Star on collision course

There is a high probability our solar system will feel the effect of a close encounter from a nearby star, according to a new study.

The star, known as Gliese 710, could disrupt planetary orbits and send a shower of comets and asteroids towards the inner planets when it passes in 1.5 million years time.

Dr Vadim Bobylev of the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in St Petersburg is the author of the study, which appears on the prepress website arXiv and has been submitted to the journal Astronomy Letters.

He estimates that the likelihood of an impact between Gliese 710 and the outer edge of our solar system to be as high as 86%.

"That's about as close to certainty as this kind of data can get."

Bobylev bases his calculations on data collected by the European Space Agency's Hipparcos spacecraft.

Measurements made by the spacecraft were used to create the Hipparcos catalogue, which contains detailed position and velocity measurements of 100,000 stars in our neighbourhood.


Australian scientists say they have uncovered a "causal link" between the early emergence of a common butterfly and human-induced global warming.

Dr Michael Kearney of the University of Melbourne and colleagues report their study on the butterfly Heteronympha merope in this week's issue of Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

"It's now coming out about 10 days earlier than it was 60 years ago," says Kearney.

"When you look at the air temperatures over that time, it's getting warmer."

Kearney says the local Wurundjeri Aboriginal people have traditionally defined one of their seasons as beginning when they see the male of the common brown butterfly on the wing.

"That part of their calendar would be shifted 10 days earlier," he says.

Kearney says that while previous studies have found a correlation between global warming and animals coming out earlier in spring, this study is the first to provide evidence of a causal link between this phenomenon and human-induced global warming.

He says, his team has carried out laboratory experiments to quantify the physiological effect of rising temperatures on butterflies and has also shown the measured temperature increases are not due to natural climatic variation.

"It's causal all the way through," says Kearney.

Cosmic Rosetta Stone

Located about 1,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens, the planet Corot-9b passes in front of its star every 95 days, as viewed from Earth. Each of these "transits" lasts about eight hours.

When Corot-9b is positioned between its star and Earth, some of the light from its star passes through the exoplanet's atmosphere before continuing on to our planet.

By studying this filtered starlight, astronomers may be able to determine what molecules make up Corot-9b's atmosphere.

If that's the case, Corot-9b could become a "Rosetta stone" for exoplanet research, said study co-author Claire Moutou of the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseilles in France, referring to the artifact that helped decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

(Related: "Distant Planet Mapped for First Time, "Hot Jupiter" Features Fierce Winds.")

"We hope that when we can investigate this planet, it will have characteristics which are close to other giant gas planets outside our solar system," Moutou said.

That's because Corot-9b's physical properties are thought to be representative of many gas giant exoplanets in our galaxy. So studying Corot-9b in detail could shed light on worlds that do not transit, and thus are impossible for astronomers to research.

Dinosaur extinction caused by asteroid: study

A new study has confirmed an asteroid impact ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The finding by an international team of 41 researchers is published today in the journal Science.

Fossil records clearly show a mass extinction event across the planet 65 million years ago, in which 70% of known species suddenly vanished.

The change is so dramatic, geologists use it to define the boundary, between the end of the Cretaceous and the start of the Palaeogene periods, as the K-T boundary event.

The idea that an asteroid was responsible for the end of the age of the dinosaurs was first proposed 30 years.

The first clue was the discovery of large amounts of the element iridium - rare on Earth, but common in meteorites and asteroids - appearing in a layer across the globe at the time of the K-T boundary event.
Smoking gun

In 1991, the discovery of a 200-kilometre wide impact crater at Chicxulub on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula provided what many scientists believe is the 'smoking gun' supporting the asteroid impact theory.

But some scientists challenge this hypothesis, suggesting deposits of tiny glass-like blobs of melted impact material around Chicxulub, predate the extinction event by 300,000 years.

They suggest the Deccan Traps, unusually active volcanoes in what is now India, led to global cooling and acid rain, which caused the mass extinction.

Mysterious "Dragons" Make Universe's Gamma Ray Fog

If ancient mariners were mapping the universe, the gamma ray fog that fills the cosmos would now be marked with a warning: Here be dragons.

That's the conclusion of a new study of the fog, which found that the source of the high-energy radiation is even more of a mystery than anticipated.

Previously, scientists had surmised that most if not all of the fog's gamma rays are being created by powerful galaxies with active supermassive black holes at their hearts.

Active black holes spew jets of particles traveling at nearly the speed of light. When these high-speed particles slam into ambient gases, gamma rays are born and go zipping in all directions through interstellar space.

But with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, scientists now have a way to measure the contribution of black hole jets directly.

"And it turns out to be only 30 percent at most," astrophysicist Marco Ajello, of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology in California, said today at a press briefing.

That means no one knows where the rest of the fog's gamma rays are coming from, and for now there's no obvious candidate in sight. Taking a cue from medieval mapmakers, the Fermi team has dubbed the unknown gamma ray sources dragons.

