Kenyan elephant numbers plummet by 1000 in four years









































IT'S a case of up then down for Kenya's second largest population of elephants. After a promising growth spurt, the elephants are now dying faster than they are being born. The decline is being blamed on illegal poaching, driven by Asia's demand for ivory.












The Kenya Wildlife Service recently conducted a census of the Samburu/Laikipia population, the country's second largest. It found that the population lost over 1000 elephants in just four years, and now stands at 6361. Previous censuses in 1992, 1998, 2002 and 2008 had revealed a growing population, which appears to have peaked at 7415 in 2008.












Poaching is suspected. A July report by three conservation groups found that it has been on the rise across Africa since 2006. Poaching is also spreading eastwards from central Africa into countries like Kenya, says Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC in Cambridge, UK, one of the three groups that drafted the report. The July report found that more than half of all elephants found dead in Africa in 2011 had been illegally killed.












The rise in poaching appears to be driven by increasing affluence in China and Thailand, where ivory is often used to make religious sculptures and other decorations.












Organised criminal gangs have capitalised on this increased demand. "If it's worth someone's while to smuggle the ivory, they'll take the risk," Thomas says. There is evidence that gangs are moving into Kenya to hunt elephants.


















































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China's disabled face discrimination in finding work






BEIJING: While the plight of the disabled in China has improved significantly over the years, many still face discrimination at work.

The lack of job opportunities and job discrimination are cited as the main challenges faced by the disabled in China.

There is an estimated 83 million disabled yet their unemployment rate in 2010 stood at 8.6 percent, twice as high as the national average.

Twenty-seven-year-old Song Yichuan is paralyzed from the waist down after an accident a few years ago.

A talented singer and songwriter, Song's biggest wish is to write a song that everyone will listen to and fall in love with.

But achieving his dream seems like an uphill battle.

"No matter how good and musically-talented I am, and no matter how the audiences love me, they tell me there are practical considerations of moving me around. It's not convenient for me to fly in a plane or even ride in a bus. They even tell me it would be so much better if my condition is not so bad and if I could walk with a walking stick," said Song.

Thirty-two-year-old Xiong Yan is also familiar with work discrimination.

She lost both her arms after being electrocuted when she was merely two.

She now relies on her feet to get things, whether it's in writing, or picking up a book - moves that often earned uncomfortable looks from her colleagues.

Gao Yanqiu, a communications manager at Handicap International, said: "The disabled faces discrimination at work due to society's lack of understanding and knowledge about them. It's easy for them to be marginalized, and job opportunities are hard to come by."

Given the widespread discrimination faced by the disabled, many have argued that the government should take the lead not just in hiring but also in allocating and even reserving certain jobs for the disabled.

The government has made it mandatory for all government departments and institutions to employ at least 1.5 per cent disabled people among its workforce.

But this has seldom been followed, and the situation is even worst in the private sector.

Even though the disabled can sue employers for discrimination, this has seldom been practiced.

Like most disabled, Xiong Yan's biggest wish is to be accepted for who she is.

"It's very simple. I wish that people won't see me as different. We're all similar. If everyone else is relaxed, I will be relaxed. If I am relaxed you'd also be relaxed," said Xiong.

- CNA/fa



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Democrats want jobless benefits in 'cliff' deal


WASHINGTON (AP) — Hovering in the background of the "fiscal cliff" debate is the prospect of 2 million people losing their unemployment benefits four days after Christmas.


"This is the real cliff," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. He's been leading the effort to include another extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed in any deal to avert looming tax increases and massive spending cuts in January.


"Many of these people are struggling to pay mortgages, to provide education for their children," Reed said this past week as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected each other's opening offers for a deficit deal.


Emergency jobless benefits for about 2.1 million people out of work more than six months will cease Dec. 29, and 1 million more will lose them over the next three months if Congress doesn't extend the assistance again.


Since the collapse of the economy in 2008, the government has poured $520 billion — an amount equal to about half its annual deficit in recent years — into unemployment benefit extensions.


White House officials have assured Democrats that Obama is committed to extending them another year, at a cost of about $30 billion, as part of an agreement for sidestepping the fiscal cliff and reducing the size of annual increases in the federal debt.


"The White House has made it clear that it wants an extension," said Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.


Republicans have been relatively quiet on the issue lately. They demanded and won savings elsewhere to offset the cost of this year's extension, requiring the government to sell some of its broadcasting airwaves and making newly hired federal workers contribute more toward their pensions.


Boehner did not include jobless benefits in his counteroffer response this past week to Obama's call for $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the next decade, including raising the top marginal rates for the highest-paid 2 percent.


Long-term unemployment remains a persistent problem. About 5 million people have been out of work for six months or more, according to the Bureau of labor Statistics. That's about 40 percent of all unemployed workers.


The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But much of the decline was due to people so discouraged about finding a job that they quit looking for one.


Democrats have tried to keep a flame burning under the issue. Ending the extended benefits would "deal a devastating blow to our economy," 42 Democratic senators wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., this past week.


The Congressional Budget Office said in a study last month that extending the current level of long-term unemployment benefits another year would add 300,000 jobs to the economy. The average benefit of about $300 a week tends to get spent quickly for food, rent and other basic necessities, the report said, stimulating the economy.


The liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that extended unemployment benefits lifted 2.3 million Americans out of poverty last year, including 600,000 children.


States provide the first 20 weeks to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for eligible workers who are seeking jobs. When those are exhausted, federal benefits kick in for up to 47 more weeks, depending on the state's unemployment rate.


The higher a state's unemployment rate, the longer state residents can qualify for additional weeks of federal unemployment benefits. Only seven states with jobless rates of 9 percent or more now qualify for all 47 weeks.


Congress already cut back federal jobless benefits this year. Taken together with what states offer, the benefits could last up to 99 weeks. Cutting the maximum to 73 weeks has already cut off benefits to about 500,000 people.


Opponents of benefit extensions argue that they can be a disincentive for taking a job.


"Prolonged benefits lead some unemployed workers to spend too much time looking for jobs that they would prefer to find, rather than focusing on jobs that they are more likely to find," said James Sherk, a labor policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.


But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted that unemployment checks add up to about $15,000 a year. "That's poverty level," he said. "This is not something people just want to continue on, they want to get jobs."


___


Follow Sam Hananel's labor coverage at http://twitter.com/SamHananelAP


Read More..

