NASA has selected two new missions that will search for Earth-like planets around stars beyond the solar system. The Dawn mission will orbit the two largest asteroids in our solar system, while the other mission, Kepler, will be a spaceborne telescope. Both are scheduled for launch in 2006. Dawn will make a nine-year journey to orbit the two most massive asteroids known, Vesta and Ceres, two 'baby planets' very different from each other that are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. "With its cutting-edge capability, Kepler may help us answer one of the most enduring questions humans have asked throughout history: are there others like us in the universe?" said principal investigator William Borucki of NASA's Ames research Center, Moffett Field, CA, leader of the second selected mission. Kepler will look for the 'transit' signature of planets that occurs each time a planet crosses the line-of-sight between the planet's parent star the planet is orbiting and the observer. When this happens, the planet blocks some of the light from its star, resulting in a periodic dimming. This periodic signature is used to detect the planet and to determine its size and orbit. Kepler will continuously fix its gaze at a region of space containing 100,000 stars and will be able to determine if Earth-sized planets make a transit across any of the stars.
CITIZENS CLAMORING FOR SMALLPOX VACCINE
New batches of smallpox vaccine currently on order by the government won't be available until late winter, but citizens are already asking doctors, public health officials and politicians for access to it, according to a Washington Post report. Even Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has asked that his four granddaughters inoculated. However, the Bush administration has refused to release vaccine due to limited supplies and the vaccine's potentially dangerous side effects. "This is a societal question," said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We need to have a national discussion about what the risks are -- of an attack and of the vaccine -- and then make the appropriate decisions." Smallpox was believed to have been eradicated by 1980, but it is highly contagious and kills 30 percent of its victims, prompting fears that a rogue nation or terrorist group may have gotten its hands on some. "Of all the agents that could be used, this is the one that worries public health the most," said Fred Edgar Thompson Jr., Mississippi state health officer. A full vaccination of the entire country would probably lead to 600 to 1,000 deaths due to encephalitis, according to Steven Black, a director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center in Oakland, CA.
ICEBERGS THREATENING ANTARCTICA PENGUINS
Enormous grounded icebergs and an unprecedented amount of sea ice in Antarctica's Ross Sea have nearly isolated one of the continent's most populous Adelie penguin colonies, making it difficult for the birds to return from their feeding grounds in the open sea. The numbers of Adelie penguins at Cape Crozier, about 130,000 breeding pairs in most years, "are at the low side" of the normal range, said David Ainley of H.T. Harvey & Associates of San Jose, CA. A smaller colony of Adelies at Cape Royds will "fail totally" this year, he added. Another colony of about 1,200 Emperor penguins at Cape Crozier failed to raise chicks, according to Gerald Kooyman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He believes the birds abandoned efforts to breed when the icebergs, pushing southward, destroyed and closed off their usual breeding area. Those that did breed, and attempted to hatch the egg or raise the chick in the area, failed during incubation or soon after hatching. The colony had been increasing in recent years because sea ice had been dissipating. It is the southernmost Adelie penguin colony in the world, and its existence is now in jeopardy. The penguins' response to the icebergs likely will provide major new insights into the biology, resolve and resilience of this species.
NEW DEVICES TO BEEF UP AIRPORT SECURITY
A new generation of airport security equipment could do much to ease the minds of travelers. The new systems will go well beyond the basic metal detectors employed today. For example, the Sentinel from New Jersey-based Barringer Technologies Inc. and the Entry Scan from Ion Track Instruments of Massachusetts blow air on passengers and then analyze the draft for traces of explosives. "There has not been any real device at any of the security checkpoints that has the capability to detect any explosives on people," Paul Eisenbraun of Ion Track Instruments told CNN. "You need a multitude of technologies, a system of technologies, to provide as total a solution as you can to contraband your terrorist threat," said Kenneth Wood of Barringer Technologies. Cyterra Corp. is working on a device that uses ground radar technology -- currently used to located land mines -- to scan passengers for weapons. Although the FAA is considering which equipment to use and how much to purchase, experts say that the best approach in the meantime is to maximize the efficiency of the equipment already in use.
(EDITOR: For more information on penguins, call 703-292-8070)