Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Panama opens biodiversity museum

Panama has inaugurated a museum designed by the world-renowned Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry - his first in Latin America.

The Biomuseo has been built at the entrance from the Pacific ocean to the Panama Canal.

It bears Gehry's trademark metallic curves and canopies, made famous by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in Spain.

The museum celebrates the history of the Central American isthmus as one of the world's richest ecosystems.

The isthmus has more bird, mammal and reptile species than the United States and Canada combined.

The museum will trace Panama's natural history back to its geological formation. A walk through the galleries will be accompanied by the sound of tropical animals.

The skull of an extinct giant sloth found in 1949 in Panama will help explain the central American isthmus's rich pre-history.

At the official opening on Tuesday, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said the museum would lead to a better understanding of Panama's national identity.

The museum opens to the public on Thursday.

The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns since it was first conceived in 1999.

Protest halts Nasa spaceflight plans

Nasa's plans to work on two new commercial spacecraft face a delay following a formal protest about the contract award process.

The complaint has been filed by an eliminated contender.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said the protest had been lodged by Sierra Nevada Corporation in relation to its Dreamchaser spaceplane proposal.

He was speaking in Toronto at the opening of the week-long International Astronautical Congress (IAC).

The issue will keep the agency from moving forward with the next phase of its commercial crew programme until the issue has been resolved.

Nasa has 30 days to respond and the US government accountability office is expected to issue its ruling in early January 2015.

Just two weeks ago, the US space agency awarded a $4.2bn contract to The Boeing Corporation and $2.6bn to Elon Musk's SpaceX company to pursue its space capsule designs.

Both firms must meet specified technical milestones to qualify for stage payments and have stated their seven-person crew ships could be ready to launch astronauts by late 2017.

The contracts will be used to complete design, build and test phases before flying crews on up to six operational missions to the space station 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.

They are the culmination of a four-year programme to restore US-based human spaceflight capability following the retirement of the last of the three remaining space shuttles in 2011.

Since then, Nasa has been dependent on Russia to fly its nationals to the space station, a service that currently costs the US about $70 million per seat.

Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) issued a formal protest on Friday, saying its proposal would cost $900 million less than Boeing's.

The company cited 'serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process' as its reason for filing the legal challenge.

'SNC's filing seeks a further detailed review and evaluation of the submitted proposals and capabilities,' the company said in a statement .

'SNC takes the nation's human spaceflight capability and taxpayer's money very seriously. SNC believes the result of further evaluation of the proposals submitted will be that America ends up with a more capable vehicle, at a much lower cost, with a robust and sustainable future.'

The company described its Dream Chaser design as offering a wider range of capabilities and value, including 'preserving the heritage' of the space shuttle programme through its design as a piloted, reusable, lifting-body spacecraft.

Its ship looks more like a mini space shuttle than a conical capsule and - like the space shuttle - would glide back to Earth to land on a runway.

Bolden said the protest precluded him from making any kind of further comment as to why the Dream Chaser proposal was not selected.

Monday, September 29, 2014

World wildlife populations 'plummet'

The global loss of species is even worse than previously thought, the London Zoological Society (ZSL) says in its new Living Planet Index.

The report suggests populations have halved in 40 years, as new methodology gives more alarming results than in a report two years ago.

The report says populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by an average of 52%.

Populations of freshwater species have suffered an even worse fall of 76%.

Severe impact

Compiling a global average of species decline involves tricky statistics, often comparing disparate data sets.

The team at the zoological society say they've improved their methodology since their last report two years ago - but the results are even more alarming.

Then they estimated that wildlife was down 'only' around 30%. Whatever the numbers, it seems clear that wildlife is continuing to be driven out by human activity.

The society's report, in conjunction with the pressure group WWF, says humans are cutting down trees more quickly than they can re-grow, harvesting more fish than the oceans can re-stock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more carbon than oceans and forests can absorb.

It catalogues areas of severe impact - in Ghana, the lion population in one reserve is down 90% in 40 years.

In West Africa, forest felling has restricted forest elephants to 6-7% of their historic range.

In Nepal, habitat loss and hunting have reduced tigers from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,000.

In the UK, the government promised to halt wildlife decline - but bird numbers continue to fall.

The index tracks more than 10,000 vertebrate species populations from 1970 to 2010. It reveals a continued decline in these populations. The global trend is not slowing down.

The report shows that the biggest recorded threat to biodiversity comes from the combined impacts of habitat loss and degradation, driven by what WWF calls unsustainable human consumption.

We are simply being more sophisticated with the way we use the data'

End Quote ZSL spokesman

The report notes that the impacts of climate change are becoming of increasing concern - although the effect of climate change on species until now is disputed.

WWF is keen to avoid despair. It points to conservation efforts to save species like:

  • A Gorilla Conservation Programme in Rwanda, promoting gorilla tourism

  • A scheme to incentivise small-scale farmers to move away from slash and burn agriculture in Acre, Brazil

  • A project to cut the amount of water withdrawn from the wildlife-rich River Itchen in the UK.

Previously, the Living Planet Index was calculated using the average decline in all of the species populations measured. The new weighted methodology analyses the data to provide what ZSL says is a much more accurate calculation of the collective status of populations in all species and regions.

A ZSL spokesman explained to BBC News: 'For example, if most measurements in a particular region are of bird populations, but the greatest actual number of vertebrates in the region are fish, then it is necessary to give a greater weighting to measurements of fish populations if we are to have an accurate picture of the rate of population decline for species in that region.

'Different weightings are applied between regions, and between marine, terrestrial and freshwater environments. We are simply being more sophisticated with the way we use the data.'

'Applying the new method to the 2008 dataset we find that things were considerably worse than what we thought at the time. It is clear that we are seeing a significant long-term trend in declining species populations.'

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

Friday, September 26, 2014

Date fixed for comet landing attempt

The date has been fixed for Europe's daring attempt to land on a comet: Wednesday 12 November.

It will see the Rosetta satellite, which is currently orbiting the huge 'ice mountain' known as 67P, drop a small robot from a height of 20km.

If all goes well, the lander will free-fall towards the comet, making contact with the surface somewhere in a 1km-wide zone at roughly 15:35 GMT.

The European Space Agency (Esa) says the challenges ahead are immense.

Imagine pushing a washing machine out the back of an airliner at twice cruising altitude and expecting it to hit Regent's Park in London - all while the ground is moving underneath.

Although not really analogous for many reasons, this scenario does give a sense of the difficulties involved. The chances of failure are high.

Esa's confirmed date is actually a day later than the one that had been discussed in provisional planning in recent months.

The extra time will give flight controllers a bit more latitude as they try to get Rosetta into just the right position to deliver the lander, which goes by the name of Philae.

This requires careful 'phasing' of Rosetta's path around the 4km-wide 67P so that the satellite turns up at the precise ejection point on the day at 08:35 GMT.

Because the whole event will be taking place 509 million km from Earth, any radio signal will take 28 minutes to reach Esa's ground station network.

It means confirmation of success or failure will not come until about 16:00 GMT.

The chosen landing site is on the 'head' of the rubber-duck-shaped comet - a broadly 1km-wide zone currently referred to simply as 'J', the designation it was given in a list of possible destinations in the selection process.

It is far from ideal. It contains some terrifying cliffs, but is the flattest, most boulder-free location the mission team could find in its survey of the icy object.

Mapping of J and a back-up site known as 'C' is ongoing.

This past week, Rosetta manoeuvred into an orbit just 20km from 67P, enabling its camera system to see details that can be measured on the sub-metre scale.

For landing, such information only has a certain usefulness, however, as the automated touchdown can only be targeted with a best precision that will likely run to hundreds of metres.

And that error is larger than any of the apparently smooth terrains in the J zone.

The whole separation, descent and landing (SDL) procedure is expected to take seven hours.

Philae will take a picture of Rosetta as it leaves its 'parent'.

It will also point a camera downwards so that it can see the approaching comet. Not that this information can change anything; Philae has no thrusters to control or alter its descent trajectory. It will land where it will land.

But the images will help controllers determine where the robot ended up after the event.

If Philae gets down successfully into a stable, operable configuration, it will fire harpoons and deploy screws to try to hang on to the surface.

The action of these devices will tell Esa mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, that the surface was engaged.

Will it hang on? Part of the problem here is that no-one really knows what the surface conditions will be.

Philae could sink into a soft powder or impact ice as hard as rock. A major worry is that it could simply bounce off into space.

Whatever the outcome, the Rosetta mission will continue.

Already the main satellite has returned some astonishing pictures of Comet 67P and the close-quarters observations it will conduct over the next year will transform our understanding of these remarkable objects.