Plants Grow Fine Without Gravity


When researchers sent plants to the International Space Station in 2010, the flora wasn't meant to be decorative. Instead, the seeds of these small, white flowers—called Arabidopsis thaliana—were the subject of an experiment to study how plant roots developed in a weightless environment.

Gravity is an important influence on root growth, but the scientists found that their space plants didn't need it to flourish. The research team from the University of Florida in Gainesville thinks this ability is related to a plant's inherent ability to orient itself as it grows. Seeds germinated on the International Space Station sprouted roots that behaved like they would on Earth—growing away from the seed to seek nutrients and water in exactly the same pattern observed with gravity. (Related: "Beyond Gravity.")

Since the flowers were orbiting some 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth at the time, the NASA-funded experiment suggests that plants still retain an earthy instinct when they don't have gravity as a guide.

"The role of gravity in plant growth and development in terrestrial environments is well understood," said plant geneticist and study co-author Anna-Lisa Paul, with the University of Florida in Gainesville. "What is less well understood is how plants respond when you remove gravity." (See a video about plant growth.)

The new study revealed that "features of plant growth we thought were a result of gravity acting on plant cells and organs do not actually require gravity," she added.

Paul and her collaborator Robert Ferl, a plant biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, monitored their plants from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida using images sent from the space station every six hours.

Root Growth

Grown on a nutrient-rich gel in clear petri plates, the space flowers showed familiar root growth patterns such as "skewing," where roots slant progressively as they branch out.

"When we saw the first pictures come back from orbit and saw that we had most of the skewing phenomenon we were quite surprised," Paul said.

Researchers have always thought that skewing was the result of gravity's effects on how the root tip interacts with the surfaces it encounters as it grows, she added. But Paul and Ferl suspect that in the absence of gravity, other cues take over that enable the plant to direct its roots away from the seed and light-seeking shoot. Those cues could include moisture, nutrients, and light avoidance.

"Bottom line is that although plants 'know' that they are in a novel environment, they ultimately do just fine," Paul said.

The finding further boosts the prospect of cultivating food plants in space and, eventually, on other planets.

"There's really no impediment to growing plants in microgravity, such as on a long-term mission to Mars, or in reduced-gravity environments such as in specialized greenhouses on Mars or the moon," Paul said. (Related: "Alien Trees Would Bloom Black on Worlds With Double Stars.")

The study findings appear in the latest issue of the journal BMC Plant Biology.


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Dallas Cowboys Player Arrested in Teammate's Death













Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Joshua Price-Brent was arrested on an intoxication manslaughter charge today after a single vehicle roll-over killed his passenger, Jerry Brown Jr., who had been a linebacker on the team's practice squad and his former teammate at the University of Illinois.


Price-Brent, 24, was allegedly speeding "well above" the posted 45 mph speed limit at about 2:21 a.m. when he hit a curb, causing his vehicle to flip at least one time before landing in the middle of a service road, Irving Police Department spokesman John Argumaniz said.


Authorities were alerted to the accident by several 911 callers, Argumaniz said. When police arrived, they found Price-Brent pulling Brown from his 2007 Mercedes, which had caught fire.


Brown, 25, was unresponsive and was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Argumaniz said.


It was not known where the men were coming from or where they were going, but Argumaniz said officers suspected alcohol may have been a factor in the crash and asked Price-Brent to perform field sobriety tests.








Kansas City Chiefs Player Jovan Belcher's Murder-Suicide Watch Video





"Based on the results of the tests, along with the officer's observations and conversations with Price-Brent, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated," Argumaniz said.


This is the second week in a row an NFL player has been accused of being involved in another person's death. Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs killed his girlfriend early Dec. 1, then committed suicide while talking to team officials in the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium.


Jovan Belcher: Police Release Dash-Cam Videos of NFL Star's Final Hours


Price-Brent was taken to a hospital for a mandatory blood draw where he was treated for minor scrapes, Argumaniz said. He was then booked on an intoxication manslaughter charge after it was learned Brown had died of injuries suffered in the crash.


It is expected that results from the blood draw could take several weeks, the police spokesman said.


Price-Brent is scheduled to be arraigned Sunday at 10 a.m., when bond will be set, police said.


The second-degree felony intoxication manslaughter charge carries a sentence of two to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. It was not yet known whether Price-Brent had retained an attorney.


The 6-foot-2, 320-pound nose tackle left the University of Illinois as a junior for a career in the NFL. He was picked up by the Cowboys during the 2010 NFL supplemental draft and has played three seasons with the team.


The Cowboys are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Ohio on Sunday.



Read More..

Today on New Scientist: 9 December 2012







Climate talks stumbling towards a deal

As the Qatar climate summit looks set to run into the weekend, we look at some key issues, such as compensation for poor countries harmed by climate change



Twin spacecraft map the mass of the man in the moon

Two satellites called Ebb and Flow have revealed the fine variations in the moon's surface with the most detailed gravity map ever



Just cut down on fat to shed weight

A review of studies involving 75,000 people shows that simply eating less fat made them lighter



North-east Japan quake rattles same fault as last year

A new quake off Japan's Pacific coast revives memories of 2011 tsunami; Fukushima nuclear power station "undamaged"



YouTube reorganises video with automated channels

Software that automatically classifies video into channels catering to specific interests is YouTube's latest ploy to become the future of television



A mathematician's magnificent failure to explain life

An attempt to explain life was career suicide for mathematician Dorothy Wrinch, we learn from Marjorie Senechal's biography I Died for Beauty



Parasite makes mice fearless by hijacking immune cells

The Toxoplasma parasite does its dirty work by getting immune cells to make a chemical normally found in the brain



'Specialist knowledge is useless and unhelpful'

Kaggle.com has turned data prediction into sport. People competing to solve problems are outclassing the specialists, says its president Jeremy Howard



Feedback: Numerical value of 'don't know'

The value of indifference, carbon-free sugar, scientists massacred in the nude, and more



Friday Illusion: 100-year-old quilt reveals 3D vortex

See a mind-bending effect crafted into a recently discovered quilt that changes depending on its colours and dimensions



Space-time waves may be hiding in dead star pulses

The first direct detection of gravitational waves may happen in 2013, if new studies of pulsars affected by galaxy mergers are correct



2012 Flash Fiction shortlist: Go D

From nearly 130 science-inspired stories, our judge Alice LaPlante has narrowed down a fantastic shortlist. Story five of five: Go D by Michael Rolfe



Captured: the moment photosynthesis changed the world

For the first time, geologists have found evidence of how modern photosynthesis evolved 2.4 billion years ago



Commute to work on the roller coaster train

A Japanese train based on a theme park ride could make getting around cleaner - and more fun



BSE infected cattle have prions in saliva

The discovery of tiny levels of prions in cow saliva might pave way for a test for BSE before symptoms develop, and raises questions about transmission



Space bigwigs offer billion-dollar private moon trips

Robots aren't the only ones heading to the moon. The Golden Spike Company will sell you a ticket whether you want to explore, mine or just show off



Human eye proteins detect red beyond red

Tweaking the structure of a protein found in the eye has given it the ability to react to red light that is normally unperceivable




Read More..

