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June 12, 2012 at 6:49 PM
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NASA narrows intended Mars landing target

PASADENA, Calif., June 12 (UPI) -- NASA says it's narrowed the target landing area for its Curiosity rover set to touch down on Mars Aug. 5 to bring it closer to its prime science objective.

"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."

The landing target area had been about 12 miles wide and 16 miles long, but upgraded flight software uploaded to the unmanned Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying the Curiosity has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to about 4 miles wide and 12 miles long, NASA reported Monday.

Once on Mars, Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity near Mount Sharp in the center of Gale crater ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA. "However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed."

Quantum computers could speed Web searches

LOS ANGELES, June 12 (UPI) -- Quantum computers could help speed up Internet searches by doing the huge amounts of mathematical computation necessary, researchers say.

Internet search engines use a lot of math to figure out exactly what qualifies as most relevant Web page to present as a result of a search, they say.

Google, for example, uses a page ranking algorithm rumored to be the largest numerical calculation carried out anywhere in the world.

With the Web growing explosively, researchers at the University of Southern California have proposed using quantum computers to speed up that process.

They wanted to see whether quantum computing could be used to run the Google algorithm faster, they said.

In current computers, bits encode data distinctly as either a one or a zero, whereas quantum computers use quantum bits or "qubits," which can encode a one and a zero at the same time.

Called superposition, this property could some day allow quantum computers to perform certain calculations much faster than traditional computers, the researchers said.

While there currently is no quantum computer in the world large enough to run Google's page ranking algorithm for the entire Web, the researchers generated models of the Web that simulated a few thousand Web pages.

Their simulations showed a quantum computer could, in principle, return the ranking of the most important pages in the Web faster than traditional computers, and that this quantum speedup would improve the more pages needed to be ranked, a USC release said Tuesday.

Iceland eruption could shut down airspace

SELFOSS, Iceland, June 12 (UPI) -- An extraordinary type of volcanic eruption in Iceland could affect North Atlantic and European airline operations for months at a time, researchers say.

Researchers at the University of Leeds in Britain and other institutions used computer simulations to investigating the likely atmospheric effects if a "flood lava" eruption were to take place in Iceland today.

Flood lava eruptions, which stand out for the sheer quantities of lava and hazardous gases they release, have occurred in Iceland four times in roughly the past thousand years, records indicate.

The most recent such eruption was that of the Laki volcano in 1783-84, which generated a sulfuric acid haze that dispersed over Iceland, France, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and other countries, killing a fifth of Iceland's population and three-quarters of the island's livestock.

Laki blasted 122 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, 50 to 100 times more per day than Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 that shut down European air space for a week.

"It's known that flying through a volcanic ash cloud can damage aircraft," Leeds researcher Anja Schmidt said.

"In the case of a Laki-type eruption, high sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid concentrations will have to be considered as an additional hazard."

Schmidt presented results from the study in Iceland Monday at the Chapman Conference on Volcanism and the Atmosphere, a meeting sponsored by the American Geophysical Union.

Gorilla moms use 'baby talk' with infants

LEIPZIG, Germany, June 12 (UPI) -- Mother gorillas use a sort of "baby talk" in their facial and hand gestures when communicating with their infants, European researchers say.

Eva Maria Luef from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, filmed 120 hours of footage of gorillas at Leipzig Zoo and two wild animal parks in Britain, the BBC reported Tuesday.

The footage showed adult female gorillas used more tactile gestures than they used with other adults when playing with infants and would "touch, stroke and lightly slap" the young gorillas, Luef said.

"The infants also received more repetition," Luef said.

This motherly communication, or "non-vocal motherese," helps the infants learn the repertoire of signals they will use as adults when communicating with the rest of the gorilla group, the researchers said.

"It also shows that older animals possess a certain awareness of the infants' immature communication skills," Luef said.

The research has been published in the American Journal of Primatology.

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