New images from Flight MH370 hunt

The team looking for missing flight MH370 has released detailed images of the seabed - revealing features such as extinct volcanoes and 1,400-metre depressions for the first time.

The collection of data from one of the most secret parts of the world is a by-product of the search.

Until now there were better maps of Mars than of this bit of the sea floor.

The Malaysian Airlines plane vanished without trace on 8 March with 239 people on board.

Twenty-six countries have helped look for the Boeing 777, but nothing has ever been found.

The aircraft was flying from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Beijing.

The team at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is leading the hunt for the plane, is using sonar to map the new 'priority' search area, at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean.

After that they will deploy two or three deep sea vehicles to begin the painstaking, inch-by-inch seabed search for wreckage.

The 'priority' area is based on the only piece of hard evidence investigators have, which is a series of brief, electronic 'hellos' between the Boeing and a satellite.

It is the equivalent of your mobile phone buzzing next to a loud speaker because it is checking in with a ground station, even when you are not making a call.

But those 'hellos' don't give an exact location, just a very rough idea, so the smaller, 'priority' area is still 60,000 square kilometres (23,200 square miles) - an area roughly the size of Croatia.

Making sonar maps is vital to ensure the team does not crash its deep-water vehicles into ridges and volcanoes. The equipment is pulled along just above the sea floor by a 10km-long armoured cable.

Snagging that cable could damage the kit, or even cut it free, so the maps help them avoid any obstructions.

The deep sea search vehicles have sonar that can pick out odd lumps, cameras that can double check if that lump is wreckage or just a rock and an electronic nose that can smell aviation fuel in the water, even if it is heavily diluted.

The operation to find flight MH370 is the most complex search in history. They may find clues within months. Or they may never find the aircraft.

Complex molecule discovered in space

Scientists have found the beginnings of life-bearing chemistry at the centre of the galaxy.

Iso-propyl cyanide has been detected in a star-forming cloud 27,000 light-years from Earth.

Its branched carbon structure is closer to the complex organic molecules of life than any previous finding from interstellar space.

The discovery suggests the building blocks of life may be widespread throughout our galaxy.

Various organic molecules have previously been discovered in interstellar space, but i-propyl cyanide is the first with a branched carbon backbone.

The branched structure is important as it shows that interstellar space could be the origin of more complex branched molecules, such as amino acids, that are necessary for life on Earth.

Dr Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy is lead author of the research, which appears in the journal Science.

'Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?'

Watch the skies

The molecule was detected in a giant gas cloud called Sagittarius B2, an active region of ongoing star formation in the centre of the Milky Way.

As stars are born in the cloud they heat up microscopic dust grains. Chemical reactions on the surface of the dust allow complex molecules like i-propyl cyanide to form.

The molecules emit radiation that was detected as radio waves by twenty 12m telescopes at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (Alma) in Chile.

Each molecule produces a different 'spectral fingerprint' of frequencies. 'The game consists in matching these frequencies... to molecules that have been characterised in the laboratory,' explained Dr Belloche.

'Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium.'

Previously discovered molecules in the Sagittarius B2 cloud include vinyl alcohol and ethyl formate, the chemical that gives raspberries their flavour and rum its smell.

But i-propyl cyanide is the largest and most complex organic molecule found to date - and the only one to share the branched atomic backbone of amino acids.

'The idea is to know whether the elements that are necessary for life to occur... can be found in other places in our galaxy.'

Prof Matt Griffin, head of the school of physics and astronomy at Cardiff University, commented on the discovery.

'It's clearly very high-quality data - a very emphatic detection with multiple spectral signatures all seen together.'

Prof Griffin added that the quantity of i-propyl cyanide detected is significant.

'There seems to be quite a lot of it, which would indicate that this more complex organic structure is possibly very common, maybe even the norm, when it comes to simple organic molecules in space.

'It's a step closer to discovering molecules that can be regarded as the building blocks or the precursors... of amino acids.'

The hope is that amino acids will eventually be detected outside our Solar System. 'That's what everyone would like to see,' said Prof Griffin.

If amino acids are widespread throughout the galaxy, life may be also.

'So far we do not have the sensitivity to detect the signals from [amino acids]... in the interstellar medium,' explained Dr Belloche. 'The interstellar chemistry seems to be able to form these amino acids but at the moment we lack the evidence.

'Alma in the future may be able to do that, once the full capabilities are available.'

Prof Griffin agreed this could be the first of many further discoveries from the 'fantastically sensitive and powerful' Alma facility.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Obama expands Pacific marine reserve

US President Barack Obama has signed a memorandum to expand a vast marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument will become the largest network of oceanic protected areas in the world.

The memorandum bans commercial fishing, deep-sea mining and other extraction of underwater resources in the area.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the move although some critics say President Obama could have done more.

'This really is a matter of stewardship. It's also a matter of generational responsibility,' said US Secretary of State John Kerry.

'We have a responsibility to make sure... the future has the same ocean to serve it. Not to be abused, but to preserve and utilise.'

The Pacific Remote Islands Area consists of seven scattered islands, atolls and reefs that lie between Hawaii and American Samoa.

The waters that surround these islands are home to corals, seabirds, sharks and vegetation not found anywhere else in the world.

Area 'pristine'

President George W Bush set up the marine preserve in 2009 but until now it only encompassed an area 50 nautical miles (92km) from the islands' shores.

Now the protected area is being expanded to 200 nautical miles from the unique atolls. It will cover 490,000 sq miles (1.2m sq km) - an area roughly three times the size of California.

Mr Obama first signalled his intention to expand the monument in June and asked for comments on the final boundaries from fishermen, lawmakers and scientists.

Environmental groups greeted the announcement and said they hoped it would spur other nations to take similar steps.

'The president acted expeditiously, while the area is still largely pristine and undisturbed,' said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

However, some critics say the expansion falls short of what Mr Obama could have done had he used the full extent of his powers.

The islands affected are divided into five regions and the expansion only involves three of them.

If Mr Obama had expanded the preserve in all five regions he could have protected more than 780,000 sq miles, some environmentalists say.

Mars rover mission drills for sample

The Curiosity rover has drilled its first full hole in Martian rock since May.

The robot used its power tool to grind out a sample from a pale, flat slab at a location dubbed 'Pahrump Hills'.

Curiosity has previously drilled into three rocks to collect powdered tailings for analysis in its sophisticated onboard laboratories.

This latest acquisition should give scientists a taster for the type of sediments that lie ahead.

The rover is currently heading into the foothills of Mount Sharp, a 5km peak in the centre of Mars' Gale Crater.

Researchers hope the chemistry of the rocks at the base of the mountain will reveal new details about the environmental history of Mars.

Already, the one-tonne robot has established that a lake and rivers were present in Gale billions of years ago.

Scientists say the conditions could have supported micro-organisms - had they been present.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

African fish nourish Amazon

The Amazon is being fertilised by the remains of ancient fish from Africa.

The nutrient-rich material is being carried in millions of tonnes of dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara every year.

Scientists have long recognised the importance of this airborne train to the rainforest's health.

But now a UK team has been able to show that much of the essential phosphorous in the dust is derived from the bones and scales of fish and other organisms.

These are animals that lived in Megalake Chad, a massive body of water that covered north-central Africa thousands of years ago.

When they died, their remains sank into the muddy sediments, which today are exposed in what is one of the windiest places on Earth - the so-called Bodélé Depression.

Satellites regularly catch vast clouds of dust being whipped up in this region of Chad to be thrown across the ocean to South America.

The dust contains the apatite (phosphorus) mineral. Phosphorus is a nutrient essential for photosynthesis.

Scientists were unsure whether this apatite had been weathered out of rocks or perhaps had a biogenic source.

But by examining its crystalline structure, researchers have revealed its true origin.

'This is the first time that fish bone and scale phosphorus have been found in dusts,' said Prof Karen Hudson-Edwards from Birkbeck, University of London.

'The finding is important because this type of phosphorus is more soluble and available to ecosystems like the Amazon than other types of phosphorus that come from rocks.

'The Bodélé fish phosphorus is like that found in fish bone meal that gardeners use as a fertiliser,' she told BBC News.

The determination relied on work carried out at the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire.

This facility uses brilliant X-rays to probe the workings of matter on the smallest scales.

Its pictures could discern the delicate, tell-tale, chemical signature of biogenic apatite in the Bodélé dusts.

The team's report in the journal Chemical Geology highlights the fact that this important source of phosphorus for Amazon is finite.

The sediments of Megalake Chad will eventually be completely eroded by the winds blowing through the Sahara.