US expects oil boom from oil shale extraction






WASHINGTON: The United States is set to become the largest producer of crude oil by 2030, according to a recent forecast by the United Nations (UN).

The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts the US will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia in production amid a boom in unconventional drilling.

In Colorado, and other western US states, oil shale is one of the resources that could help make the US a net energy exporter in the foreseeable future.

According to the oil industry, the rock found in Colorado's Piceance Basin could hold the key to America's energy future.

Glenn Vawker, who heads the National Oil Shale Association, said: "There are estimates by our federal government that we could be producing up to one million barrels a day in twenty to thirty years."

Colorado's oil shale is often described as one of the richest hydrocarbon deposits in the world. The problem is that it takes a lot of money and resources to get the oil out of the rock.

Oil companies have set up multi-million-dollar pilot programs here, trying to figure out how to turn a profit.

To extract the oil, the companies have to cool the rock - a process the latest technologies do deep underground.

Roger Day, who is vice president of operations at American Shale Oil Corporation, said: "We're working on what you call in-situ technology, which would heat the oil in the ground and produce the oil without bringing the rock to the surface. And our project - it will take about another five years to perfect this technology."

China, Brazil and Estonia are also researching technologies to develop oil shale potential.

China is currently the largest producer in the world, with huge resources primarily in Fushun and Maoming but scientists said the US is in a position to take over that top spot.

Jeremy Boak, director at the Centre for Oil Shale Technology and Research, said: "We have the largest single resource in the world here. China has a very large resource and it is moving aggressively. It is currently, as far as I can tell, the largest single producer of oil from oil shale. But the total amount in still very tiny - about 30,000 barrels a day or so. Nevertheless, it's being produced and they are ramping up."

Industry insiders predict a shale boom in Colorado that would be immensely profitable for the state and help the US become energy independent. But some people are worried about the possible environmental impact of such a boom in the industry."

Environmental advocates said the oil shale industry uses water that's in short supply in the drought stricken western US.

David Abelson, who is an oil shale policy advisor at Western Resource Advocates, said: "Large-scale oil shale is predicted to consume vast quantities of water. The high-end estimates would be roughly 45 per cent more than Denver water supplies to its 1.3 million customers every year."

This part of Colorado was producing large volumes of oil from shale during the 1970s fuel crisis, but industry was largely shutdown during the early 1980s.

But that earlier exploration involved what is now outdated technology. Figuring out how to tap into the rock in the most efficient AND environmentally-responsible way is the challenge currently facing America's oil shale industry..



Read More..

Fiscal cliff ads pick up where campaign stopped


WASHINGTON (AP) — Debate over the "fiscal cliff" has money pouring into television, print, radio and online ads, picking up where the wall-to-wall election campaign left off.


As Republicans and the White House joust over a way around big year-end tax increases and spending cuts, outside groups on both sides are weighing in with major ad campaigns aimed at politicians and voters alike.


The latest is Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-backed conservative group last seen dropping more than $80 million on ads assailing President Barack Obama in his re-election campaign.


Its new $500,000 buy, announced Wednesday, has attributes familiar to viewers acquainted with the political attack-ad genre. It features dreary, dread-inducing music, foreboding narration and grainy footage. All that's changed is its aim. Instead of denying Obama re-election, the intent is to defeat his policy.


"So far, a huge tax increase is his solution," a narrator says, before imploring viewers to personally call the president.


If anything, Crossroads is slow to enter the fiscal cliff fray.


Within days of Obama's Nov. 6 victory over Republican Mitt Romney, outside groups were keying up ad campaigns designed to shape the fiscal debate. The range of participants — from business interests opposing higher tax rates on the wealthy to unions that want to raise them and advocates for the elderly opposed to cutting benefits — reflects the messy tangle of issues that Congress and the White House are dealing with.


In general, the ads are less sharp-edged than the most caustic 2012 election spots. In many cases, the intent is to bring pressure to bear on the whole of Congress, not just a particular member or group of members. But combined, the ads reflect the high stakes involved and intense competition to shape the outcome.


AARP, the 37-million-member group that lobbies for the elderly, is running ads nationally that home in on two key aspects of the debate: potential changes to Medicare and Social Security. They lambaste Washington politicians as a whole for even talking about Medicare and Social Security changes "behind closed doors."


In one of the TV ads, a narrator speaks as images of seniors hugging grandchildren, mulling drug choices at a pharmacy and looking forlornly at the camera flash across the screen. "We'll all pay the price" if hasty cuts are included in a year-end deal, the narrator says.


Labor unions that traditionally support Democrats are producing more explicitly political advertising. Three of them — The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association — joined to buy TV and radio ads targeting specific lawmakers in both parties in Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, Alaska and Pennsylvania. The ads ask voters to call their senators and congressman and push for a deal that protects the "middle class."


"We shouldn't raise taxes on the middle class," the narrator says in one radio ad. "But if Congress fails to act soon, that's exactly what will happen."


Other ads hammer home the stakes of the debate, something all of the groups that have invested money in "cliff" ads seem to agree on.


An online ad from The Business Roundtable features a gloomy narrator making that case that Congress will be to blame for an economic slowdown and sharply higher taxes if no deal is made. It includes foggy images of two key players in the debate, Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.


"If Congress does not act, growth will stall, jobs will be lost and our nation's credit will be harmed. If Congress does not act, America's entire economy will be put at risk," the narrator says over images of Reid, Boehner and the Capitol dome.


Read More..