Gamma Ray Mapping

Gamma rays are the most energetic forms of light. In space the rays are produced by violent events, such as supernovae, and by high-energy sources such as neutron stars, pulsars, and active black holes.

A gamma ray burst from a supernova, for example, can unleash more energy in just ten seconds than the sun will over its ten-billion-year lifetime. (Related: "Gamma Ray Burst Caused Mass Extinction?")

In the late 1960s orbiting observatories began revealing a ubiquitous background of gamma rays permeating the universe. Today, scientists looking at the sky with "gamma-ray vision" see a blanket of light bisected by the galactic plane, with brighter spots marking various gamma ray sources.

Mars Streaks, Cosmic Web, More

Like strokes from a giant brush, dark streaks decorate the wall of a trough in the Acheron Fossae region of Mars, which lies about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of the huge volcano Olympus Mons. Released February 24, 2010, the picture is among the latest from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter program.

Such streaks are thought to be evidence of one of the only geologic processes currently active on the red planet. Scientists think the streaks form when dry sand or fine-grained dust flows down a slope like an avalanche, exposing darker material underneath.

Asteroid terminated dinosaur era in a matter of days

The cataclysmic extinction of that time was not caused by massive volcanic activity, as another theory has suggested, according to the new analysis, published today in the journal Science.

A panel of 41 experts from Europe, the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Japan analyzed new data from ocean drilling and continental sites and reviewed the research of palaeontologists, geochemists, climate modelers, geophysicists and sedimentologists who have been collecting evidence over the last 20 years to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) extinction, which happened around 65 million years ago.
"They find that alternative hypotheses are inadequate to explain the abrupt mass extinction and that the impact hypothesis has grown stronger than ever," the University of Texas at Austin said in a news statement.

"Today's review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid slamming into Earth at Chicxulub (pronounced chick- shoo-loob) in Mexico," said Imperial College London, in a separate statement.

Scientists from both institutions participated in the study.

The KT extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, birdlike pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth, Imperial College added in its release.

Gamma Rays a Flight Risk?

Airplane passengers flying near thunderstorms could be exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation in the form of terrestrial gamma ray flashes, scientists say.

In space gamma rays—the most energetic forms of light—are created by violent events, such as supernovae, and powerful objects, such as neutron stars.

Scientists have known for decades that thunderstorms on Earth can also create gamma rays, possibly during lightning production. Storms that make gamma rays usually hover about 9 miles (15 kilometers) above Earth, about the same altitude at which many commercial planes fly.

The new study shows that just one of these terrestrial gamma ray flashes, or TGFs, can equal the radiation dosage of about 400 chest x-rays—creating potential hazards for frequent flyers. (Related: "Gamma Ray Burst Caused Mass Extinction?")

In theory, stray gamma rays can alter the structure of human DNA, possibly triggering cancer.

Still, much is unknown about TGFs, including how likely it is for an airplane to fly close to gamma ray sources in storms, noted study co-author Joseph Dwyer, a space scientist at the Florida Institute of Technology.

"I would put this pretty far down on the list [of airplane hazards]," Dwyer said. "I've worked a lot on this, and I would not hesitate to hop on an airplane and fly with my kids across the country."

In fact, people are probably at bigger risk just driving their cars, said Brant Carlson, a TGF expert at Stanford University in California.

"I would say this is a very, very unlikely event, much less likely than many other flight hazards, or the hazards involved in getting to the airport in the first place," said Carlson, who was not involved in the study.

Gamma Ray Strobe Lights

Terrestrial gamma ray flashes were accidentally discovered in the 1990s, when space telescopes designed to study cosmic gamma ray sources began detecting unexpected gamma rays coming from the direction of Earth. (Related: "Mysterious 'Dragons' Make Universe's Gamma Ray Fog.")

Unlike cosmic gamma ray bursts, which typically last a few seconds, TFGs last only about one to two milliseconds.

"That's how you can recognize them immediately" as Earth-based, rather than cosmic, gamma rays, study co-author Dwyer said.

"You can think of a cosmic gamma ray burst as someone switching on a light, leaving it on for a bit, and turning it off. A terrestrial gamma ray flash is more like a strobe light—very brief and very bright." (See a picture of a gamma ray burst in space that was visible to the naked eye.)

The amount of danger TGFs pose to airplane travelers is still unknown, because scientists aren't sure exactly where TGFs originate inside a thundercloud or how big the TGF formation regions are.

"If [the source region] is big, it's more diffuse, and you don't get as many gamma rays hitting you," Dwyer said. "If it's compact, the dose is more concentrated."

Also, if TGFs originate near the tops of thunderclouds and propagate upward, airline passengers cruising below the clouds should be safe.

Puffed-up planets are heated like toast

A PLANET-sized version of an electric toaster could explain why some exoplanets get so large. A related phenomenon could be responsible for keeping in check the gusting winds that form the stripes of Jupiter.

