May 29, 2009

North Korean Nuclear Tests Pose Environmental, but not Military Threat

As reported by the Associated Press, North Korea fired a short-range missile today, the sixth this week. U.S. officials say there are new signs North Korea may be planning more missile launches in a show of strength following worldwide condemnation of its underground nuclear test. The UN Security Council (UNSC) officially condemned that rocket launch by North Korea as not in compliance with previous UNSC resolutions. However, experts say that the failures of these tests, combined with domestic instability and poverty, suggest that North Korea does not pose a military threat. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that the situation was not a crisis and that no additional U.S. troops would be sent to the region.

Bear in mind that nuclear tests cause extensive environmental harm. According to Come Clean, a WMD awareness program, "Even underground tests do environmental damage. Every test creates a highly radioactive underground cavern that is in effect a large nuclear waste dump and impossible to monitor effectively. Radioactive gas and dust escapes into the air." Worldwide, there are reports of cancer, birth defects, contaminated food supplies, and long-term environmental damage as a result of nuclear tests.

May 26, 2009

Space Shuttle Hitches a Ride

Photo courtesy of NASA/Carla Thomas
Have you ever wondered how a space shuttle, after landing in California, would return home to Florida? Here's how! If weather conditions permit, returning space shuttles land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Florida storms, however, frequently divert the shuttle to Edwards Air Force Base in California. The shuttle then hitches a ride back to Florida on one of two commercial Boeing 747 airplanes modified for space shuttle piggybacking (yes, that's a real term). Officially called shuttle carrier aircraft, the planes are bolstered with struts, stabilizers, and electronic monitors.

Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely in California

2 1/2 minutes of the Space Shuttle Atlantis landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The shuttle was scheduled to land in Florida, but couldn't due to turbulent weather. This 5.8 million mile journey was the 28th mission for Atlantis. The shuttle crew repaired and upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope.

May 22, 2009

New Fossil Links Humans and...Lemurs?

A 47 million year old fossil of a small animal that scientists have named "Ida" may be the critical missing link species in primate evolution. Found in Germany, Ida has created a big media splash and will likely continue to make waves among those who study human origins.

Among the team members who found the fossil was University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich. The fossil, he says, bridges the evolutionary split between higher primates such as monkeys, apes, and humans and their more distant relatives such as lemurs. The team was led by Jorn Hurum, of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. "This is the first link to all humans," Hurum said in a statement. Ida represents "the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor." The complete study was published this week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS ONE and can be read online.

Ida, whose scientific name is Darwinius masillae, has a unique anatomy. The lemur-like skeleton features primate-like characteristics, including grasping hands, opposable thumbs, fingers with nails instead of claws, and relatively short limbs.

"This specimen looks like a really early fossil monkey that belongs to the group that includes us," commented Brian Richmond, a biological anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

May 5, 2009

Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtle in the sand
Photo courtesy of By Rabon David, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Leatherback turtles, the biggest sea turtles on earth, can tip the scales at 900 pounds. This reptile can thrive on a diet of jellyfish (stinging tentacles and all), live longer and dive deeper than any other sea turtle, and range from tropic waters to the icy Canadian coast.

The Leatherback lineage goes back a hundred million years. "It was on the beaches when T. rex was the primary predator," says Scott Eckert of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network at Duke University.

As Tim Appenzeller writes for National Geographic, "Over the past 25 years, researchers counting the Leatherbacks that crawl out to nest on tropical and subtropical beaches have sounded the alarm as the numbers have plummeted: from hundreds of thousands of turtles on the Pacific beaches of Mexico and Central America to a few hundred today; from thousands in Malaysia to a handful. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Leatherbacks as critically endangered, and to list the many ways they die is to despair: tangled and drowned in fishing gear, choked on drifting plastic bags, struck by ships, slaughtered for meat, doomed even before they can hatch when nests are dug up and the eggs sold as food or aphrodisiacs."