When that happens, it could have deleterious consequences for the rainforest, says co-worker Dr Caroline Peacock from Leeds University.

'A large part of the phosphorus that the Amazon receives currently is in this more useful soluble form. While the lake sediments remain - that's great. But when they're gone then the Amazon will have to make do with detrital (weathered rock) phosphorus, detritus apatite, which is that much harder to solubilise.'

The team's aim is to go back to Chad to investigate precisely how long the important dusts can be sustained.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Indian Mars probe sends first images

The Indian satellite which entered orbit around Mars on Wednesday has begun work, taking pictures of the planet's surface, media reports say.

Space agency officials said a handful of images had been sent and were being processed before being released.

The 'Mangalyaan' robotic probe, one of the cheapest interplanetary missions ever, will also study the Red Planet's atmosphere.

Media in India have hailed the mission as a 'historic achievement'.

The Hindu newspaper reported that the probe 'has beamed back about 10 pictures of the Red Planet's surface which show some craters'.

Officials were quoted by the newspaper as saying the pictures were of 'good quality'. They will reportedly be shown to Prime Minister Narendra Modi before being made public.

Analysis - Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent

India's space programme has succeeded at the first attempt where others have failed - by sending an operational mission to Mars.

The Mangalyaan satellite was confirmed to be in orbit shortly after 0800, Indian time. It is, without doubt, a considerable achievement.

This is a mission that has been budgeted at 4.5bn rupees ($74m), which, by Western standards, is staggeringly cheap.

The American Maven orbiter that arrived at the Red Planet on Monday is costing almost 10 times as much.

Back in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even quipped that India's real-life Martian adventure was costing less than the make-believe Hollywood film Gravity.

Why India's Mars mission is so cheap - and thrilling

Maiden success

Reports said the camera was the first of the instruments being carried by the satellite to be switched on, a few hours after it entered the planet's orbit.

India's 1,350kg (2,976lb) robotic satellite, which undertook a 10-month-long 200-million-kilometre journey, is equipped with five instruments.

They include a thermal imaging spectrometer to map the surface and mineral wealth of the planet and a sensor to track methane or marsh gas - a possible sign of life.

The mission will also analyse the thin Martian atmosphere.

India has become the fourth nation or geo-bloc to put a satellite into orbit around Mars.

Only the US, Russia and Europe have previously sent missions to Mars, and India has succeeded on its first attempt - an achievement that eluded even the Americans and the Soviets.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water seen on Neptune-sized planet

A cloud-free atmosphere has allowed scientists to pick out signs of water vapour on a distant planet the size of Neptune: the smallest 'exoplanet' ever to reveal its chemical composition.

Previously, only larger, Jupiter-like giants have been studied in this way.

Working with three space telescopes, astronomers deduced the presence of water by measuring the colours of light the planet absorbed when it passed in front of its star.

The find appears in the journal Nature.

It was made by a team of researchers led from the University of Maryland, US.

The planet, designated HAT P-11b, orbits a sun in the constellation Cygnus some 124 light-years - about a quadrillion kilometres - from Earth. It is roughly four times the width of our home world.

The scientists studied the planet's atmosphere with the aid of the US space agency's Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler telescopes.

Their observations were also greatly assisted by there being no clouds on HAT P-11b, which would otherwise have frustrated their attempts to probe its gaseous envelope.

The team determined that the far-off world's atmosphere contained about 90% hydrogen, but also significant quantities of water vapour as well.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Eliza Kempton from Grinnell College, Iowa, said the Maryland group had taken another important step in the study of exoplanets - planets beyond our Solar System.

'Astronomers have detected water vapour in the atmospheres of larger planets - planets that are closer in size to Jupiter. But you can imagine that eventually we want to be able to detect molecules in the atmospheres of even smaller planets.

'We'd like to be able to look at an Earth-sized planet and measure its gaseous composition. So this is a step on the ladder; we're stepping down the ladder towards smaller and smaller planets,' she told this week's Science In Action programme on the BBC World Service.

Water has obvious implications for life, although HAT P-11b is too close to its star - and therefore too hot - to be habitable.

But in the future study of Earth-sized exoplanets, the presence of water will be an important consideration as scientists search for biology elsewhere in our galaxy.

Threatened birds of prey 'vanish'

Two of the rarest birds of prey in England, which had been satellite tagged, have vanished in unexplained circumstances, conservationists say.

The young female hen harriers had left their nest sites in Lancashire only a few weeks ago.

Named Sky and Hope, they were among the first hen harrier chicks to fledge in England since 2012.

Last year, no chicks were born after the only two nesting pairs failed to breed.

As part of an ongoing conservation project, Sky and Hope had been fitted with lightweight solar-powered tags.

Scientists examining the satellite data became worried when their tags stopped transmitting. Sky's signal stopped suddenly on 10 September and Hope's signal died three days later.

Searches of the area have failed to find any trace of them.

The tracking devices are designed to operate for at least three years. The scientists say it's 'improbable' that this is due to technical failure. The more likely cause is that the birds were killed by other animal predators, or humans.

According to Bob Elliot, head of investigations for the RSPB: 'In our experience this satellite technology is normally very reliable and it is rare for them to fail for technological reasons. Losing two birds in such a short time frame and in the same geographical area is strange.'

Members of a local conservation youth group who named Hope, told the BBC that it was extremely sad that the birds had gone missing.

Kat Mayer, 16, said: 'It's really disappointing, because the ones that were radio tagged could have spread awareness through the blogs and social media so people could have learned about them and been able to follow them.'

Her brother Will, 13, added: 'It's really upsetting. It wasn't our bird, but it was a bird that we were close to because we had named it.'

Sky had been officially named and adopted by pupils from Brennand's Endowed Primary School in Slaidburn in Bowland.

Currently, 14 other fledged chicks from four sites in Bowland and the Peak District, and another undisclosed location are currently being monitored.

In 2012, a hen harrier raised in Bowland and electronically tagged, nicknamed 'Bowland Betty' was found dead on Thorny Grain Moor in North Yorkshire.

She had been illegally shot and killed. The alarm had been raised after satellite data showed that she had not moved for some time.

Hen harriers were a common species across the UK up until the early 1800s, when changes in land management and intensive gamekeeping in Victorian times drove the hen harrier as a breeding species to extinction in England by 1900.

According to figures from the RSPB, between 2004 and 2010, hen harrier numbers across the UK declined by 18%.

Conservationists blame 'illegal persecution' for the decline in numbers. They argue that gamekeepers on private shooting estates target the birds because they prey on red grouse.

However country groups argue that there are other causes including a loss of habitat and lack of available food. The two sides are seeking to reach an effective hen harrier recovery plan.

The RSPB is offering a £1,000 reward for any information about Hope or Sky.

Novel antibiotic class created

Scientists have designed a new class of antibiotic which seeks and destroys resistance genes in bacteria.

The unique approach could be used to genetically engineer bacteria in our bodies to become less dangerous.

The technology might also lead to new treatments for metabolic diseases like obesity, the researchers claim.

Scientists and politicians have warned that we face a return to the medical 'dark ages' if action is not taken against antibiotic resistance.

The human body houses ten times more bacterial cells than human ones. This community of bacteria is termed the microbiome and its importance in keeping us healthy is increasingly recognised.

One of the problems with current antibiotics is 'they hit not only the bad bacteria but also the good bacteria,' explained Professor Timothy Lu of the Synthetic Biology Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the team carrying out the new research.

'It allows the bad bacteria to flourish.'

In a series of laboratory experiments published in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers showed they could produce a molecular 'conditional-lethality device' capable of highly targeted action against the 'bad' bacteria in a consortium of different strains.

The new antibiotic uses an RNA-guided nuclease called a 'Crispr' to hunt down and chop up target genes inside bacterial cells.

'We designed Crispr systems that would go into bacteria and specifically kill only bacteria that contain antibiotic resistance genes or virulence genes,' explained Professor Lu.

The bacteria targeted in the experiments included a strain of E. coli which can cause severe diarrhoea and kidney failure.

But Professor Lu isn't only interested in killing the deadly bacterium - he wants to rehabilitate it.

In separate experiments the researchers showed they could change the genetic makeup of bacteria without killing them.

'Inherently E. coli is not necessarily a bad organism,' Professor Lu explained. 'They carry genes that make them bad.'

Targeting the bad genes, instead of killing the good and bad bacteria alike, is a new approach which 'imposes direct evolutionary pressure at the gene level'.

Professor Lu is confident the new antibiotics could be ready for clinical trials in some infections 'within a few years.'

Resistance is futile?

