpaceX has attempted such a mission.

Success will require its Falcon 9 rocket put the SES-8 satellite thousands of km above the Earth.

If it works, SpaceX is sure to win more orders in a market that is tightly contested, but which has become dominated in recent years by just two companies - Europe's Arianespace, which flies the Ariane 5; and International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Russia's Proton vehicle.

SpaceX is promising to substantially undercut the pair on price, and SES, the world's second largest telecoms satellite operator, believes the existing players had better take note.

'The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a game-changer - it is going to really shake the industry to its roots,' said SES CTO Martin Halliwell.

'Other launch vehicle providers are looking with great interest in the success, or not, of this launch, and I think they will be rather worried for their future,' he told BBC News.

Monday's flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida will be the seventh flight for a Falcon 9.

All of the previous missions have gone to low orbits just a few hundred km above the Earth. This was work done mostly for the US space agency (Nasa), to keep the space station stocked with supplies.

Monday's outing, on the other hand, requires the Falcon put SES-8 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) that runs an elliptical path out to 80,000km.

Once it comes off the upper-stage, the satellite, with its own propulsion system, will then circularise this orbit and move to a 'stationary' position some 36,000km above the equator at 95 degrees East.

For the Falcon 9 to get SES-8 on just the right path, its upper-stage will need to ignite twice - something it failed to do on a demonstration mission in September.

The fault was traced to frozen ignition fluid lines, and extra insulation has been added to piping on Monday's vehicle to ensure it copes better with the extreme temperatures in space.

'We've done everything we can possibly think of to maximise the reliability of this launch,' said Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO and chief designer.

'There's no stone that hasn't been turned over at least twice to maximise the probability of success. Being a rocket, there's still some chance of failure, but whatever happens we can be at peace that we've done everything we could think of, and SES's technical team has looked at it and they concur.'

SpaceX has a backlog of customers waiting for an opportunity to launch on a Falcon.

Its manifest, which is approaching 50 flights, represents about $4bn in contracts.

A good chunk of these are Nasa space station sorties, but a sizeable segment also now includes commercial customers like SES who have been drawn to SpaceX's price-competitive offering.

The interest means SpaceX is having to ramp up production of its Falcon.

'We have been investing heavily for the last year-and-a-half or so in production capability,' explained Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president and COO.

'Right now, we're at about a vehicle per month production rate. We'll be at 18 per year in the next couple of quarters, and by the end of next year we'll be at a rate of 24 a year, or two a month.'

This calls for rapid fabrication of Merlin engines - the kerosene/liquid-oxygen power units that give the Falcon its thrust. Each rocket needs 10 Merlins - nine on the lower-stage, one on the upper-stage.

Europe's launcher industry is already taking steps to try to protect Ariane's market share. These steps involve boosting the performance of the existing rocket design, and starting work on a new Ariane 6 variant that can be made for substantially lower cost.

The launch window for Monday's Falcon/SES mission opens at 17:37 local Florida time (22:37 GMT) and closes at 18:42 (23:42 GMT). and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Baby owls recognise siblings' calls

Barn owl nestlings recognise their siblings' calls, according to researchers.

Instead of competing aggressively for food, young barn owls are known to negotiate by calling out.

A team of scientists in Switzerland discovered that the owlets have remarkably individual calls.

They suggest this is to communicate each birds' needs and identity in the nest.

The findings were announced in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology by Dr Amelie Dreiss and colleagues at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Barn owls ( Tyto alba) are considered one of the most widespread species of bird and are found on every continent except Antarctica.

An average clutch size ranges between four and six eggs but some have been known to contain up to 12.

Previous studies have highlighted how barn owl nestlings, known as owlets, negotiate with their siblings for food instead of fighting.

While their parents search for food the owlets advertise their hunger to their brothers and sisters by calling out.

'These vocal signals deter siblings from vocalizing and from competing for the prey at parental return,' explained Dr Dreiss.

'If there is a disagreement, they can escalate signal intensity little by little, always without physical aggression, until less hungry siblings finally withdraw from the contest.'