Pictures: Timbuktu Under al Qaeda









































































































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Supreme Court to Take Up Gay Marriage Cases












The Supreme Court today decided to take up two major cases regarding gay marriage, one of which could ultimately lead the court to decide whether there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.


The justices announced that the court would hear a challenge to Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative that passed in 2008 that restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples, as well as a challenge to a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.


Check Out Same-Sex Marriage Status in the U.S. State By State


A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down "Prop 8" in February, ruling that it "serves no purpose , and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California and to officially reclassify their relationship and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples."


It was a narrow ruling, specific to California and its history with Prop 8. The court did not reach the broader question of whether there was a fundamental right to gay marriage.


Supporters of Prop 8 are asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of that ruling. Gay marriages have been put on hold in California until the Supreme Court decides the issue. The cases will likely be argued in March.






David Paul Morris/Getty Images







Opponents of Prop 8 are represented by David Boies and Theodore Olson, two lawyers who argued on opposite sides in the historic Bush v. Gore case that resulted in Bush's election as president.


Get more pure politics at ABCNews.com/Politics and a lighter take on the news at OTUSNews.com


They contend in court briefs that the question about whether the states might discriminate against gay men and lesbians in the provision of marriage licenses could be the "defining civil rights issue of our time."


The court will also hear a challenge to a key section of a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. At issue in this case is not whether there is a fundamental right to gay marriage, because the same-sex couples are legally married in states that allow gay marriage, but that the gay couples alone are denied federal benefits such as the Social Security survivor assistance.


There were eight DOMA petitions filed with the court. One involved Edith Windsor, who, in 2007, married Thea Spyer, her partner of more than 40 years. The couple were married in Canada, but resided in New York until Spyer died in 2009.


Windsor was forced to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes. She applied for a refund believing she was entitled to a marital deduction, but she was denied the claim on the grounds that she was not a "spouse" within the meaning of DOMA.


In briefs filed with the court, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. writes, "Although Section 3 of DOMA does not purport to invalidate same-sex marriages in those States that permit them it excludes marriage from recognition for purposes of more than 1,000 federal statutes and programs whose administration turns in part on individuals' marital status."


Recent ABC News-Washington Post polls say that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, which is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.


ABC News' Sarah Parnass contributed to this report.



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Space bigwigs offer billion-dollar private moon trips









































Robots aren't the only ones heading to the moon. The first private company offering regular trips to the lunar surface plans to start flights in 2020, shuttling people two at a time on exploratory missions. However, with an expected price tag of $1.4 billion per flight, or around $750 million per person, the trek would likely be out of reach for all but the wealthiest moonwalkers.











Today's announcement, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC backs up recent rumours that Alan Stern, a former administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, had founded a company called Golden Spike in Colorado to run commercial moon trips.













Named for the final spike driven into the first US transcontinental railroad line, Golden Spike plans to market to governments, corporations and individuals to routinely send people to the moon for scientific purposes, to mine for resources or simply for prestige.












"Why the moon? Because it's close, because it's enormous, and because we think that there's going to be a strong market for it," says Stern. No tickets have yet been sold. But preliminary talks with space agencies in Asia and Europe are underway, he adds. "We see our main market as selling expeditions to foreign space agencies."











In 2010 President Barack Obama scrapped NASA's Constellation program for sending astronauts to the moon. Shortly afterwards, Stern convened a secret meeting of heavy-hitters in the space industry in Telluride, Colorado, to discuss the possibility of a private lunar mission. A four-month feasibility study led to the company's quiet founding later that year.












Beyond robots













Golden Spike now has several experienced directors and advisors, including Gerry Griffin, former director of NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Center, and Wayne Hale, former chief of NASA's space shuttle programme. It also boasts some colourful characters: Newt Gingrich, a former US presidential candidate who previously championed a lunar colony, and Mike Okuda, a set designer for the Star Trek franchise, are also on the advisory panel.











"One thing you can say about Stern is that he knows the game," says William Whittaker, CEO of Astrobotic Technology, one of many teams competing to put a robot on the moon and win the $20-million Google Lunar X Prize. "As NASA's former science director, he had a favoured insider's perspective. He knows people."













Although several of the firm's directors have NASA experience, Golden Spike will be a purely private enterprise that will not seek government funding, Stern says. The plan is to purchase a rocket and a crew capsule from one or more of the other private space enterprises that have sprung up in recent years, such as SpaceX or Blue Origin.












Golden Spike has signed contracts to begin development of a lunar lander and space suits. Its first lunar mission is expected to cost the company between $7 and $8 billion. To help cover expenses, the company plans to merchandise each mission, for instance, by selling the naming rights for their spacecraft.











Meanwhile, Space Adventures of Arlington, Virginia says it is on track to send people on flights that would circle the moon starting in 2016 or 2017. The price for each flight is $300 million, or $150 million per seat. There are two seats available for the maiden voyage, and one has already been sold, spokesperson Stacey Tearne told New Scientist.













Fred Bourgeois, head of FREDNET, another Lunar X Prize team, worries that the idea of sending people to the moon on private ships is premature. "We need to prove some things with robotic systems first, so we don't put lives at risk," he says. "I would not get on a private mission to the moon today, even though I would love to go."












But Stern says he's confident that robots will get to the moon's surface long before the first Golden Spike flights at the end of the decade. Human beings, he says, will then be needed for activities beyond the capabilities of a robot – from doing field geology to maintaining mining equipment. Says Stern: "We need to start now in order to be ready for the next phase."


















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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ECB forecast, rate hints send euro lower






NEW YORK: The euro only barely rebounded against the dollar in late trade Thursday, after plunging on the European Central Bank's sharp cut in its eurozone growth forecast for next year.

The euro lost more than one cent after the ECB forecast that the euro area economy will shrink by 0.3 percent in 2013, instead of growing by 0.5 percent as previously estimated.

Also pressing it lower were hints from the ECB that it might be moving toward cutting its benchmark rate, even as it held firm on Thursday.

"The ECB appears to have the door open for an interest rate cut, and we expect it to step through early in 2013," said Howard Archer at IHS Global Insight.

At 2200 GMT, the euro was at $1.2969, compared to $1.3064 late Wednesday. It hit a low of $1.2951 during the day.

There was nothing otherwise to budge the dollar, with trade mostly on hold for Friday's US jobs data for November, expected to be down due to Hurricane Sandy's impact on the economy of the northeast corridor.