No new classes of antibiotic have been developed for more than 25 years.

The overuse of available antibiotics favours the survival of bacteria resistant to the drugs. These bacteria can then transmit their resistance genes to other bacteria using tiny circles of DNA called plasmids.

The process effectively speeds up evolution to produce bugs that cannot be killed when they cause disease.

The problem is huge and attracted the attention of Prime Minister David Cameron in July, when he announced a new interdisciplinary panel to address the issue.

'If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again,' he said.

Professor Lu described the problem as 'a technological arms race between us and the bacteria'.

The new system is 'a new type of antimicrobial that really acts very differently to previous ones, and I think that's why we're particularly excited about it,' he explained.

The technology could eventually be given to healthy people to prevent antibiotic resistance developing.

'You might take probiotic bacteria while you are healthy, and that probiotic bacteria could distribute these Crispr constructs into your natural bacterial population, and kind of immunise them from being able to pick up bacterial resistance genes.

'So just like the antibiotic resistance plasmids naturally spread in a population, we could potentially design these Crispr constructs to also spread... like a parasite that hops from bacteria to bacteria.'

'Think about it like a vaccine - but it's a vaccine for your bacteria, not for you.'

Introducing self-replicating gene treatments into the microbiome would not be without risk.

'This is admittedly a little bit radical but I think it's an interesting thing to consider.'

'An enabling toolkit'

'The use of antimicrobial agents based on DNA has exciting potential that has not yet been effectively harnessed,' said Lucinda Hall, professor of molecular microbiology at Queen Mary University of London.

'The greatest challenge is how to deliver a DNA-based agent into the bacteria to be targeted.'

The MIT team explored two approaches to this.

'One idea is that you can just piggy back off the same system that bacteria use to trade resistance genes,' Professor Lu explained. In this approach the target cell accepts a 'Trojan horse' plasmid of DNA from another bacteria, with the Crispr hidden inside.

But this would require live bacteria to be given to a patient - so 'it is probably not the best solution for an acute infection,' he conceded.

Secondly, the team used bacteriophages - natural virus predators of bacteria which are highly adept at injecting DNA into host cells.

This approach is also not without difficulties. 'You have to find the right type of phage to bind to each type of bacteria,' explained Professor Hall. 'There is also a question about how easily phage can reach the site in the body where the bacteria are causing an infection, and whether they will be blocked by antibodies.'

'It is something we have to take into consideration,' responded Professor Lu. 'Other groups have found pretty interesting ways around this, for example coating the bacteriophages with chemicals that basically shield them from the immune system.'

Professor Hall was also critical of the bacterial kill rates reported, describing the numbers as 'disappointing'.

'We need to continue to improve the efficacy,' conceded Professor Lu. 'But even with [relatively modest] drops in bacterial count you can detect significantly increased survival of the waxworms we were using for testing.'

The benefits of manipulating the balance of 'good' and 'bad' bacteria in the body might extend beyond fighting infection.

'There are certain classes of bacteria in your gut that are known to be overrepresented in people who are obese or have metabolic diseases,' explained Professor Lu.

'We could design Crispr-based systems that would go into bacteria, targeted to certain subsets of bacteria, and only activate when they recognise genes that we know are correlated with human disease.'

'This is an enabling toolkit for the basic scientists to now start probing these systems a little bit better.'

Hyenas feast at vulture restaurants

'Restaurants' of dead meat set up for endangered vultures also attract an undesirable clientele of hyenas and jackals, according to a six-year study.

The research consisted of repeated 'scat surveys' (dung counts) at two nearby sites in South Africa.

There was a surge in numbers of both the cheeky mammals, specifically at the site with extra food, which went back down again when the restaurants closed.

The scientists have recommended a new strategy to help boost vulture numbers.

The birds have been in decline worldwide for a number of reasons.

Specifically, the researchers suggest using fences to exclude the unwanted, earthbound customers, and dishing up the extra meat for the vultures in random locations instead of re-stocking a regular carrion pantry.

That would imitate a 'naturally-occurring food source', according to Dr Richard Yarnell, a biodiversity researcher at Nottingham Trent University and the leader of the study.

His team warned that inadvertently boosting or rearranging the population of mammalian scavengers could have serious consequences for other species, as well as for the spread of diseases like rabies.

While hyenas are themselves 'near threatened' according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, jackals are considered a pest.

So the researchers were concerned when they found that jackal dung became six times as common after a vulture restaurant was introduced at the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve. The change in hyena dung density was an even more dramatic 54-fold increase.

Six kilometres away at Pilanesberg National Park, which does not include a vulture restaurant, fluctuations were only minor.

'We urge land managers and conservation practitioners to consider the wider impacts of introducing supplementary carrion to the local ecosystem,' wrote the study authors, reporting their findings in the African Journal of Ecology.

As well as gathering scatological evidence, they snapped photos of the restaurant guests and their interactions, using remote camera traps.

Vulture numbers are in decline worldwide for various reasons, including scarcity of their carrion diet and poisoning by pesticides or veterinary drugs.

Providing a safe food source by regularly dragging dead animals - wild or domesticated - to a fixed location is a strategy that has been tried in both Africa and Asia.

Although some studies have shown that these measures are successful at helping vulture populations recover, little is known about how they affect the wider ecosystem.

Louis Phipps, another of the researchers from Nottingham Trent University, said: 'Our study indicates that, while vulture restaurants are a potentially useful tool for conservation, the wider impacts of their use need to be investigated - particularly as unintentional local increases in the abundance of other species are likely to alter ecosystem dynamics.'

Follow Jonathan on Twitter.

Melt ponds forecast ice retreat

A UK technique for forecasting the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic proved its worth this week.

Reading researchers announced in June that the floes would cover 5.4 million sq km come the end of the melt season - give or take half a million.

US agencies called the actual number on Monday as 5.02 million sq km.

The British team's model forecast hangs on the amount of water ponding on top of the ice as it warms in the spring.

These ponds have been shown to promote melting.

Projecting the behaviour of seasonal ice in the Arctic has been a difficult problem.

Achieving a good level of skill - even just a few months ahead - would be useful to many sectors.

Shipping, tourism and oil industries - all are looking to exploit the opportunities that will emerge in an Arctic that is expected to become more open in a warming climate.

It is two years running now that Reading's meltpond forecasts have landed virtually on the button.

For September 2013, the group's spring projection was for a mean ice extent of 5.55 million sq km. The eventual number again fell within the uncertainty bounds, at 5.35 million sq km.

But unlike the 2013 forecast, this year's projection was made publicly in advance. The polar modelling community was watching.

'The fact that we have this repeated success lends some confidence,' Prof Daniel Feltham from the NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at Reading told BBC News.

'We have error bars, and we can describe skill as being between one and zero, where one is perfect and zero is terrible. We're about 0.4 or 0.5.

'That may not sound very good, but it's still a lot better than anything else that's out there,' he explained.

Water standing on top of the floes will change their reflectiveness, or albedo.

The ponds are darker than the bare ice and therefore absorb more of the Sun's energy, driving further melting.

Prof Feltham's team has developed a model to forecast the evolution of melt ponds in the Arctic and has incorporated this into more general climate sea-ice models.

Satellite records show that the year with smallest pond fraction in late spring (11% in 1996) had the biggest sea ice extent in September; and the year with the largest pond fraction (34% in 2012) featured the all-time low extent come the autumn.

'There is a fundamental limit to how skilful we can be with this,' said Prof Feltham.

'If we're making a prediction for September in the spring, it means we've still got to contend with a few months of weather, and we can't capture all the natural variability in the system.'

Prof Feltham described his team's work at a major UK Royal Society conference on the Arctic this week.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

India gears up for big Mars moment

India hopes to make history shortly by putting its first satellite in orbit around Mars.

The Mangalyaan robotic probe is bearing down on the Red Planet following a 10 month cruise from Earth.

Wednesday will see the spacecraft light its main engine and small thrusters in a bid to slow itself down.

If this 24-minute manoeuvre removes sufficient speed, the planet's gravity should capture Mangalyaan into an elliptical orbit.

Only the US, Europe and Russia have succeeded previously in sending missions to Mars.

Indeed the Americans placed their latest satellite, Maven, at Mars just this Monday.

If Mangalyaan survives orbit insertion, it will set about taking pictures of the planet and studying its atmosphere.

One key goal is to try to detect methane in the Martian air, which could be an indicator of biological activity at, or more likely just below, the surface.

Wednesday's critical engine burn will be initiated at 07:30 India Standard Time (02:00 GMT; 03:00 BST).