More than 150 planets have been found orbiting closer to their host stars than Mercury is to the sun. Many of these star-hugging gas giants - known as "hot Jupiters" because they can have surface temperatures of 2000 °C or more - have a similar mass to Jupiter but can have up to six times the volume.

Something must be heating the interior of these planets to make them puff up in this way - but what? Radiation from the host star can't be the source, as most of it is reradiated into space from gas at the surface.

Gravitational heating effects might work for planets with elongated orbits. The ever-changing gravitational tug of the host star on the orbiting planet would create friction by flexing its interior, possibly generating enough heat to cause the expansion we see. But this mechanism can't explain how some planets with a circular orbit - such as TrES-4, which is less massive than Jupiter but 1.8 times as wide - get to be so large.

Will the anaconda or the oyster rule wave power?

FROM giant hydraulic oysters that sit on the sea floor, to long rubber snakes that writhe in the ocean swell, there's no shortage of creatures designed to harness the power of the waves. If wave power is to emerge as a viable form of green energy, we need to put them to the test and only the most reliable can expect to survive.

While there's a veritable menagerie of strange beasts taking to the sea, most of them can expect a humdrum life, says John Chaplin, a marine engineer at the University of Southampton in the UK. "The fundamental problem facing wave-power devices is that most of the time the water is moving with rather low velocities," he says.

Just as wind turbines grind to a halt on a quiet day, wave power machines generate little power in quiescent conditions. That's the challenge for wave power - how to extract energy from lifeless waters. "Such a wide-open brief has led to an enormous range of inventions," says Chaplin.

Budding wave-power designers are getting ample opportunity to find ways to turn gently bobbing waves into energy, with new projects hitting the water with metronomic regularity. For example, last month, New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies confirmed it was to start work on a project to deploy 10 of its PowerBuoy machines 4 kilometres off the coast of Reedsport, Oregon. They ride on the surface, converting the up-and-down motion of the waves into electrical power.

This project and others like it will add to the growing throng of wave-power systems already in the water.

Martian moon's secrets to be revealed during fly-bys

The deepest secrets of Mars's moon Phobos are set to be revealed, following a series of 12 fly-bys by Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. Six have been completed, including the closest ever pass of the moon, at 67 km, last week.

The flights will probe the moon's gravity better than ever before, revealing the distribution of material throughout its body. The MARSIS radar will also search for underground structures in the rubbly moon, which is probably riddled with caverns.

The gravity data will help Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission, set to launch in 2011 or 2012, manoeuvre efficiently around the moon before coming in for a landing.

New portraits of Phobos are also on the way. "Until now, the encounters have been on the [moon's] nightside," says ESA's project scientist Olivier Witasse. "This week we switch to flying by the daylight side, allowing the camera and spectrometers to begin working." That will give the moon's composition, testing the idea that Phobos formed from rocks that somehow found themselves orbiting the planetMovie Camera.

Unfortunately, a 90-metre-high rocky outcrop called the 'monolith' is not visible to Mars Express during this series of fly-bys. The monolith could be a piece of Phobos's interior thrown to the surface during the formation of a crater. It was first spotted in 1999, on images taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor probe.

Why chameleons are the only lizards that eat breakfast

A chilly, sluggish chameleon can still deliver a good tongue-lashing. High-speed video images show the lizards can catch prey with their rubber band-like tongues equally well whether their body temperature is a cool 15 °C or a warmer 35 °C.

Cold-blooded animals are typically less active – with a corresponding decline in hunting performance – when temperatures drop. Not so for chameleons. Chris Anderson and Stephen Deban of the University of South Florida in Tampa filmed veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus, pictured) catching prey at different temperatures. They found the muscles that coil the tongue into a spring-loaded structure were slower to contract at low temperatures. But once loaded, the tongue uncoils equally fast in warm and cool climes.

"This allows chameleons to take advantage of feeding opportunities early in the morning when they have not yet been able to elevate their core body temperature," says Anderson.

The projectile tongue's secret is coiled collagen. Muscle spring-loads the collagen, which, unlike muscle, is not slowed by cooler temperatures. "So while a cold chameleon can catch prey just as fast as a warm one, it takes a lot longer to deliver this meal to the mouth," says Ulrike Müller of California State University in Fresno.

Nanotube cuff is 'solar cell' for exhaust pipes

The hot gases passing through a vehicle's exhaust could be tapped to generate power, using "cuffs" made from a new carbon-nanotube-based material. The "thermocell" produces electricity at a similar cost per watt as commercial solar cells.

All around us there are opportunities to soak up wasted heat and convert it into electricity, says Ray Baughman who works on thermocells with colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas. Car exhaust pipes and power stations are just two forms of technology that waste a lot of heat and could be improved by building thermocells into their designs to recover lost energy.