If anything, the data will support expectations that the Federal Reserve will further extend its bond purchase stimulus program when it meets next week.

The yen picked up slightly, 10 days before national elections in Japan. It gained to 106.85 yen to the euro from 107.71, and 82.37 yen to the dollar from 82.42.

The dollar rose to 0.9325 Swiss francs, and the British pound slipped to $1.6050.

-AFP/ac



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Final campaign reports: 2012 election nears record


WASHINGTON (AP) — Final campaign finance tallies trickled out Thursday for a presidential race expected to be the most expensive in U.S. political history, showing a last-minute $10 million contribution to a political action committee backing Republican candidate Mitt Romney from a billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate who has been the election's biggest moneyman.


The $10 million donation by Sheldon Adelson to the Restore Our Future "super" PAC raised the casino owner's total contributions for the 2012 campaign to at least $72 million, all for Republicans.


The new campaign finance filings to the Federal Election Commission were among newly-released records covering the final two weeks of the race, when campaign organizations for Romney and President Barack Obama, along with a slew of super PACs, raised and spent millions toward an expected $2 billion campaign.


By late October, both campaigns already had neared $1 billion in expenditures, and super PACs supporting Obama and Romney had spent more than $500 million in media ads. Politically-oriented nonprofit "social welfare" organizations that do not have to declare their finances or identify their fundraisers have spent hundreds of millions more on so-called issue ads.


Adelson, who owns casinos in Las Vegas, Singapore and the Chinese territory of Macau, has been the top donor in the 2012 race. He has provided more than $54 million supporting Romney and other GOP presidential candidates and an additional $18 million for other Republicans.


The latest $10 million figure for donations for Adelson and his wife, Miriam, was released Thursday only for the pro-Romney Restore Our Future, but the couple's totals could grow as more campaign finance tallies are reported.


Adelson vowed early on in the presidential race that his political donations would top $100 million by the November election. His postelection super PAC total does not match that figure, but the casino magnate also hinted he would also give millions more to GOP-leaning nonprofits that do not have to report their war chests to the FEC, but instead provide confidential figures to the Internal Revenue Service.


Along with his dominant presence in the presidential race, Adelson also poured money into super PACs backing several GOP Senate candidates in the final weeks of the election. More than $1.5 million in Adelson money went to a super PAC backing GOP candidate George Allen in Virginia, $1 million to a committee aiding Michigan candidate Peter Hoekstra and $500,000 to a super PAC supporting Sen. Scott Brown. All were defeated.


Other top last-minute donors to the pro-Romney Restore committee included Larry Ellison, head of software giant Oracle Corp., who gave $3 million, and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, who gave $1 million. The Renco Group, a New York company headed by investor Ira Rennert, also gave $1 million.


Adelson recently told The Wall Street Journal that he would double his $100 investment in GOP causes by the next election and he has the financial muscle to do it. His massive campaign donations are backed by his lucrative casino holdings in the U.S. and Macau. The most recent November quarterly statement of his Las Vegas Sands Corp. estimated that Adelson's casino revenues surged $1.11 billion in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.


In late November, Adelson's company announced a special dividend of $2.75 a share in anticipation of the threatened "fiscal cliff" rise in federal tax rates. The dividend move netted Adelson — who owns more than half of Sands' 820 million shares — an estimated personal gain of as much as $1.2 billion, according to financial analysts.


Adelson's role as the premiere fundraiser in American politics could be complicated by his casino company's continuing struggles with the federal government over tax revenues and Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations focusing on possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which targets money-laundering and international bribery.


Sands' recent quarterly statement acknowledged the federal probes as well as negotiations with the IRS over "unrecognized tax benefits" highlighted by a tax audit of the company's Macao and Singapore casino earnings between 2005 and 2009.


Sands cited a "possible settlement of matters presently under consideration at appeals in connection with the IRS audit."


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High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy

Patrick J. Kiger



Thomas Edison championed direct current, or DC, as a better mode for delivering electricity than alternating current, or AC. But the inventor of the light bulb lost the War of the Currents. Despite Edison's sometimes flamboyant efforts—at one point he electrocuted a Coney Island zoo elephant in an attempt to show the technology's hazards—AC is the primary way that electricity flows from power plants to homes and businesses everywhere. (Related Quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity")


But now, more than a century after Edison's misguided stunt, DC may be getting a measure of vindication.


An updated, high-voltage version of DC, called HVDC, is being touted as the transmission method of the future because of its ability to transmit current over very long distances with fewer losses than AC. And that trend may be accelerated by a new device called a hybrid HVDC breaker, which may make it possible to use DC on large power grids without the fear of catastrophic breakdown that stymied the technology in the past.  (See related photos: "World's Worst Power Outages.")


Swiss-based power technology and automation giant ABB, which developed the breaker, says it may also prove critical to the 21st century's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, by tapping the full potential of massive wind farms and solar generating stations to provide electricity to distant cities.


So far, the device has been tested only in laboratories, but ABB's chief executive, Joe Hogan, touts the hybrid HVDC breaker as "a new chapter in the history of electrical engineering," and predicts that it will make possible the development of "the grid of the future"—that is, a massive, super-efficient network for distributing electricity that would interconnect not just nations but multiple continents. Outside experts aren't quite as grandiose, but they still see the breaker as an important breakthrough.


"I'm quite struck by the potential of this invention," says John Kassakian, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If it works on a large scale and is economical to use, it could be a substantial asset."




Going the Distance


The hybrid HVDC breaker may herald a new day for Edison's favored mode of electricity, in which current is transmitted in a constant flow in one direction, rather than in the back-and-forth bursts of AC. In the early 1890s, DC lost the so-called War of the Currents mostly because of the issue of long-distance transmission.


In Edison's time, because of losses due to electrical resistance, there wasn't an economical technology that would enable DC systems to transmit power over long distances. Edison did not see this as a drawback because he envisioned electric power plants in every neighborhood.


But his rivals in the pioneering era of electricity, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, instead touted AC, which could be sent long distances with fewer losses. AC's voltage, the amount of potential energy in the current (think of it as analogous to the pressure in a water line), could be stepped up and down easily through the use of transformers. That meant high-voltage AC could be transmitted long distances until it entered neighborhoods, where it would be transformed to safer low-voltage electricity.


Thanks to AC, smoke-belching, coal-burning generating plants could be built miles away from the homes and office buildings they powered. It was the idea that won the day, and became the basis for the proliferation of electric power systems across the United States and around the world.