To understand more about about this communication, researchers studied wild owls living in nest boxes in western Switzerland.

Based on recordings, the scientists estimated that a single nestling makes up to 5,000 calls a night in the absence of its parents.

They suggested that the probability of the chick making false signals is low because it is an energetically costly activity.

Earlier this year another member of the research team, Prof Alexandre Roulin, revealed that the owlets do not interrupt each others calls and that they eavesdrop on calling contests as part of this negotiation for food.

In their latest study, Dr Dreiss and colleagues recruited students to listen to the recorded calls of owl chicks.

The students were able to tell the difference between owlets' calls by ear, suggesting that the birds had individual voices that made them identifiable to nest mates.

Further analysis of the calls revealed that they varied depending on the owlet's family, age and sex, as well as how hungry they were.

Dr Dreiss suggests this shows that sibling rivalry has promoted the evolution of individual voices amongst barn owls.

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Red squirrels show pox resistance

Red squirrels at a National Trust reserve in Merseyside have shown the first signs of resistance to the pox virus that has blighted the species, say researchers.

Scientists from the University of Liverpool have studied the squirrels at the Formby site for four years.

They found that 10% of its squirrels had pox antibodies in their blood.

These antibodies are chemical tags that allow the body to recognise and respond to an infection quickly.

This strongly suggests that the squirrels have encountered the pox virus previously and recovered from it.

'Before we started this project, it was debatable whether any squirrels had survived exposure to the virus,' said Tim Dale, the project's leading researcher.

'But the work that we've done has shown that a small percentage have been exposed to the virus and they're still running around healthy in the forest.'

The UK population of red squirrels has been in decline since grey squirrels were introduced from North America by the Victorians.

As well as displacing red squirrels from their habitat, grey squirrels also carry the squirrel pox virus, which they have spread to the reds.

Special protection

While most of the remaining UK red squirrels inhabit the coniferous forests of Scotland, Formby is one of a handful of protected reserves in England where grey squirrel numbers are controlled to protect the reds.

Despite this protection, a pox outbreak in 2008 devastated the red squirrel population, reducing it by 80%.

Red squirrels

  • Red squirrels are most often found in coniferous woods

  • They feed on hazelnuts by cracking the shell in half. They also nibble pine cones, leaving behind what look like apple cores

  • Squirrels make a rough nest, called a drey, of twigs, leaves and strips of bark in the fork of a branch, high in the tree canopy

  • The reds are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan

Source: The Wildlife Trusts

'Our research has shown that [the pox virus] was introduced by the greys. It just spread through the population and caused a lot of red squirrel deaths,' said Mr Dale.

'So we wanted to find out if the remaining red squirrels had survived pox or had just been lucky enough not to be exposed.'

The team started a project to systematically catch and examine individual squirrels.

As well as monitoring the population's gradual recovery, the study gathered blood samples that revealed clues that the animals had survived the disease.

This is the first definitive evidence that the squirrels could be starting to develop resistance to the pox virus.

'It's obviously great news, but there's still a lot of work to be done,' said Mr Dale. 'It's a very small percentage [that have the antibodies] and whether that's enough to pass it on to the next generation we just don't know.

The National Trust manager at Formby, Andrew Brockbank, said the work at such protected sites was very important for the future of the species.

'This research will bring value not only to Formby, but to other sites facing similar challenges,' he told BBC News, 'and the decline of the red squirrel has been a major conservation challenge.'

The scientists are now applying for funding to continue their work, and to investigate the route of transmission of the virus to work out how to combat it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Deadlock in fractious climate talks

UN talks on climate change taking place in Warsaw have been extended as delegates remain deadlocked on key issues.

Significant difference between the parties have arisen over finance and cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide.

Developing countries expressed frustration with the 'lack of ambition' from richer nations.

Green groups said there was now a significant risk of the talks collapsing.

As they gathered again after a long night of negotiations in Warsaw, it became clear that major differences had emerged between rich and developing nations.