However, to date the most effective thermocells have been based around expensive platinum electrodes, making them impractical. Baughman and colleagues have now shown that cheaper carbon nanotubes can be used instead, because the nanotubes pack a huge surface area into a tiny volume, and electrons transfer quickly between the electrolyte and nanotube electrodes. They have made thermocells three times as efficient as any before.
The basic design is simple. Each thermocell contains two electrodes, positioned at either end of a temperature gradient: for example, one right next to a hot pipe and the other closer to the surrounding cooler air.

In between is a chemical mix, in which the heat encourages chemical reactions that push electrons around an external circuit. Ions in the mix shed electrons at the hotter electrode and pick up electrons at the cooler one to complete the circuit.

One of the team's thermocell designs is intended to be wrapped around a hot pipe, inspired by the fact that heat leaks out from such structures in many situations, such as chemical factories and power plants. "You could harvest energy from the tailpipe of a car," adds Baughman.

Extermination in paradise

AS ISLANDS go, you would be hard pressed to find one more remote. Deep in the southern Atlantic Ocean sits South Georgia, a haven for wildlife in the midst of ferocious seas. Over 30 million birds of 31 species breed here and a further 50 species have been spotted. It is home to grey-headed albatrosses, northern giant petrels, white chinned petrels, Antarctic prions, half of the entire population of macaroni penguins and most of the planet's population of the South Georgia blue-eyed shag.

But it is not as idyllic as it sounds. Under the surface lurks a menace that is slowly ripping the ecosystem apart: rats.

The rodents were stowaways on sealing and whaling ships that visited the island until the mid-20th century. When the hunters stopped coming, the rats were left to their own devices along with a small population of reindeer that had been brought for food and now roam wild. Without natural predators, the rat population has swollen to many million, eating their way through tens of millions of ground-nesting birds' eggs and chicks in the process. As a result, the island's endemic wildlife is under threat, and its only songbird, the South Georgia pipit, is on the brink of extinction.

Now the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) is going to fight back. In what will be the largest mass extermination ever attempted, the SGHT plans to poison every rat on the island. "The difference between success and failure is the survival of two rats on the entire island," says Tony Martin, project manager of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Programme. "We don't have to get rid of most or even 99.9 per cent of the rats - we have to eradicate 100 per cent."

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Happiness linked to healthy heart

New research shows that people who are cheery are less likely to develop heart disease than those who are down in the dumps.

There's been speculation that people with a positive attitude have stronger hearts.

The Canadian scientists say their decade-long study, which is published in the European Heart Journal, has produced the first objective data to support the belief.

Psychiatrist Dr Karina Davidson, who is now working at Columbia University in New York, began the study more than 10 years ago.

Her team filmed interviews with more than 1700 people in Nova Scotia, Canada.

"We asked them about daily hassles, their daily routine, hypotheticals, what they do in certain situations and then the video tapes were coded for the amount of positive emotions or positive affect that was expressed," says Davidson.

The scientists tracked the people for a decade and at the end found those who had shown the most happiness and satisfaction were less likely to have had a heart attack.

"The very happiest people were quite protected from heart disease," says Davidson. "Those who showed moderate amount were somewhat protected and those who showed none at all were at increased risk."

She says the study revealed a positive attitude reduces the risk of heart disease by 22%.

Humble algae key to whale evolution

A type of algae, called diatoms, have been key to the evolution of the diversity of whales, according to a new study.

The research by Felix Marx of the University of Otago in New Zealand and Dr Mark Uhen of George Mason University in the US is published today in the journal Science.

"The fossil record clearly shows that diatoms and whales rose and fell in diversity together," says Marx, whose research was part of a PhD project under the supervision of Associate Professor Ewan Sordyce.

Marx and Uhen looked at the diversity of dolphins and whales (cetaceans) in the fossil record dating back 30 million years.

They then compared this with records of climate change and estimates of various food sources in the ocean.

Marx and Uhen measured the abundance of two different types of algae: nanoplankton and diatoms, which are key "primary producers" of the ocean - converting sunlight into food.

They found diatoms were the key to cetacean diversity: The greater the diversity of diatoms found in the fossil record [a proxy for diatom abundance] the greater the diversity in species of whales and dolphins, says Marx.

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Cosmic candles result of colliding stars

For decades astronomers have gauged the breadth of the universe using a measuring stick made of embarrassingly mysterious stuff - but no longer.

Researchers have taken an x-ray look at the universe's most common and useful sort of exploding stars, type 1a supernova, and have found these 'standard candles' used to fix the distance of objects in the universe, are caused by the merger of two small dead stars called white dwarfs.

For some time there have been two most likely scenarios for what is causing these most generic explosions in the universe.

One hypothesis involves the merging of two white dwarfs, while the other sees a white dwarf stealing material from a Sun-like companion star, and the accumulating material causes the dwarf to become unstable and explode.

Figuring out exactly which is more common, and where, is essential for fine-tuning cosmic distances.