But advances in transformer technology ultimately made it possible to transmit DC at higher voltages. The advantages of HVDC then became readily apparent. Compared to AC, HVDC is more efficient—a thousand-mile HVDC line carrying thousands of megawatts might lose 6 to 8 percent of its power, compared to 12 to 25 percent for a similar AC line. And HVDC would require fewer lines along a route. That made it better suited to places where electricity must be transmitted extraordinarily long distances from power plants to urban areas. It also is more efficient for underwater electricity transmission.


In recent years, companies such as ABB and Germany's Siemens have built a number of big HVDC transmission projects, like ABB's 940-kilometer (584-mile) line that went into service in 2004 to deliver power from China's massive Three Gorges hydroelectric plant to Guangdong province in the South. In the United States, Siemens for the first time ever installed a 500-kilovolt submarine cable, a 65-mile HVDC line, to take additional power from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey grid to power-hungry Long Island. (Related: "Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?") And the longest electric transmission line in the world, some 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles), is under construction by ABB now in Brazil: The Rio-Madeira HVDC project will link two new hydropower plants in the Amazon with São Paulo, the nation's main economic hub. (Related Pictures: "A River People Await an Amazon Dam")


But these projects all involved point-to-point electricity delivery. Some engineers began to envision the potential of branching out HVDC into "supergrids." Far-flung arrays of wind farms and solar installations could be tied together in giant networks. Because of its stability and low losses, HVDC could balance out the natural fluctuations in renewable energy in a way that AC never could. That could dramatically reduce the need for the constant base-load power of large coal or nuclear power plants.


The Need for a Breaker


Until now, however, such renewable energy solutions have faced at least one daunting obstacle. It's much trickier to regulate a DC grid, where current flows continuously, than it is with AC. "When you have a large grid and you have a lightning strike at one location, you need to be able to disconnect that section quickly and isolate the problem, or else bad things can happen to the rest of the grid," such as a catastrophic blackout, explains ABB chief technology officer Prith Banerjee. "But if you can disconnect quickly, the rest of the grid can go on working while you fix the problem." That's where HVDC hybrid breakers—basically, nondescript racks of circuitry inside a power station—could come in. The breaker combines a series of mechanical and electronic circuit-breaking devices, which redirect a surge in current and then shut it off.  ABB says the unit is capable of stopping a surge equivalent to the output of a one-gigawatt power plant, the sort that might provide power to 1 million U.S. homes or 2 million European homes, in significantly less time than the blink of an eye.


While ABB's new breaker still must be tested in actual power plants before it is deemed dependable enough for wide use, independent experts say it seems to represent an advance over previous efforts. (Siemens, an ABB competitor, reportedly also has been working to develop an advanced HVDC breaker.)


"I think this hybrid approach is a very good approach," says Narain Hingorani, a power-transmission researcher and consultant who is a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "There are other ways of doing the same thing, but they don't exist right now, and they may be more expensive."


Hingorani thinks the hybrid HVDC breakers could play an important role in building sprawling HVDC grids that could realize the potential of renewable energy sources. HVDC cables could be laid along the ocean floor to transmit electricity from floating wind farms that are dozens of mile offshore, far out of sight of coastal residents. HVDC lines equipped with hybrid breakers also would be much cheaper to bury than AC, because they require less insulation, Hingorani says.


For wind farms and solar installations in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, HVDC cables could be run underground in environmentally sensitive areas, to avoid cluttering the landscape with transmission towers and overhead lines. "So far, we've been going after the low-hanging fruit, building them in places where it's easy to connect to the grid," he explains. "There are other places where you can get a lot of wind, but where it's going to take years to get permits for overhead lines—if you can get them at all—because the public is against it."


In other words, whether due to public preference to keep coal plants out of sight, or a desire to harness the force of remote offshore or mountain wind power, society is still seeking the least obtrusive way to deliver electricity long distances. That means that for the same reason Edison lost the War of the Currents at the end of the 19th century, his DC current may gain its opportunity (thanks to technological advances) to serve as the backbone of a cleaner 21st-century grid. (See related story: "The 21st Century Grid: Can we fix the infrastructure that powers our lives?")


This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.


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Bodies Believed to Be Missing Iowa Cousins













Authorities believe two bodies found by hunters in Iowa this week are Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, two young cousins who vanished in July.


"At this time, law enforcement is confident, based upon evidence at the scene and preliminary investigation, that the bodies are those of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins," Capt. Rick Abben, chief deputy of the Black Hawk County Sheriff's Office, said at a news conference in Evansdale, Iowa.


Asked why authorities were so confident that the bodies were those of the two girls, Abben replied, "We have no one else that's missing in this area. We have two bodies that were found. They were smaller in stature so we have nothing else to think, at this time."


Abben noted that the state's medical examiner's office in Ankeny, Iowa, had yet to complete the positive identification of the girls.








Bodies Found in Hunt for Missing Iowa Cousins Watch Video









Missing Iowa Girls Seen Riding Bikes on Surveillance Video Watch Video









Missing Iowa Girls: One Mother Takes 2nd Polygraph Watch Video





Asked if the kidnapping investigation was now turning into a homicide investigation, Abben replied, "We are looking that way at this time."


Lyric, 11, and Elizabeth, 9, went missing on July 13 on a bike ride in the small town of Evansdale, Iowa, near Waterloo, Iowa. After hunters found two bodies in a wooded area in Seven Bridges Conservation Area on Wednesday afternoon, the families of Lyric and Elizabeth were notified and the bodies were sent to Ankeny for positive identification.


The families expressed "their gratitude to the community for their ongoing support," according to a statement released by authorities. Elizabeth's mother, Heather Collins, later posted a message on her Facebook page.


"We knew when our girls went missing that [there] would be two outcomes," she wrote. "Unfortunately this is not the one that we wanted but we know our girls [are] dancing with our savior. We know that he will continue to be with us giving us strength and comfort always."


On Wednesday night, residents of Evansdale, Iowa, gathered at Meyers Lake -- where the girls' bicycles and a purse were found -- for a candlelight vigil.


"It's hard to believe," said Lorissa Wilson, who attended the vigil. "I didn't want it to happen to the girls. They're too young to pass away, I believe."


Mary Carroll, who knew Elizabeth, said, "You don't expect it for somebody so sweet and innocent."