They have been tasked with preparing the way for a new global deal on climate change, to be signed in Paris in 2015.

National control

The meeting in Warsaw was meant to outline the scope of that agreement, and to indicate when countries would make pledges on cutting their emissions of carbon dioxide.

But the talks have became stuck as negotiators from developing countries tried to ensure that the UN has a major role in determining how deep the cuts in carbon emissions should be in any new agreement.

However, the US, EU and others want to make sure that decisions on cuts remain in national hands.

The Indian lead negotiator said there was also too much emphasis on cutting carbon and not enough on helping countries to adapt to climate change.

There is also a big gap between the parties on climate finance.

Developed nations have also promised $100bn a year from 2020, but the current text on that lacks specifics.

Delegates from developing countries expressed frustration with the process, saying that right now, it was not moving in the right direction.

We are trying to bury the convention we created 21 years ago, Bangladesh lead negotiator Quamrul Chowdhury told the meeting.

'Our expectations have been shattered.'

There was anger and frustration about the so-called loss and damage mechanism as well.

Developing countries wanted a separate institution that would help them cope with extreme events. The latest text concedes the idea but in the words of some delegates it looked like an empty shell.

With the talks dragging on into Saturday afternoon without agreement, green campaigners warned the process could collapse.

Oxfam's Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, who was part of a walkout during the week, said that this was now a real possibility.

'The poorest countries have been clear that there are limits to the compromises they can accept. Rich countries have rolled back on past promises and, with some middle income countries, appear to be dodging strong future commitments of climate action,' she said.

'The ministers of the most powerful countries that could change this game do not have the mandate to do so, and there is a very real chance that these talks could collapse,' she said.

Friday, November 22, 2013

'Signature' deal to protect forests

Nations meeting in Warsaw at UN talks have agreed a significant step forward towards curbing emissions from deforestation.

A package of measures has been agreed here that will give 'results-based' payments to developing nations that cut carbon by leaving trees standing.

One observer told the BBC that this was the 'signature achievement' of these talks.

Deforestation accounts for about 20% of global emissions of carbon dioxide.

Earlier this week the UK, US, Norway and Germany agreed a $280m package of finance that will be managed by the World Bank's BioCarbon fund to promote more sustainable use of land.

Now negotiators have agreed a package of decisions that will reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus pro-forest acitivities (known as Redd+).

The conference agreed a 'results based' payments system that means that countries with forests will have to provide information on safeguards for local communities or biodiversity before they can receive any money.

'Thrilling' outcome

The delegates agreed to finalise the technical requirements and establish a process to allocate money.

According to Paul Bledsoe, an energy research fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is attending the talks, it is a significant step.

'The ministers have been working for almost 10 years to finalise the rules which will allow donors to invest in forest management practices in the developing world and get a way to verify the emissions reductions,' he said.

'I think this agreement allowing for investments in forests in developing countries is probably the signature achievement of these talks.'

This view was echoed by Pipa Elias from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With the technical and financing decisions signed and sealed at today's plenary, the Redd+ house is built, though there will be a bit more work in terms of furnishing it.

'The biggest issue is that developed countries still need to ante up the $20-$35bn a year necessary for a global Redd+ programme. But, in the meantime, developing countries can get started now. We couldn't be more thrilled with this outcome,' she said.

'Friend of science' Kavli dies at 86

Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation, has died at the age of 86.

Mr Kavli has made a series of philanthropic donations to set up research institutes across the world.

His foundation also sponsors prizes for scientific achievements.

The president of the foundation, Robert Conn said Mr Kavli's passion was to harness science to make the world a better place.

'We will forever be grateful to Fred Kavli,' he said in a statement.

'(He was) someone who, with the foundation, invested his heart and soul into ensuring that science will make this a better world for future generations. And we will carry forward this mission with the same commitment and dedication that he gave to science and his life.'

Mr Kavli contracted a rare form of cancer last year and died from complications of surgery.

He earned a vast fortune from his company Kavlico Corporation which became the world's largest suppliers of industrial sensors.