"For almost three decades astrophysicists have been arguing about this," says Marat Gilfanov of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

Gilfanov is the lead author of a paper in a recent issue of the journal Nature reporting the first direct evidence of the merger hypothesis being the most common.

Their evidence comes in the form of what Chandra x-ray telescope scientist Peter Edmonds calls the missing "x-ray fuse."

Flightless mosquitoes may curb dengue

Genetically altered mosquitoes that cannot fly may help slow the spread of dengue fever and could be a harmless alternative to chemical insecticides, according to scientists.

The team from the US and United Kingdom genetically altered mosquitoes to produce flightless females. They say spreading these defective mosquitoes could suppress native, disease-spreading mosquitoes within six to nine months.

There is no vaccine or treatment for dengue fever, which is endemic in the tropics and is particularly prevalent in Asia and the western Pacific. The disease, which causes severe flu-like symptoms and can kill, is spread through the bite of infected female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

"This could be the first in a new wave of products that might supplant insecticides," says researcher Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine.

There are an estimated 50 million cases of dengue fever each year and about 2.5 billion people - two-fifths of the world's population - are at risk, mostly in Africa and southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization.

Legal team hack Xbox memory for defence evidence

LEAVING a software vulnerability unpatched can give hackers a way to seize control of your computer. Such vulnerabilities can also be useful if you're in the digital forensics business.

So say Chris Hargreaves and Joe Rabaiotti at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, UK. They have found a way to use vulnerabilities to tease forensic evidence out of games consoles, smartphones and e-books, where access to the inner workings is restricted by the manufacturer.

In 2009, they were hired as investigators by a legal team appealing against the conviction of a vendor of so-called "modchips" for the Microsoft Xbox. Because these chips enable the console to run pirated games, the vendor was ruled to have broken copyright laws. The defence team thought that analysis of a "modded" console's random access memory (RAM) might reveal whether copyright laws had been breached.

But the Xbox is a "closed ecosystem", says Rabaiotti, so you cannot run the analytical tools used for forensic investigations into, say, desktop PCs. So how could they get a peek at its RAM? Microsoft could not help because, as the maker of Xbox, it was working with the prosecution.
Then inspiration struck. The pair knew the Xbox could be modified to run the Linux operating system, and also that the first edition of an Xbox game called MechAssault has a vulnerability called a buffer overflow, which allows new sets of instructions to be run when inserted into the game's code.

Inside the biggest tornado hunt in history

It's mid-afternoon and I am sitting with a group of researchers in a dusty parking lot in north-west Nebraska. There's a growing buzz of excitement as equipment is checked one last time and then we set off. Finally, we are about to catch a glimpse of what we have been hunting for weeks: a tornado.

I have joined the biggest tornado hunt in history. The two-year, $12 million project, called Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, or VORTEX2, began on 10 May with the aim of recording, for the first time, the entire life cycle of a tornado. A team of more than 100 researchers has assembled an unprecedented variety of instruments which it hopes will force tornadoes to give up their secrets. Until today, though, things had not gone to plan.

Over the last three-and-a-half weeks, this nomadic tribe has travelled almost 10,000 kilometres, through six states of America's Midwest, searching for signs of supercells, the huge thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes. They'd had no luck, though. Each time the 40 vehicle convoy reached a promising area, either nothing developed or they arrived just in time to watch the storm fade away.

This is in stark contrast to 2008 - one of the most violent years on record, when 1691 tornadoes killed over 120 people. Tornado reports for 2009 are down 75 per cent, and the team is getting desperate. Morale-boosting pep talks, practice instrument deployments plus the odd hour of relaxing down time have helped keep the researchers ready for their big moment. And now it has arrived.

Cautious response to technology strategy

Unions, consumer and environment groups have greeted a new Australian government plan for handling controversial developments such as nanotechnology, with caution.

The National Enabling Technologies Strategy, released this week, allocates around $38 million over four years "to guide the safe development of new technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology."

"It's important for Australia to take advantage of new technologies as they arise," says Peter Chesworth, from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

"[But] it's very important that this isn't done to the exclusion of health, safety and the environment."

The new strategy will establish a Stakeholder Advisory Council to advise government.

"When it comes to issues such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, there is a diverse set of views out there. We want to set up this group to enable a broad range of views to be heard," says Chesworth.
'Fair dinkum?'

Critics have welcomed the stakeholder council but are concerned about its role given it will only meet twice a year.

"You wonder therefore how fair dinkum are they about that group having a genuine input into this entire process," says Geoff Fary from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Georgia Miller of the Friends of the Earth Nanotechnology Project says the strategy does not state to whom the stakeholder council will report.

"It wasn't made clear to what extent its feedback is going to inform strategy development," she says.

Consumer group Choice says the strategy has some "good intentions", but wants to wait and see what happens.

"The government is saying they will consult stakeholders widely so we're hoping that's fully fledged engagement and not just telling us what they're doing," says Kate Norris of Choice.