Concern in recent weeks centred on whether the big motor would actually work reliably, having not been used since despatching Mangalyaan from Earth's orbit last December.

But that issue was put to bed earlier this week when engineers conducted a four-second mini-burn on the engine to prove all systems were still functional.

As Mangalyaan engages 'the brakes', it will go behind Mars as viewed from both the Sun and Earth, meaning there will be a period when the satellite is in darkness and also out of contact with Earth.

There are sure to be some anxious moments before ground controllers receive confirmation of the success or failure of the insertion.

Mangalyaan - more formally referred to as Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) - was launched from the Sriharikota spaceport on the coast of the Bay of Bengal on 5 November 2013.

The total cost has been put at 4.5bn rupees ($74m; £45m), which makes it one of the cheapest interplanetary space missions ever.

On a visit to Sriharikota in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went so far as to say that the '[making of the] Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission'.

Nonetheless, the Mangalyaan venture has been criticised both within and outside India by those who believe the expenditure would have been better directed at millions of Indians who still live without electricity and proper sanitation.

The Indian government, on the other hand, sees the mission as an opportunity to advance its technical capabilities.

In the eyes of some commentators, Mangalyaan also sends a powerful geopolitical message to regional rivals like China whose space activities have yet to get beyond Earth and its Moon.

Obama makes impassioned climate plea

US President Barack Obama has told a UN climate change meeting in New York that the problem is growing faster than the world's efforts to address it.

He said that children in the world should not be subjected to a future that is beyond their capacity to fix.

It is the biggest high-level gathering to discuss climate change since 2009.

The aim of the meeting is to galvanise 120 member states to sign up to a comprehensive new global climate agreement at talks in Paris next year.

'There should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate,' Mr Obama said.

'We recognise our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to combat it.

'We will do our part and we will help developing nations do theirs; but we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation - developed and developing alike.'

The president said the 'urgent and growing threat of climate change' would ultimately 'define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other' issue.

'We know what we have to do to avoid irreparable harm. We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change,' he said.

'This time we need an agreement that reflects economic realities in the next decade and beyond.

'It must be ambitious because that's what the scale of this challenge demands.'

The president said that before making his speech he had spoken to Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, and they had agreed that the world's two biggest emitters 'have a responsibility to lead'.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made an equally impassioned plea to leaders and representatives from 120 countries to take the lead in the battle against climate change at the summit.

'Today, we must set the world on a new course,' Mr Ban said at the opening.

He called for a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, and insisted that by the end of the century the world must be carbon-neutral.

He described global warming as the 'defining issue of our age'.

'Climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity, and opportunity for billions of people,' Mr Ban said. 'We are not here to talk. We are here to make history.'

Mr Ban was joined at the opening by former US Vice President and climate campaigner Al Gore, Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, Chinese actress Li Bingbing and Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN climate panel, which won the Nobel peace prize in 2007.

Correspondents say that meaningful new commitments to reduce carbon emissions have not so far been forthcoming.

However France's President Hollande has promised $982m (£600m) to help poor nations cope with the effects of rising temperatures, while Norway has pledged $147m (£90m) to Liberia to end deforestation by 2020.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, for his part, argued that he had 'kept that promise' to run the 'greenest government ever'.

With so many nations attending the summit at the UN headquarters and so little time at the one-day meeting, three separate sessions ran simultaneously on Tuesday in three different rooms.

The BBC's Nick Bryant in New York says that the real bargaining on climate change is expected to take place at a private dinner on Tuesday evening, hosted by Mr Ban and attended by a select list of 20 or so countries.

But the absence of the leaders of China, Russia and India - whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives later in the week - does not augur well, our correspondent says.

Mr Obama is eager to generate international support for the battle against climate change, as time runs out on his desire to leave an environmental legacy.

But correspondents say he faces numerous obstacles - including a Congress unwilling to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, let alone ratify an international agreement.

Mr Obama's last meeting with heads of state in order to reach a climate deal in Copenhagen five years ago ended in disappointment, with member countries failing to agree on a timetable to reduce long-term emissions.

Liberia in 'trees for cash' deal

Liberia is to become the first nation in Africa to completely stop cutting down its trees in return for development aid.

Norway will pay the impoverished west African country 150 million dollars to stop deforestation by 2020.

There have been fears that the ebola crisis would see increased logging in a country desperate for cash.

Norwegian officials confirmed details of the deal to the BBC at the UN climate summit in New York.

Liberia's forests are not as big as other countries but the country is home to a significant part of West Africa's remaining rainforest, with about 43% of the Upper Guinean forest.

It is also a global diversity hotspot, home to the last remaining viable populations of species including Western Chimpanzees, forest elephants and leopards.

But since the civil war ended in 2003, illegal logging has become rife.

In 2012, President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson attracted international criticism when she handed out licences to companies to cut down 58% of all the primary rainforest left in the country. After protests many of those permits were cancelled.

Some researchers have connected the current outbreak of ebola with the widespread destruction of the forests, bringing people into contact with natural reservoirs of the virus.

Now the Norwegians and the Liberian government have signed a deal that they both believe will protect the forests into the future.

'We hope Liberia will be able to cut emissions and reduce poverty at the same time,' said Jens Frolich Holte, a political adviser to the Norwegian government, speaking to the BBC on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in New York.

'We have funded efforts in Indonesia and Indonesia and Brazil, but I think this is the first time we have entered a deal on a country level.'

Under the terms of the agreement, Norway will help Liberia to initially build up the capacity to monitor and police the forests.

Liberia will refrain from issuing any new logging concessions until all existing ones have been reviewed by an independent body.

The country agrees to place 30% or more of its forest estate under protected area status by 2020. It will also pilot direct payments to communities for protecting the forest.

Ultimately the Norwegians will pay for results, with independent verification that trees remain standing.

The development has been welcomed by environmental campaigners in Liberia.

'This partnership holds promise not only for the forest and climate; but for forest communities that have been marginalized for generations,' said Silas Siakor, a Liberian environmental campaigner and Goldman Environmental Prize laureate.

'The partnership's commitment to respecting and protecting community's rights with respect to forests is laudable.'

Experts believe that Liberia has turned to logging as a way of raising cash in difficult times. With the current ebola outbreak having a significant economic impact on the country, the Norwegian deal is timely.

'Our hope is that the situation there now will be contained and resolved,' said Jens Frolich Holte.

'But we also need to give Liberia a long term hope for development and that is what this rainforest money will provide for them, a long term vision for a country with reduced poverty and reduced deforestation.'

With widespread corruption and a government struggling to impose its authority, campaigners recognise that stopping all the logging in Liberia will not be easy.

'There is the potential for this to go wrong, both Norway and Liberia will have to make sure that this deal does not get affected by corruption, but I am cautiously confident it can be done,' said Patrick Alley, the director of campaign group Global Witness.

'It's really good news, it's transformational for Liberia when all the news coming out of there is bad - I think this will be a real boost.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Brian Cox: 'Multiverse' makes sense

The presenter and physicist Brian Cox says he supports the idea that many universes can exist at the same time.

The idea may sound far-fetched but the 'many worlds' concept is the subject of serious debate among physicists.

It is a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics - which describes the often counter-intuitive behaviour of energy and matter at small scales.

Prof Cox made the comments during an interview with Radio 4's The Life Scientific programme.

In a famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a cat sealed inside a box can be both alive and dead at the same time. Or any combination of different probabilities of being both dead and alive.

This is at odds with most common perceptions of the way the world is. And Schrodinger's experiment was designed to illustrate the problems presented by one version of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

This proposes that when we observe a system, we force it to make a choice. So, for example, when you open the box with Schrodinger's cat inside, it emerges dead or alive, not both.

But Prof Cox says the many worlds idea offers a sensible alternative.

'That there's an infinite number of universes sounds more complicated than there being one,' Prof Cox told the programme.

'But actually, it's a simpler version of quantum mechanics. It's quantum mechanics without wave function collapse... the idea that by observing something you force a system to make a choice.'

Accepting the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics means also having to accept that things can exist in several states a the same time.

But this leads to a another question: Why do we perceive only one world, not many?

A single digital photograph can be made from many different images superimposed on one another. Perhaps the single reality that we perceive is also multi-layered.

The laws of quantum mechanics describe what happens inside the nucleus of every atom, right down at the level of elementary particles such as quarks, neutrinos, gluons, muons.

The weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics reveals that nature is at heart probabilistic. Nothing can be predicted anything with any certainty.

'Everybody agrees about that' says Prof Cox. But where physicists don't agree is about how these facts should be interpreted.

For decades, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which allows for only one universe, dominated particle physics.