He spent the later years of his life giving his money away to set up scientific institutes for astronomy, neuroscience and nanotechnology across the world.

These included the Kavli Institute for Astronomy in Cambridge.

Hope for climate talks' final hours

Fresh effort to clone extinct animal

Scientists in Spain have received funding to test whether an extinct mountain goat can be cloned from preserved cells.

The bucardo became extinct in 2000, but cells from the last animal were frozen in liquid nitrogen.

In 2003, a cloned calf was brought to term but died a few minutes after birth.

Now, the scientists have received fresh funding to test whether embryos can be cloned from the 14-year-old cells.

The bucardo calf born through cloning was an historic event: the first 'de-extinction', in which a lost species or sub-species was resurrected.

The regional government has signed an agreement with the Aragon Hunting Federation to begin the preliminary work at the Centre for Research and Food Technology of Aragon (CITA) in Zaragoza.

One of the scientists behind the cloning effort, Dr Alberto Fernandez-Arias, said that funds were being provided only to test the viability of cell lines taken the last bucardo, known as Celia.

'At this moment, we are not initiating a 'bucardo recovery plan', we only want to know if Celia's cells are still alive after having been maintained frozen during 14 years in liquid Nitrogen,' he explained.

In addition to the in vitro work, they will also attempt to clone embryos and transfer them to a female goat.

'In this process, one or more live female bucardo clones could be obtained. If that is the case, the feasibility of a bucardo recovery plan will be discussed,' Dr Fernandez-Arias, who is head of the Aragon Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands Service, told BBC News.

Cloning attempt

The bucardo ( Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) was a sub-species of ibex, with distinct physical and genetic characteristics to other mountain goats inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula. It was perfectly adapted to life in its mountain habitat, and to survive the extreme cold and snow of winter in the Pyrenees.

However, its population had been declining for years for several reasons, including hunting. In April 1999, researchers captured the last animal, a female named Celia. They obtained skin biopsies and froze the tissue in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196C (-321F).

The following year, Celia was killed by a falling tree in the National Park of Ordesa in north-east Spain. But a team including Dr Fernandez-Arias, Jose Folch and others were able to clone embryos from Celia's preserved cells and implant them into recipient goats.

In 2003, a baby bucardo was born, the first successful 'de-extinction', but died a few minutes later due to lung complications.

Earlier this year, Dr Fernandez-Arias related the story in a TEDx talk as part of a meeting on de-extinction.

Even if the new effort succeeds in producing healthy clones, any future recovery plan for the bucardo would be fraught with difficulty - especially given that the only frozen tissue is from a lone female.

One possible approach for bringing back the bucardo might be to cross a healthy female bucardo clone with a closely related sub-species - such as the Spanish ibex ( Capra pyrenaica hispanica) or the Gredos ibex ( Capra pyrenaica victoriae) - and then selectively breeding the offspring to enhance traits typical of the bucardo.

Several other possibilities could also be explored. For instance, researchers have been able to reverse the sex of female mouse embryos by introducing a key gene that makes them develop as males.

Other options

In addition, George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, explained that a technique known as Crispr opened up new opportunities in the field of endangered species conservation and de-extinction. The technique allows researchers to edit genomes with extraordinary precision.

This and other techniques for genome editing could be used to introduce genetic diversity in populations that are so closely related it poses a threat to their survival.

'In some cases, you have a hunch as to what diversity is needed. You might specifically want diversity in the major histocompatibility complex [a large gene family involved in immune responses],' Prof Church told BBC News.

'For example, part of the problem with the Tasmanian devil is that they are so closely related in terms of their immune system that they have problems rejecting the facial tumour cells that they spread by biting each other.'

However, he said, such techniques might eventually offer a way to extensively edit the genome of an Asian elephant to make it more like a mammoth, using a genetic sequence from the extinct animals.

Commenting on plans for the bucardo cells, the Aragon Hunting Federation said it wanted to 'develop initiatives in the field of ecology in order to defend the natural environment'.

The sum provided to fund the research at CITA has not been disclosed. and follow me on Twitter