Chesworth says the stakeholder council will report to the enabling technologies section of the industry department, which will then pass the advice onto the minister.

He says the decision to have twice-yearly meeting was to make sure meetings had a full agenda, but this schedule might be revisted.

Nanowire RAM to make ever-ready computers

Nanowires could be used to significantly boost conventional RAM, resulting in computers that are ready the minute you turn them on, and don't lose data when the power fails, says a US researcher.

Dr Stuart Parkin, an IBM research fellow based in San Jose presents his research on "racetrack memory" this week at the International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Sydney.

"You would never have to save your data or reboot your computer," says Parkin.

Current computers use solid state RAM to process data, but store data as magnetised regions on a hard disk drive.

The problem is, says Parkin, while hard disks are relatively economical, they are slow and unreliable.

It takes time for the disk to rotate to a point where data can be read or written. This is one of the reasons why it can be slow for a computer to boot up, as it loads the software from the hard disk into the RAM.

The reading and writing gadget can also crash the disk causing catastrophic damage, and if the power fails, information in the RAM that has not been saved to the hard disk is lost.
Two in one

Parkin says racetrack memory would combine the low cost of a hard drive with the reliability and speed of RAM in a single solid-state device. The result is RAM that is 100 times larger than currently available.

All data would be stored instantaneously so it is not lost when power is removed from the computer, he says.

"We're going to replace both the storage and the memory, if we're successful, with this one technology," says Parkin.

"You will then have a homogeneous technology where you can store the data but you can also perform computations on the data because it's so fast and doesn't wear out like the cheap memories today, like flash [memory used in USB sticks]."

Parkin says racetrack memory would make computers, simpler, smaller, more reliable, and more energy efficient as well as giving them much faster access to stored data.

There's iron in them thar Martian hills

Future Martian explorers should find it easier to locate minerals deposits on Mars thanks to a team of Australian researchers.

The study, which appears in the journal Planetary and Space Science, could also help in the search for life on the red planet.

Michael West of the Australian National University and Dr Jonathan Clarke of University of New South Wales say while there is mineral wealth on Mars, it won't be easy to access.

"The bulk of the elements you would require if you want to have long term settlements could be found on Mars," says West. "[But] it's unlikely in the near term that we're going to see large-scale mining operations on the surface of Mars"

According to West, the most plentiful mineral on Mars is iron, reflected by the colour of the planet's 'rusted' red surface.

He says, several years ago NASA's Opportunity rover discovered ball-bearing shaped deposits of haematite congregations - nicknamed 'blueberries'- which are rich in iron.

"The beauty of those is that you can extract them with a vacuum cleaner."

Shell Crusher' shark swam ancient oceans

Palaeontologists in the US have identified the remains of a gigantic, prehistoric shark nicknamed the 'shell crusher', which pulverised shelled animals with its 1000 teeth.

A handful of other fossils for the shark, Ptychodus mortoni, had been previously found, hinting that the species was extremely big.

The new discoveries, dated to be 88.7-million-year-old, support that contention and reveal the shark likely grew to at least 10 metres in length and chomped on its prey with its metre-long jaw.

Its specialised teeth were just as impressive as its body size.

"Unlike 'conventional sharks,' Ptychodus mortoni possessed pavement-like upper and lower dental plates consisting of juxtaposed rows of massive teeth suited for crushing," says lead author Dr Kenshu Shimada, a research associate in palaeontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

"The shark could have practiced suction feeding, but larger prey, such as giant clams, would have required the shark to pick them up directly with its mouth from the bottom of the ocean floor," adds Shimada, who is also an associate professor in the Environmental Science Program and Department of Biological Sciences at DePaul University.

His team identified a portion of a right upper jaw, 19 teeth and multiple oral and dermal scales for the shark, now housed at the Sternberg Museum. The scientists originally found the remains embedded in a vertical rock cliff in Kansas called the Fort Hays Limestone.

"It took pretty much the whole day to just extract the fragmentary specimen," says Shimada, "and more skeletal and dental parts of the shark are likely still present deep in the rock that we just simply cannot get to."

For example, the rock may contain additional teeth. This shark is believed to have had 1000 in total, some of which were replacement teeth ready to be used when others fell out.

Star "Eating" Superhot Planet's Atmosphere

One of the hottest known planets outside our solar system is slowly being "eaten" by its parent star, astronomers report.

First described in 2008, the extrasolar planet—or exoplanet—WASP-12b is a Jupiter-like world that orbits its host star so tightly a year lasts just 26 hours.

This closeness means that a combination of heat from the star and from a gravitational tug-of-war called tidal heating brings the surface temperature to more than 4,700 degrees Fahrenheit (2,600 degrees Celsius).

New data show that WASP-12b's atmosphere is also being puffed up by the star's heat to the point that some of its gases are escaping.

But rather than being blown away by stellar winds, the lost atmosphere might be getting pulled toward the star to form a hot ring around the star, said study leader Shu-lin Li, an astronomer at Peking University in Beijing.