Another participant at the vigil, Holly Timmerman, noted that this was "not the outcome anybody wanted at all."


The Seven Bridges Conservation Area will remain closed until Monday, Abben said.



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Chemical key to cell division revealed



































In each of our cells, most of the genetic material is packaged safely within the nucleus, which is protected by a double membrane. The biochemistry behind how this membrane transforms when cells divide has finally been unravelled, offering insights that could provide new ways of fighting cancer and some rare genetic disorders.












During cell division, the membrane that surrounds the nucleus breaks down and reforms in the two daughter cells. Researchers have been split on the precise mechanisms that govern membrane reformation. One view is that proteins alone control the membrane's transformations. Another possibility is that changes in lipids – a vast group of fat-related compounds – are responsible.












Experiments had failed to show which of these two ideas was right, because it was difficult to alter lipid levels in specific compartments of cells without affecting other cellular processes.












Banafshe Larijani at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and her colleagues have now overcome that hurdle. They came up with a technique that transforms a type of lipid called a diacylglycerol (DAG) into another lipid, within the nuclear membrane.











Chemical cascade













The technique involves inserting two fragments of DNA into the nucleus of a cell. This causes the cell to make two proteins: the first attaches itself to the nuclear membrane, the second floats around the cell. Adding a drug – rapalogue – to the mix causes the second protein to stick to the first, which in turn causes a chemical cascade that transforms the DAG into a different kind of lipid.












Crucially, they targeted a form of DAG that does not bind to proteins, so converting it into a different lipid does not affect any processes involving proteins in the cell.












The team tested the effect of this lipid manipulation on cell division in monkey and human cancer cells. The lower the level of DAG present in the nuclear membrane, the greater the membrane malformation and chance of cell death.












This demonstrates that lipids play a role in nuclear membrane reformation that does not depend on proteins.












Larijani says it "opens the door to finding ways to kill cancerous cells" by focusing on lipids that are important to the nuclear membrane's development.











Sausage pieces













As the nucleus divides, sausage-shaped fragments of its membrane float around the cell. The fragments have curved ends, and Larijani says that changes in lipid composition generate these curves, without which the fragments cannot reassemble correctly into new membranes.











More than a dozen rare genetic conditions such as Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, which is characterised by premature ageing in children, have been linked to irregularities in cell division. A better understanding of the way the nuclear membrane forms when cells divide could be key to treating these disorders.













The research also offers a new focus for preventing the irregular cell division that underlies many cancers.












"As a result of this work we now know with confidence that DAG plays a structural role in membrane dynamics," says Vytas Bankaitis, at the Texas A&M Health Science Center in College Station, who was not involved in the study. "If we could find a molecule with suitable characteristics, this manipulation could be done [in humans], which is something that has not really been considered before."












Journal reference: PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051150


















































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Three dead, 8 missing in North Sea cargo ship collision






THE HAGUE: Rescuers pulled at least three bodies from the icy waters of the North Sea on Wednesday and were frantically searching for eight missing crew from a cargo ship that sank following a collision in a busy shipping lane off the Dutch coast.

The Dutch coastguard and navy plucked 13 survivors from the water after the Baltic Ace, a 23,000 tonne car carrier, collided with container ship the Corvus J at around 7:15 pm (1815 GMT) about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Rotterdam.

The Baltic Ace sank shortly afterwards, the coastguard said.

"I can confirm we have found three victims. Eight others are still missing," Marcel Oldenburger told AFP.

He said that 13 crew members who were on board the Bahamas-registered Baltic Ace had been rescued.

Four survivors were flown to a hospital in Rotterdam, seven taken by rescue helicopter to a hospital in Belgium and two were being treated on board a ship that found them, Oldenburger said.

"They are all in shock" and are believed to suffer from hypothermia, he said.

Oldenburger said the search for survivors was frantic: "We don't know where they are at the moment, whether they are in life boats, or in the sea."

At least three helicopters -- one of which was fitted out with infrared imaging equipment to search in the darkness -- and a plane have joined the search, Oldenburger said.

The Baltic Ace was under way from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Kotka in Finland and the Corvus J from Grangemouth in Scotland to Antwerp in Belgium, according to shipping tracker website MarineTraffic.com.

"At this stage we don't know what caused the accident," said another coastguard spokesman, Peter Verburg: "Our first priority right now is the safety of the crew."

The shipping lane where the accident happened is one of the busiest in the North Sea and an important passing point for ships sailing into Rotterdam port, Europe's largest and the fifth-largest in the world.

Rotterdam port spokesman Sjaak Poppe told AFP the collision would not affect shipping in and out of the port.

In one of the most serious collisions in Dutch waters in recent years, the Greek crude oil tanker Mindoro in October 2010 collided with the container ship Jork Ranger off the coast of Scheveningen near The Hague, spilling thousands of litres of kerosene (jet fuel) into the sea, the European Maritime Safety Agency said on its website.

-AFP/ac



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Analysis: Obama could risk going over 'cliff'


WASHINGTON (AP) — It may be just a bluff or a bargaining ploy, but the White House is signaling that President Barack Obama is willing to let the country go over the "fiscal cliff," a hard-line negotiating strategy aimed at winning concessions from Republicans on taxes.


If Washington really does fail to avert the looming series of tax hikes and spending cuts, the White House will portray Republicans as the culprits for insisting on protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, an effort the administration is laying the groundwork for now.


"This is a choice of the Republican Party," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director. "If they are willing to do higher rates on the wealthy, there's a lot we can talk about. And if they are not, then they'll push us over the cliff."


But going over the cliff also would be full of risk for a president fresh off re-election and facing at least two more years of divided government.


Ending the year without a deal could roil financial markets and dent consumer confidence just as the economy is strengthening. It could make it harder for Obama to get Republican help on his second-term priorities like overhauling the immigration system and the nation's tax code, or in getting potential Cabinet replacements confirmed.


And it would signal to the country that the president's campaign prediction that the GOP "fever" would break following his re-election was a pipe dream.


House Speaker John Boehner says Obama is playing a risky game. "If the president really wants to avoid sending the economy over the fiscal cliff, he has done nothing to demonstrate it," the speaker said.


But Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared to signal that the administration might do just that — go past the cliff if necessary.


In an interview Wednesday with CNBC, Geithner was asked if the administration was prepared to go over the fiscal cliff if taxes do not increase on the wealthy. "Oh, absolutely," he said.