But Brian Cox supports the many worlds interpretation and, he believes, more and more physicists are now subscribing to this view.

Brian Cox is on The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 23rd September at 09:00 GMT.

'Crucial' climate talks set to begin

World leaders including US President Barack Obama are holding a summit on climate change at the United Nations.

The aim at the New York meeting is to galvanise member states to sign up to a comprehensive new global climate agreement at talks in Paris next year.

'Climate change is the defining issue of our time. Now is the time for action,' UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said ahead of the summit.

Mr Ban will discuss the issue with 125 heads of state and government.

With so many nations attending the summit at the UN headquarters and so little time at the one-day meeting, three separate sessions will run simultaneously in three different rooms.

The BBC's Nick Bryant says it will be a feat of huge choreographic complexity.

Mr Ban has organised the summit and on Sunday took part in a climate change march in New York with thousands of protesters - including Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has recently been appointed a UN representative on climate change.

On Monday heirs to the Rockefeller family, which made its vast fortune from oil, were reported to have announced their intention to sell investments in fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is joining a coalition of philanthropists pledging to rid themselves of more than $50bn (£31bn) in fossil fuel assets.

Time running out

Our correspondent says that the real bargaining on climate change is expected to take place at a private dinner on Tuesday hosted by Mr Ban and attended by a select list of 20 or so countries.

But the absence of the leaders of China, Russia and India - whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives later in the week - does not augur well, our correspondent says.

Mr Obama will strive on Tuesday to generate international support for the battle against climate change when he addresses the UN, with time running out on his desire to leave an environmental legacy.

The president has warned that a failure to act on climate change is a 'betrayal' of future generations. But correspondents say he faces numerous obstacles - including a Congress unwilling to curtail greenhouse gas emissions - let alone ratify an international agreement.

Mr Obama's last meeting with heads of state in order to reach a climate deal in Copenhagen five years ago ended in disappointment, with member countries failing to agree on a timetable to reduce long-term emissions.

Mr Ban has asked that the political leaders come to UN headquarters bearing pledges of action. He wants to hear commitments to cut carbon and offers of finance for those most affected.

Observers believe the meeting can still achieve political momentum despite the absence of Chinese, Indian, Australian, Russian and Canadian leaders.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scientists debate sea-ice trends

Arctic sea ice has passed its minimum summer extent, say polar experts meeting in London.

The cover on 17 September dipped to 5.01 million sq km, and has risen slightly since then, suggesting the autumn re-freeze has now taken hold.

This year's minimum is fractionally smaller than last year (5.10 million sq km), making summer 2014 the sixth lowest in the modern satellite record.

The Antarctic, in contrast, continues its winter growth.

It is still a few weeks away from reaching its maximum, which will continue the record-setting trend of recent years.

Ice extent surrounding the White Continent has just topped 20 million sq km.

The marine cover at both poles is the subject of discussion at a major UK Royal Society conference taking place this week.

'Normal year'

In the Arctic, Prof Julienne Stroeve from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center said conditions in the north had been relatively cool this summer.

'This was what we might now call a 'normal year',' she told BBC News.

Winds had blown ice towards the Canadian Arctic archipelago, piling up the floes.

This will have protected them from melting and from being exported out of the Arctic basin, explained the researcher, who is also affiliated to University College London.

Although, the last two summers had seen greater coverage than the record-setting low of 2012, she cautioned that the long-term trend was still clear: September Arctic sea ice is declining in extent by more than 10% per decade.

The eight lowest ice covers in the satellite record have now occurred in the past eight years.

Higher temperatures are seen as the cause; the Arctic has been one of the fastest warming regions on Earth.

Computer models are doing a better job at forecasting the losses but they still underestimate the changes that are occurring.

Ocean influence

In the Antarctic, the research problem is a very different one.

This austral winter will be the third year in a row that sea-ice extent has reached a satellite-era maximum, and it is the first time that this record has jumped above 20 million sq km.

Traditionally, the greatest cover is not reached until early October, so there should be time for the south to accumulate even more marine cover.

But scientists are careful not to make equal and opposite comparisons for what is happening at the two poles.

The regions' geographies are quite different. The Arctic is in large part an ocean enclosed by land, whereas the Antarctic is a land mass totally surrounded by ocean.

What is more, the southern pole feels the influence of three great oceans - the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian.

Many of the ice behaviours and responses are peculiar as a consequence.

Low pressure

Dr Paul Holland works with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS): 'Sea-ice extent in the Antarctic is going up by about one-fifth the speed that the Arctic is going down. And the volume of Antarctic sea ice is going up by about one-tenth the speed that Arctic volume is going down, and the volume is the more important number.

'My point is that the Antarctic is essentially flat; the increase in extent is to some degree a red herring.

'The more interesting question is why the Antarctic is not going down like the Arctic, and not enough people are asking that question.'

Various ideas have been put forward to explain the differences, but 'as to a single, underlying, silver-bullet cause - there just isn't one,' he added.

His BAS colleague, Prof John Turner, highlighted the big up-turn in sea-ice growth around the Antarctic in only the past fortnight - the result of more storms in the region.

'Southerly winds have pushed the ice out to greater northerly latitudes, and that means the cold winds coming off the continent then freeze the open water left behind.'

Principally, this is seen in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica. Indeed, more than 80% of the growth trend is focussed on this one region.

Prof Turner said he thought the persistent behaviour of a low-pressure system known as the Amundsen Sea Low (ASL) was probably at the root of the observed Antarctic trend, but as to why that was the case - no-one could yet explain.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Cosmic study 'underestimated' dust

One of the biggest scientific claims of the year has received another set-back.

In March, the US BICEP team said it had found a pattern on the sky left by the rapid expansion of space just fractions of a second after the Big Bang.

The astonishing assertion was countered quickly by others who thought the group may have underestimated the confounding effects of dust in our own galaxy.

That explanation has now been boosted by a new analysis from the European Space Agency's (Esa) Planck satellite.

In a paper published on the arXiv pre-print server, Planck's researchers find that the part of the sky being observed by the BICEP team contained significantly more dust than it had assumed.

This new information does not mean the original claim is now dead. Not immediately, anyway.

The BICEP and Planck groups are currently working on a joint assessment of the implications, and this will probably be released towards the end of the year.

However, if the contention is eventually shown to be unsupportable with the available data, it will prove to be a major disappointment, especially after all the initial excitement and talk of Nobel Prizes.

What BICEP claimed to have done was find the long sought evidence for ' cosmic inflation'.

This is the idea that the Universe experienced an exponential growth spurt in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

The theory was developed to help explain why deep space looks the same on all sides of the sky - the notion being that a very rapid expansion in the earliest moments could have smoothed out any unevenness.

Inflation makes a very specific prediction - that it would have been accompanied by waves of gravitational energy, and that these ripples in the fabric of space-time would leave an indelible mark on the 'oldest light' in the sky - the famous Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

The BICEP team said its telescope at the South Pole had detected just such a signal.

It is called B-mode polarisation and takes the form of a characteristic swirl in the directional properties of the CMB light.

But it is a fiendishly difficult observation to make, in part because the extremely faint B-mode polarisation from nearly 14 billion years ago has to be disentangled from the polarisation being generated today in our Milky Way Galaxy.

The main source of this inconvenient 'noise' is spinning dust grains.

These countless particles become trapped and aligned in the magnetic fields that thread through our galaxy.

As a consequence, these grains also emit their light with a directional quality, and this is capable of swamping any primordial background signal.

The BICEP team's strategy was to target the cleanest part of the sky, over Antarctica, and it used every piece of dust information it could source to do the disentanglement.

What it lacked, however, was access to the dust data being compiled by Europe's Planck satellite, which has mapped the microwave sky at many more frequencies than the American team.

This allows it to more easily characterise the dust and discern its confounding effects.

The Planck report in the arXiv paper details dust polarisation properties across a great swathe of sky at intermediate and high galactic latitudes.

Only a very small portion of those fields is relevant to BICEP, but the results are not encouraging. There is more dust in BICEP's 'southern hole' than anticipated.

The American group had already downgraded confidence in its own result when it finally published a paper on the inflation claim in Physical Review Letters in June.

In the eyes of many commentators, the new Planck analysis will shake that confidence still further.

Planck researchers themselves promise to report back on their own search for a primordial polarisation signal very soon (probably at the same time as the joint paper with BICEP).

The European approach is different to the American one.

Whereas, BICEP is using extremely sensitive detectors to look at a small piece of sky, Planck hopes to make a detection - albeit with lower sensitivity equipment - by looking across the entire sky.