In fact, WASP-12b is losing mass so fast it will likely disappear before its aging star has a chance to swallow the planet whole. (Related: "New 'Impossible' Planet May Be on a Death Spiral.")

The sunlike host star, known as WASP-12, is now about two billion years old, which means it's nearing the end of its life, said Heather Knutson, an astronomer and exoplanet researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Normally, dying sunlike stars grow into red giants, and their outer atmospheres expand to engulf nearby planets, said Knutson, who was not involved in the study. WASP-12 is predicted to become a red giant within about a hundred million years.

But "this star will not have WASP-12b to 'eat,' because the planet would have been totally disrupted long before then, within ten million years,” said study co-author Douglas Lin of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Food crisis looms warn scientists

A new report by Australian researchers claims far more needs to be done if we're to feed the estimated 9 billion people who will be living on the planet by 2050.

The report, by Professor Mark Tester and Professor Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide, appears today in the journal Science.

"The simple fact is while food production has increased by 32 million tonnes a year, an annual increase of 44 million tonnes a year is what's actually needed to meet the food targets for 2050 set down by the World Summit on Food Security," says Tester.

"But this represents a 38% increase over historical improvements in food production, and it needs to be sustained for the next 40 years.

"This scale of increase is unprecedented and will require huge changes to current food production methods".
Climate change

Tester says our ability to increase or sustain crop yields and quality is being tested by changes to the environment caused by global warming and the growth in biofuels.

"Increasing food production in a stable environment would be challenging enough, but given the dynamic global environmental changes now occurring. It will be even harder … but not impossible," he says.

The report says there will be some benefits from climate change, such as increasing CO2 levels acting as a fertiliser, and rising temperatures increasing growth in higher latitudes and altitudes.

But it also means more damaging high temperature events, new pest and disease pressures and altered drought and rainfall patterns.

Tester warns the current diversion of food into the production of biofuels is putting even further pressure on world food supplies.

"It's obscenity that such a huge percentage of the maize crop is going into biofuel production when children are starving," he says.

"We need biofuels, but we should use different feed stocks such as algal bio-diesel which won't impact world food stocks."

Tiny sensors track 'lost' objects

Australian scientists are working on a new type of sensor that can locate wandering objects - including that missing coffee mug.

Known as FLECK Nano, the sensors are small enough to be attached to a wide range of objects and, according to CSIRO research engineer Phil Valencia, can also be programmed to measure more than location.

"We've developed interfaces for various sensors such as humidity and temperature, accelerometers for sort of tracking motion and things like that as well as other little things for controlling power outlets and stuff like that," says Valencia.

"So it really just depends on what the object is that you're interested in and then you want to pick sensors that make sense for that particular object"

Valencia says the technology could be used to solve the mystery of migrating coffee mugs.

"I have a coffee mug for example which is sensored with a temperature sensor and an accelerometer to track the coffee mug where it's going through the office," he says. "So if I leave it anywhere I can find where it is and I can also find out the temperature of my coffee."

There may be applications beyond the office as well.
Tracking cheese

Valencia says the sensors could be used to help consumers ensure they don't eat an out-of-date block of cheddar for example, and is more reliable than the old 'sniff test'.

"It can be tracked and say where the cheese is, what temperature variation through its life did it experience," says Valencia, "That information can be sent back to the database and can also be analysed by people."

"When the cheese finally makes it to your fridge for example, the fridge could download that data directly from the cheese and sort of say 'hey, your cheese has gone through this variation so I would recommend that you eat it by the end of the week' or something like that. "

Researchers are still working out how to power the devices more efficiently. It would be impractical to constantly change the batteries if the tiny sensors were attached to hundreds of objects.

'Climategate' university orders review

The British university embroiled in an email row has ordered a review of its climate researchers' work after accusations they distorted or hid evidence to support the case for human-induced global warming.

The University of East Anglia says external investigators will check papers published by its Climatic Research Unit, one of the world's leading sources of data on changing temperatures.

The centre, which has contributed to UN climate reports, is already under investigation after hackers broke into its computer network and stole emails that critics cite as evidence that climate scientists manipulated, suppressed and hyped climate data.

More than 1000 leaked emails were put on the internet last November, leading to a police investigation into who stole them and doubts about climate science's accuracy and reliability.

Britain's most senior climate scientists say the row has dented public confidence in the evidence that underpins human's role in raising global temperatures to dangerous levels.

"It is in the interests of all concerned that there should be an additional assessment considering the science itself," says Professor Trevor Davies, the university's pro-vice chancellor for research.

Scientists set new temperature record

The hottest temperature ever in the lab has been created - four trillion degrees Celsius - hot enough to break matter down into the kind of soup that existed microseconds after the birth of the universe.

They used a giant atom smasher at the US Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to knock gold ions together to make the ultra-hot explosions - which lasted only for milliseconds.