"There's no prospect in an agreement that doesn't involve those rates going up on the top 2 percent of the wealthiest of Americans," Geithner added.


He also said the administration was also prepared to walk away from a deal that did not include raising the debt ceiling.


"We are not prepared to have the American economy held hostage to periodic threats ... to default on our obligations," Geithner said.


White House advisers say the president wants to avoid going into next year without a tax and spending deal, a scenario they say would hurt the economy. Obama, addressing business leaders Wednesday, said the White House and Republicans could reach an agreement "in about a week" if the GOP drops its opposition to raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year.


"If we can get the leadership on the Republican side to take that framework, to acknowledge that reality, than the numbers actually aren't that far apart," Obama said.


But with few public signs that Republicans are close to taking that step, administration officials are hardening their warning that Obama willing to risk going over the cliff.


Of course, the White House warning could be a bluff, offered in the belief that Republicans are unlikely to back down on taxes unless they believe Obama is willing to go over the cliff.


The White House says Obama's firm stand on tax rate increases for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans is driven by economics. The debt-saddled country can't afford to continue with the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, the president and his advisers argue.


Obama has made that case to Republicans before only to back down in the final stages of negotiations. But this time around, the president and his team believe they hold the political leverage.


There is some evidence to bolster that notion. Taxes were a centerpiece of the presidential campaign, with Obama running on a pledge to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and return their rates to where they were in the 1990s, when the economy was thriving.


Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters supported that position, an even higher percentage than backed Obama's re-election.


A new poll also suggests a majority of Americans would blame Republicans if the government goes over the fiscal cliff. Just 27 percent of those surveyed said they would blame Obama, compared with 53 percent who said they would point the finger at the GOP, according to the Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll.


Seeking to cement those impressions, the White House is casting Republicans as willing to forgo tax cuts for the middle class in order to protect lower rates for wealthier Americans. Rates for all income earners will go up at the end of the year if both sides can't reach a deal.


In turn, Republicans say Obama is acting like a stubborn partisan who will put the economy in peril in order to get his way.


"My sense is the White House wants to go over the cliff," said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury and White House official under President George W. Bush. "That may be the only way they get rates they want."


Going over the cliff could mark a new low in the relationship between the president and congressional Republicans. While the contentious debates earlier in Obama's first term over funding the government and raising the nation's borrowing limit went right up to the edge, both sides were always able to reach a deal.


As Obama ran for re-election, he sought to assure voters weary of Washington's bickering that things would be better if he won a second term.


Speaking to supporters in June, he said, "I believe that if we're successful in this election — when we're successful in this election — that the fever may break."


"My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again," he added optimistically.


___


EDITOR'S NOTE — Julie Pace covers the White House for The Associated Press.


An AP News Analysis


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Large, Peanut-Shaped Asteroid Headed Toward Earth


A giant asteroid is set to buzz Earth next week, and astronomers are already keeping their eyes on the skies—but not because 4179 Toutatis poses any danger.

Toutatis, at 2.7 miles (4.46 kilometers) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) wide, is one of the largest asteroids that comes anywhere near Earth. But only an astronomer would consider its closest approach to be "near." When the peanut-shaped rock is at its closest to the Earth on December 12, it'll be more than 4.3 million miles (6.9 million kilometers) away, or more than 18 times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

(See pictures of asteroids.)

So why are astronomers eagerly awaiting Toutatis? By figuring out what the asteroid is made of, they'll have a better picture of the early days of the solar system. And by refining a model of the asteroid's rotation, they'll get a better idea of its composition.

Topsy-Turvy

Michael Busch, a fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, studied radar images of Toutatis' previous passes—the asteroid approaches Earth every four years—to try to figure out how it was moving through space. "It's tumbling," Busch said. "It's spinning around its long axis, while that in turn is precessing around in a circle, like a gyroscope." Busch and his colleagues were hoping to use radar images taken in 2000, 2004, and 2008 to update a 1996 model of Toutatis' spin state. "[But] this became more complicated when we understood that [gravitational] tides were changing the spin," he said.

Every time Toutatis came close to the sun or the Earth, gravity would tug slightly on the asteroid, changing its spin by a tiny fraction. But over the years, those tugs added up. Once Busch and his collaborators were able to account for these changes, they had a much better model of its spin. And that told them how the asteroid's mass was distributed.

Toutatis is shaped sort of like a lumpy peanut, or from some angles, like a poorly built snowman. It's long and narrow, with two distinct lobes, one smaller than the other. Busch's analysis found that the asteroid's shape isn't the only thing that's lumpy; its mass is also distributed in a lumpy fashion rather than evenly spread throughout the asteroid. "It may have a quite complicated internal structure," he said.

Inner Workings

It's possible the asteroid got its internal structure when a smaller body smashed into it, throwing material off. "That can fracture it, just like hitting a surface with a hammer," Busch said.

Toutatis could also have been created when two objects collided and stuck.

Or, it could have been created through the YORP effect, which explains how nothing but sunlight can cause an asteroid to start spinning. "Wind blowing on a propeller makes the propeller spin," said Dan Scheeres, an astrodynamics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who's been studying Toutatis for almost two decades. And that's similar to what happens when photons hit an uneven body, making that body spin faster, he added. Scheeres thinks that a faster-spinning Toutatis could have eventually spun so fast that it began throwing off material into space, becoming two separate bodies. These bodies would have eventually slowed down and recombined, starting the process over again.

It's still just a theory, Scheeres said, but the model explains how Toutatis and other so-called contact binaries could exist.

Scheeres and Busch will be analyzing their new observations of Toutatis as it gets closer to Earth over the next week; Busch plans to refine his model of the asteroid's spin after seeing the new radar images.

But astronomers aren't the only ones who will be able to see Toutatis on its flyby. Backyard hobbyists can get in on the fun too. At its closest approach, Toutatis will be "too faint to see with the naked eye, but well within the range of a small backyard telescope," Busch said.

(Learn about telescopes.)

And no, it's not going to hit Earth, so doomsday theorists, relax.

(Learn about potentially hazardous asteroids.)

"There may be more nonsense circulating about Toutatis than many other objects, but that's because it's a large object that makes repeated close flybys of Earth and has an interesting shape," he said.

The new Toutatis data on density and spin state was presented at the 45th annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.


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