Even if neither tactic turns out to be successful, these groups will have pointed the way for future observations that are planned with superior technology.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Molten metal batteries for the grid

Engineers in the US have invented a battery, made of three molten metals, which could help smooth the power supply from renewable energy sources.

Previous battery designs have largely been too expensive to help store energy on the scale of a national power grid.

The new liquid battery has a negative electrode made of lead, which is cheap and melts easily, mixed with a dash of antimony to boost performance.

This lowers its cost, as well as the heat required to liquefy the metals.

Published in the journal Nature, this latest attempt at a scalable solution for storing electricity is set for commercial demonstrations within a year and has been greeted with enthusiasm by engineers in the UK.

'Sometimes, when the wind is blowing strongly, we have spare capacity available - if only we could store it, so that we could use it when the wind isn't blowing,' explained Prof Ian Fells, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former chair of the New and Renewable Energy Centre.

'Using these molten metal electrodes is, it seems to me, a very good idea,' he told BBC News.

The overall concept for the battery is relatively simple: inside a can there are three layers of very hot liquid, which separate of their own accord - 'like oil and vinegar', according to the project's senior researcher Prof Donald Sadoway, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

'Start Quote

All of these strategies are scientifically possible - it comes down to the cost'

End Quote Prof Ian Fells Royal Academy of Engineering

On the bottom is the very dense mixture of lead and antimony; next comes a 'molten salt electrolyte' - effectively table salt, which is liquid at these temperatures; and finally a layer of lithium floats on top.

When the cell is discharged, all the lithium is actually transferred to the bottom layer. But when electricity is directed into the cell, the lithium is pulled out of the alloy layer and returns to the top.

'It's this back and forth, of the top layer disappearing into the bottom layer to generate electricity, and then reconstituting the top layer by consuming electricity, that gives you the rechargeability of the battery,' Prof Sadoway told the BBC.

The whole set-up has to be kept at some 450C, which is no small feat, but a vast improvement on the 700C required by an earlier design, whose electrodes were magnesium and pure antimony.

When Prof Sadoway's team tested out the cheaper lead-antimony mixture, they expected to be faced with a trade-off.

'We wanted to decrease the operating temperature,' he explained, to improve efficiency. 'We were thinking, we'll take a bit of a compromise on the voltage, if it's offset by an even better compromise on the melting point.'

Battery types for grid-scale storage

  • Redox flow: Rechargeable type of battery that uses two tanks of electrolytes to store energy. The electrolytes are then pumped through a reactor to generate energy

  • Lithium-ion: A type of rechargeable battery in which charged lithium atoms move from the positive electrode to the negative electrode when charging, and back when discharging

  • Sodium-ion: These work in a similar way to lithium-ion batteries, but promise lower costs because sodium is so much more abundant than lithium

  • Liquid metal: Consists of a dense positive liquid metal electrode at the bottom of the battery and a lighter liquid metal electrode floating on top. A molten salt electrolyte lies in-between

In fact, they saw almost no decrease in voltage, even with 82% lead in the mix. They knew they were onto a winner.

'That was the surprise,' Prof Sadoway said.

His team later figured out that the reason behind their pleasant surprise was that the lithium, when it travels to the bottom layer as the battery gets used, seeks out antimony atoms to bond with. So the dilution with lead doesn't interfere with the electricity storage - it just makes the whole set-up much cooler and cheaper.

Field trials

Prof Sadoway said that key finding was 'really, really exciting' because the commercial implications were obvious. Price is the main sticking point, for all the various battery systems that have been proposed (see box).

Prof Fells made the same point: 'All of these strategies are scientifically possible - it comes down to the cost. If people can make the case that this one is economic, then it'll do well.'

Dr Frank Marken, a physical chemist at the University of Bath, was also impressed by the design. 'It's not revolutionary in the idea - but it may be revolutionary in terms of the application,' he said.

The durability of the system was particularly of note, Dr Marken suggested.

'One tricky aspect of this is how much do you lose in each cycle? And what they've done here is very clever. It needs a higher temperature, but they don't lose much energy.'

In fact, the team at MIT put their prototype through 450 full charge cycles - meaning the lithium layer entirely disappeared and then was reinstated, every time - and the battery lost just 15% of its capacity.

Several years ago, Prof Sadoway founded a company called Ambri to commercialise his team's research. That company now hopes to be deploying demonstration units 'within a year', he said.

The first test sites will be at Cape Cod in Massechussetts and in Hawaii, which is a particularly promising market.

'They've got sun, they've got wind, but both of those are intermittent,' Prof Sadoway said. 'We'd like to get some field data from a place like that.'

Follow Jonathan on Twitter

Sunday, September 21, 2014

China overtakes EU on 'per head' CO2

New data on carbon shows that China's emissions per head of population have surpassed the EU for the first time.

The researchers say that India is also forecast to beat Europe's CO2 output in 2019.

Scientists say that global totals are increasing fast and will likely exceed the limit for dangerous climate change within 30 years.

The world has already used up two thirds of the warming gases researchers calculate will breach 2 degrees C.

'Start Quote

We have not accepted that we will not be able to burn all this fuel, the scale of action that is required has not sunk in. '

End Quote Prof Corinne Le Quere University of East Anglia

The Global Carbon Project involves researchers from several different institutes around the world and it provides objective details on the scale of annual emissions.

The latest data shows that a record 36 billion tonnes of carbon from all human sources were emitted in 2013.

The biggest emitters were China, which produced 29% of the total, followed by the US at 15%, the EU at 10% and India at 7.1%

But in an interesting development, China's emissions per head of population exceeding those of the European Union for the first time.

While the per capita average for the world as a whole is 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, China is now producing 7.2 tonnes per person, to the EU's 6.8 tonnes. The US is still far ahead on 16.5 tonnes per person.

'We now see China's per capita emissions surpassing the EU,' said Dr Robbie Andrew, from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway, who was involved in the research.

'They are still nowhere near the US or Australia, but the fact that they have surpassed the EU will be quite surprising to a lot of people.'

Future beats the past

This development will shine an interesting light on global climate negotiations where China has often used its relatively low per capita emissions to argue that it is on the same page as other developing countries, and that restrictions on its use of carbon were not justified.

China's rapid industrialisation over the past 20 years has seen the construction of huge numbers of mainly coal fired power stations.

This build-up means that the emissions that China is committed to in the future, now exceed the total of everything it has emitted to date.

Prof Corinne Le Quere from the University of East Anglia, who is also involved with Carbon Project, said that a significant proportion of China's emissions were in fact, driven by demand from consumers in Europe and the US.

'In China about 20% of their emissions are for producing clothes, furniture even solar panels that are shipped to Europe and America.'

'If you look at the emissions in Europe with that perspective, they would be 30% higher if we accounted for those goods that are produced elsewhere.'

The other major emissions growth is seen in India. In 2013 the country's carbon grew by 5.1%, and it is now on track to overtake the EU in 2019.

'India has enormous problems, if the current government could sort out the issues with toilets that would an enormous achievement,' said Dr Andrew.

'They have so many things to focus on in that country, to ask them to pull back on emissions, is a big problem.'

For 2014, the carbon record is likely to be broken again as emissions are likely to hit 40bn tonnes, 65% above 1990 levels.

The researchers involved say the recent rise is due to the global economic recovery combined with a lower than expected increases in carbon intensity, especially in the developing world.

The scientists have calculated that to have a good chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees C, total emissions of carbon will have stay under 3,200 billion tonnes.

The world has about 1,200 billion tonnes left, but the latest data shows that there is a now a declining chance of now staying below the 2 degree target.

'The global emissions are continuing to increase at an incredible rate,' said Prof Le Quere.

'In about 30 years we will have used up the remaining quota, that's extremely rapidly, that's to have a 66% chance to remain below 2 degrees.'

The researchers say that existing reserves of oil, gas and coal exceed the 2 degrees target. Prof Le Quere says that this message has not been understood by politicians.

'We have not accepted that we will not be able to burn all this fuel, the scale of action that is required has not sunk in.'

The new research comes as 125 heads of state and government are set to meet at the UN in New York to discuss climate change.

UN Secretary General has asked global leaders to come to the UN next week and to bring commitments with them to tackle the issue.

The meeting is meant to kick start the process to a new global deal that will be agreed in Paris at the end of 2015. According to the scientists, the politicians have a long way to go, if they are to prevent the world breaching the 2 degree target.

'China and India are doing exactly the same as other countries,' said Prof Le Quere.

'I really think we need to show leadership in the way we use energy in rich countries so that others can follow different pathways to development. At the moment we don't see any countries that have that leadership.'

