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UPI NewsTrack Health and Science News

NASA must fund canceled rocket program

WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- NASA's Ares I rocket program is defunct but because of congressional inaction the space agency must continue to fund it until March, officials said.

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The requirement will cost NASA almost $500 million as the agency battles with the costly task of replacing the space shuttle program, the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported Sunday.

About $165 million will go to Alliant Techsystems as part of a $2 billion contract to build a solid-fuel first stage for the Ares, which was supposed to be part of the Constellation program to fill the space shuttle's role of launching astronauts to the International Space Station.

The money to Alliant is part of what NASA will spend on the canceled program from Oct. 1 through March.

Most of the rest will go to Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule intended to take astronauts into space aboard whatever rocket NASA ultimately builds.

The federal government's 2010 budget contains language that barred NASA from shutting down the Ares program until Congress passed a 2011 budget.

That should have been done before the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year but Congress was unable to pass a 2011 budget and instead voted this month to extend the 2010 budget until March -- meaning NASA still must abide by the 2010 language.

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So NASA and its contractors are required to keep building Ares I, even though President Obama effectively killed it when he signed the new NASA plan that canceled the Constellation program begun under President George W. Bush.


Seals returning to Poland's Baltic coast

GDANSK, Poland, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- After an absence of almost 50 years, gray seals are returning to the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, researchers say, but not everyone is happy about it.

Scientists from the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdansk say in the last 20 years the population of the seals has grown in the Baltic from 4,500 to 20,000.

"The seals play a role of an ambassador of life in the Baltic," Krzysztof Skora, head of the Hel Marine Station at the institute told Inter Press Service. "Though the seals are much leaner now, their overall health improved, we detect less heavy metals or toxic substances in their bodies. This means the sea is not as contaminated as in the past."

There were an estimated 100,000 seals in the area in the 19th century, but humans, considering the seals as nuisances that tore their fishing nets, began to wipe them out.

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However, at the end of the 1980s the Baltic States turned to protection, deciding that without the seals the already degraded ecosystem of the sea was even more fragile.

Sweden pioneered efforts to reintroduce gray seals, and Poland followed with a breeding and rehabilitation center in 2000.

Since then new seals are being released every year. This summer three newborns and five rehabilitated seals were released.

Not everyone is pleased over the seals' comeback, and some fishermen are once again complaining.

"Seals are a disaster," Zbigniew Pyra, head of the Sea Fishermen Cooperative at Stegna, on Gdansk Bay, said. "We are unable earn our bread and butter."


DNA finding could lead to finer chocolate

PARIS, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- French researchers say they've decoded the DNA of the chocolate tree, knowledge that could lead to more productive and disease-resistant varieties.

Scientists working with the French agricultural research organization CIRAD examined the DNA of a variety of the Theobroma cacao chocolate tree called Criollo, first domesticated by the Maya around 3,000 years ago, Britain's The Guardian reported Monday.

It is one of the oldest tree crops and is used to produce some of the finest dark chocolate, but many cacao farmers grow trees that yield lower quality chocolate because they are more resilient to disease and so more likely to guarantee a good harvest.

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Fine cocoa from trees like Criollo accounts for only 5 percent of world chocolate production because the trees are susceptible to disease.

Scientists say they hope to use the genetic code to breed more productive varieties of the desirable varieties of the cacao tree.

CIRAD researcher Xavier Argout said unraveling the genetic code of the chocolate tree could help spur scientific work on the crop.

"This situation could encourage new investments in research on Theobroma cacao, the food of the Gods, that has spread throughout the world since the Maya and Aztec civilizations," Argout said.


Discovery may push back age of modern man

TEL AVIV, Israel, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Scientists say they've found the world's earliest evidence of modern man, Homo sapiens, living in what is now Israel twice as long ago as previously thought.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University found eight human teeth at least 400,000 years old at the prehistoric Qesem Cave site near Rosh Ha'ayin, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.

The researchers say the discovery in the Qesem Cave may change the widely held perception that modern man originated on the continent of Africa.

The Qesem find, along with archaeological evidence and human skeletons found in Spain and China, may cause scientists to reconsider current thinking that homo sapiens came out of Africa just 200,000 years ago, the researchers say.

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The culture of the Qesem Cave dwellers, including the production of flint blades, the use of fire, evidence of hunting and cutting animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools and much more suggest this was behavior that corresponds with the appearance of modern man, the Tel Aviv scientists say.

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