But that is enough to give physicists fodder for years of study that they hope will help them understand why and how the universe formed.

Details of the findings will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

"That temperature is hot enough to 'melt' protons and neutrons," says Dr Steven Vigdor.

These particles make up atoms, but they are themselves made up of smaller components called quarks and gluons.

What the physicists are looking for are tiny irregularities that can explain why matter clumped out of the primeval hot soup.

They also hope to use their findings for more practical applications - such as in the field of 'spintronics' that aims to make smaller, faster and more powerful computing devices.

They used the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator and collider that is 3.8 kilometre around and buried 4 metres underground to collide gold ions billions of times.

"RHIC was designed to create matter at temperatures first encountered in the early universe," says Vigdor. They calculate the four trillion degree temperature gets pretty close.

"How hot is it?" he asks.

In comparison, "The predicted 'melting' temperature of protons and neutrons is 2 trillion degrees. The temperatures at the core of a typical type-2 supernova is 2 billion degrees," says Vigdor.

The centre of our Sun is 50 million degrees, iron melts at 1800 degrees and the average temperature of the universe is only 0.7 of a degree above absolute zero.

Stem cell capsules to target broken bones

A new way of delivering stem cells could one day lead to a single injection to mend broken or diseased bones and joints, French and Australian scientists say.

Dr Frank Caruso of the Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at the University of Melbourne and colleagues report their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It is growth factor and stem cells in an injectable format," says Caruso.

"This would be used wherever you would like to regenerate bone."

Bone and joint problems are particularly challenging for medical scientists because bone cells sometimes don't heal themselves very well.

For this reason researchers are exploring ways to effectively transplant stem cells that will regenerate bones and joints.

Caruso and colleagues have designed a capsule made of synthetic polymers, which they have impregnated with growth factors that stimulate the differentiation of stem cells into bone cells.

He says the capsules are very tiny - ranging from about 100 nanometres to tens of microns.

The researchers have then combined these capsules with embryonic stem cells in a matrix of alginate gel. They injected the mixture into lab animals and demonstrated they can stimulate bone regrowth.

If ongoing experiments prove positive, Caruso says the development may lead to treatments in 5 to 10 years.

Are non-smokers smarter than smokers?

Cigarette smokers have lower IQs than non-smokers, and the more a person smokes, the lower their IQ, according to a study of over 20,000 Israeli military recruits.

Dr Mark Weiser and colleagues, from Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, found that young men who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day or more had IQ scores 7.5 points lower than non-smokers.

"Adolescents with poorer IQ scores might be targeted for programs designed to prevent smoking," conclude Weiser and colleagues in the journal Addiction.

While there is evidence for a link between smoking and lower IQ, many studies have relied on intelligence tests given in childhood.

The studies have also included people with mental and behavioural problems, who are both more likely to smoke and more likely to have low IQs, Weiser and his team say.
Military recruits

To better understand the smoking-IQ relationship, the researchers looked at 20,211 18-year-old men recruited into the Israeli military.

The group did not include anyone with major mental health problems, because these individuals are disqualified from military service.

According to the researchers, 28% of the study participants smoked at least one cigarette a day, around 3% said they were ex-smokers, and 68% had never smoked.

The smokers had significantly lower intelligence test scores than non-smokers, and this remained true even after the researchers accounted for socioeconomic status measured by how many years of formal education a recruit's father had completed.

The average IQ for non-smokers was about 101, while it was 94 for men who had started smoking before entering the military.

IQ steadily dropped as the number of cigarettes smoked increased, from 98 for people who smoked one to five cigarettes daily to 90 for those who smoked more than a pack a day.

IQ scores from 84 to 116 are considered to indicate average intelligence.

Earliest animals flexed their muscles

A group of British and Canadian palaeontologists have found fossils that show the earliest evidence of animal locomotion.

The team from the University of Oxford and Memorial University of Newfoundland, found fossilised trails left by Ediacarans, an enigmatic assemblage of soft-bodied creatures that lived 30 million years before modern animals evolved.

The find, in 565 million-year-old rocks at Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Canada, appears in the current issue of the journal Geology.

The discovery of 70 fossilised trails, each about 5 to 17 centimetres long, is comparable to the kinds of marks left in the sea floor by modern animals like sea anemones, the researchers say.

Although they can't pin the trails to a specific creature, the discovery shows at least some of the Ediacarans were mobile, and hence must have had muscles.

Similarities in the trails to the modern-day anemone Urticina suggest the organisms that left the fossil traces may have had a muscular 'foot', the researchers say.

"This is exciting because it is the first evidence that creatures from this early period of Earth's history had muscles to allow them to move around, enabling them to hunt for food or escape adverse local conditions and, importantly, indicating that they were probably animals," says University of Oxford PhD student Alex Liu.

The Ediacarans are the earliest complex organisms before the Cambrian 'explosion of life' which marked the development of modern complex life.

But debate continues over just exactly what the Ediacarans looked like, or even what they were.