Details of the studies dealing with the Global Carbon Project have been published in the journals, Nature Climate change, and Nature Geoscience.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

Global protests over climate change

Protests in many countries to demand urgent action on climate change have kicked off, with over 2,000 marches taking place around the world.

The People's Climate March has been organised to call for action to curb carbon emissions ahead of the UN climate summit in New York next week.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Australia while protests are also getting under way in Europe.

The climax will be a march in New York, attended by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

He will join thousands of people on the streets of Manhattan, including business leaders, environmentalists and celebrities.

Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio will also attend, having been appointed as a UN representative on climate change last week.

In Australia, organisers said up to 20,000 people had turned out in Melbourne to call on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to do more to tackle climate change.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney says protesters fear Australia faces more severe droughts, bushfires and storms unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

'An everybody issue'

Later on Sunday, about 100,000 people are expected to take to the streets in New York.

Organisers of the rally in Manhattan said the massive mobilisation is aimed at transforming climate change 'from an environmental concern to an 'everybody issue.''

On Tuesday, the UN will host a climate summit at its headquarters in New York with 125 heads of state and government - the first such gathering since the unsuccessful climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

Mr Ban, the UN's Secretary General, hopes leaders can make progress on a universal agreement to be signed by all nations at the end of 2015.

He said he would 'link arms with those marching for climate action' to show that the UN stands 'with them on the right side of this key issue for our common future.'

The New York rally is part of a global protest that includes events in 161 countries - Afghanistan, the UK and Italy among them.

Mars Maven mission set for arrival

The US space agency's (Nasa) latest Mars satellite is set to arrive in orbit above the planet on Monday (GMT).

Hurtling through space for the past 10 months, the Maven craft must slam on the brakes by firing its thrusters.

The 33-minute burn should remove sufficient speed to allow the satellite to be captured by Mars' gravity.

Maven has been sent to study the Red Planet's high atmosphere, to try to understand the processes that have robbed the world of most of its air.

Today, the air pressure is so low that free water at the surface would instantly boil away.

Maven's data will enable scientists to build better models of current and past climate conditions on Mars.

'Previous spacecraft have made measurements and we've learned a lot about the upper-atmosphere, but we haven't been able to put the whole end-to-end picture together,' said principal investigator Bruce Jakosky.

'I'm hoping Maven will be a mission of discovery, that almost everything we observe will lead us to fundamental new insights about the Mars environment today and how it has evolved over time,' the University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher added.

The American probe's arrival will be followed 48 hours later by India's first satellite to the Red Planet.

The Mars Orbiter Mission, informally known as Mangalyaan, has slightly different objectives.

But one important atmospheric study it will try to make is an observation of methane - a potential indicator of biological activity on the planet.

'Nasa is really quite interested in cooperating and correlating data-sets,' said Dr Jim Green, Nasa's director of planetary science.

'As both spacecraft get into orbit and the scientists understand their data, those opportunities will open up.'

Monday's big manoeuvre on Maven's engines will place the satellite in a high, elliptical, 35-hour orbit around the planet.

Confirmation of capture should be received on Earth shortly after 0220 GMT (2220 EDT Sunday; 0320 BST).

'We should have a preliminary answer within just a few minutes after the end of the burn,' said Prof Jakosky.

In the coming weeks, engineers will then work to bring Maven into a regular 4.5-hour, operational orbit that takes the probe as close as 150km to Mars but also sends it out to 6,200km.

These first few weeks will also be used to commission and test the instrument packages on board.

The present-day atmosphere of Mars, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, is extremely thin, with atmospheric pressure at the surface just 0.6% of the Earth's surface pressure.

The Martian landscape, though, retains channels that were evidently cut by abundant, flowing water - proof that the planet had a much denser atmosphere in the past.

Some of the air would certainly have reacted with, and been incorporated into, minerals at the surface.

But the most likely explanation for its loss is that the solar wind - the great outflow of energetic particles from the Sun - has simply eroded it through time.

This has been possible because, unlike Earth, the Red Planet lacks a protective global magnetic field, which is capable of deflecting the abrasive assault from our star.

Some of Maven's instruments will concentrate on the Sun's influence, looking at how much energy it puts into the planet and its atmosphere.

Others instruments will investigate the composition and behaviour of the atmosphere itself, and this will involve some 'deep dip' manoeuvres that take Maven closer to Mars' surface so it can sample air molecules directly.

The intention is to measure the rates at which these different molecules are being lost today, distinguishing between the various processes responsible.

Scientists will use this information to get some insights into the history of the Martian climate - from the time billions of years ago when it was warmer and wetter, and potentially habitable to life, to the present environment which is cold and desiccated.

Important inputs will come from Nasa's Curiosity rover, which is studying the bottom of the atmosphere.

Its onboard lab equipment regularly analyses Martian air.

The robot has already used the concentration of argon to show an enrichment of the heavier form of this element has occurred through geological history.

It is evidence that lighter argon atoms have been lost preferentially from the top of the atmosphere.

Comet opportunity

An early demonstration of Maven's capabilities will come in October when Comet Siding Spring makes a close pass of Mars.

This is likely to dump a lot of dust on the planet.

'If significant amounts of dust hit the upper-atmosphere, we'll see increases in the temperature... and it will expand,' said Prof Jakosky.

'In addition, the water from the comet that hits the upper-atmosphere will begin to populate it with an extra set of molecules.

'We'll look at this perturbation, with the addition of energy and matter, and then see how long it takes to decay away.

'That will tell us about the physical processes that are operating in the upper-atmosphere today.'

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Saturday, September 20, 2014

UN chief on streets for climate deal

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and actor Leonardo di Caprio will join thousands in a march for climate action in New York on Sunday.

The Manhattan demonstration is part of a global protest, with over 2,000 marches taking place around the world.

Mr Ban will also tackle the issue with 125 heads of state and government on Tuesday at UN headquarters.

It will be the first such gathering since the unsuccessful Copenhagen conference in 2009.

The meeting will attempt to push forward political momentum towards a new universal agreement on climate to be signed by all nations at the end of 2015.

'Linking arms'

To maintain pressure on the political leaders, the People's Climate March has been carefully organised to show that there is popular support for action to curb carbon emissions.

Speaking before the event Mr Ban said he wanted to take part to show he supported the need for rapid action.

'I will link arms with those marching for climate action,' he told a news conference.

'We stand with them on the right side of this key issue for our common future.'

Joining him will be the Wolf of Wall Street star, who has recently been appointed a UN Messenger of Peace with special responsibility for climate change.

Mr Di Caprio tweeted at the time that he was 'honoured to accept at this key moment'.

In New York, the march will also be attended by former Vice President Al Gore and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

It will feature thousands of colourful displays of art, all designed to enhance an intended narrative that the time for dithering is over.

'I think at this point everyone around the world is feeling the urgency and our institutions are behind the curve,' said Gal Golan, one of the artists working on the march.

'This moment becomes crucial for asserting that action is necessary immediately, and we have very limited time to make changes to avoid unprecedented levels of catastrophe.'

Explaining why the UN secretary general was taking part, Mary Robinson, former UN special envoy, explained: 'I think the Secretary General recognises that this is for everyone, and it is important that in every country civil society comes out and puts pressure on their leaders to make the changes necessary so that we will have a safe world.

'He doesn't see the marchers as them and the insiders as being an us, rather he sees the two as part of building a momentum, it is civil society asking their leaders to be more ambitious.'

The artists are being joined by a diverse range of people including scientists, religious leaders, and farmers. Also in attendance will be survivors of Tropical Storm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, as well as indigenous tribes from South America and elsewhere.

Organisers have spent six months preparing the protests in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Lagos, London and Rio where the famous statue of Christ will be turned green.

They believe that a huge global turnout can't be ignored by the heads of state and government that will convene at UN headquarters on Tuesday.

'The march is incredibly important, because it will help draw policy makers and corporate leaders' attention to the importance of climate change, including the need to adapt to climate change,' said Dr Jessica Hellmann, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

'The march demands that government grow its commitment to adaptation. The diversity of people participating in the climate change march all around the world, sends a strong message that everyone is affected by climate change.'

Mr Ban has asked that the political leaders come to UN headquarters bearing pledges of action. He wants to hear commitments to cut carbon and offers of finance for those most affected.

It remains to be seen how significant these will be.

The leaders of China, India, Australia, Russia and Canada won't be here. Observers believe the meeting can still achieve political momentum. After all, there will be more leaders in New York than in Copenhagen in 2009 when hopes of a last minute deal were dashed in confused and rancorous discussions.

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