Astronomers: Billions of 'super-Earths' in habitable zone of red dwarf stars
An artist's rendering of sunset on Gliese 667 Cc, a previously-discovered super-Earth.
March 28th, 2012
06:30 AM ET

Astronomers: Billions of 'super-Earths' in habitable zone of red dwarf stars

If you're trying to count how many planets could be candidates for harboring life in our galaxy, this might blow your mind: Scientists now say there could be billions of them.

Astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) HARPS instrument estimate that in our galaxy, there are tens of billions of rocky planets not so much bigger than Earth orbiting red dwarf stars within the habitable zones of those relatively cool stars. A habitable zone is the area in a star system where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface without boiling away or staying frozen.

Specifically, the planets that have astronomers so excited are called super-Earths, meaning they can have up to 10 times more mass than our planet. That's important distinction because some scientists believe these super-Earths have a better chance of being habitable than planets about the size of our Earth.

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Study: Air around natural gas sites potentially harmful
Workers fix a valve on a natural gas well in South Montrose, Pennsylvania.
March 27th, 2012
03:31 PM ET

Study: Air around natural gas sites potentially harmful

When people talk about natural gas fracking and pollution, they most often are referring to the water issues sometimes associated with the wells.

But a new study suggests that air pollution should be an important part of the conversation also.

“In the development of natural gas, air should also be considered,” Lisa McKenzie, lead author of the study and research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health, said. "People living near the well are potentially at risk for health effects."

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Filed under: News
Lighting the Sky
March 27th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

Lighting the Sky

"ATREX, the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment successfully launched five suborbital sounding rockets in the early morning hours of March 27, 2012, from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as part of a study of the upper level jet stream. The first rocket launched at 4:58 a.m. EDT and each subsequent rocket launched 80 seconds apart.

Each of the rockets released a chemical tracer that created milky, white clouds at the edge of space. The launches and clouds were reported to be seen from as far south as Wilmington, N.C., west to Charlestown, W. Va., and north to Buffalo, N.Y.

The mission will gather information that will assist researchers to better understand the process responsible for the high-altitude jet stream located 60 to 65 miles above the surface of the Earth."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
NEW LOOK: North Korea's launch pad
GeoEye satellite image of North Korea's rocket launch pad taken on March 20, 2012
March 27th, 2012
10:31 AM ET

NEW LOOK: North Korea's launch pad

A new satellite image of the launch pad expected to be used by North Korea next month shows no sign yet of any launch activity.

Satellite imagery company GeoEye provided CNN a new image of the site from where North Korea's controversial rocket launch will take place.

The image of the Tongch'ang-dong facility was taken on March 20 by GeoEye. It shows no missile or launch vehicle visible, according to an analysis by GlobalSecurity.org's Tim Brown.

"Since we are about three weeks away, and based on previous DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) missile launch preparations, I would not expect to see any noticeable activity at the site until about one week prior to the launch," Brown told Security Clearance.

The imagery obtained from GeoEye, taken on March 20, shows a completed launch pad, and the extension of a 15-mile rail spur that ends at the missile checkout building.

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Filed under: In Space • Politics and Policy
James Cameron emerges from 'alien world' at ocean's depths
March 26th, 2012
12:04 PM ET

James Cameron emerges from 'alien world' at ocean's depths

Oscar-winning director James Cameron resurfaced Monday after plunging to the deepest known point in the world's oceans in his one-man submersible.

His history-making solo venture to Challenger Deep, part of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, left him feeling "complete isolation from all of humanity," he said.

"I felt like I literally in the space of one day have gone to another planet and come back."

At more than 10,900 meters (about 35,800 feet), the Mariana Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. It has had only two previous human visitors: U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and the late Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard, who descended to that spot in 1960.

FULL STORY from CNN.com

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Filed under: Ocean exploration • On Earth
Super telescope will search for secrets of the universe
March 26th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

Super telescope will search for secrets of the universe

It's been billed as an astronomical equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider, offering new insights into the formation of the universe and so powerful that it might even detect alien life.

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, one which will probe the dark heart of space shedding new light on dark matter, black holes, stars and galaxies.

"It will have a deep impact on the way we perceive our place in the universe and how we understand its history and its future," says Michiel van Haarlem, interim director general of the SKA project.

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Filed under: In Space • On Earth
Robotic wheelchair improves mobility
March 26th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Robotic device helps paraplegics stand, company says

For someone who is handicapped, everyday tasks that most of us take for granted can be difficult. Simply reaching the top shelf at the grocery store, getting out of bed in the morning and even opening a door can be a struggle.

AMS Mekatronic, a Turkish research and design company, has introduced an innovative robotic device that transforms the concept of the traditional wheelchair.

The Tek RMD, or Robotic Mobilization Device, gives someone who is disabled the ability to stand upright, move around and be put in a more "comfortable position," its creator says.

A video demonstration of the device posted by AMS Mekatronic shows Yusuf Akturkoglu, the victim of a spinal cord injury, sitting in a bed using a remote to move the Tek RMD in front of him. He can mount the device from the rear by strapping himself in and pulling himself up. Using a suspension system with gas spring balances, the user needs only to gently pull on the device's handles to rise into a standing position.

When CNN asked him about the Tek RMD, Akturkoglu said it gives him greater mobility than he had before.

"I can live my life much closer to my life before the accident," he said. "I can fit into places that I didn't used to," and the psychological impact of communicating at eye level, instead of having to look up all the time, has made him more social.

Inventor Necati Hacikadiroglu told CNN he created the device because he has "always believed robotic technology could make a difference in disabled people's lives."

He says he designed the Tek RMD with a rear-mounting mechanism that will aid those who have difficulty getting into a normal wheelchair.

"You [normally] have to lift your body with your arms and throw your body into the chair." For a lot of people, this is difficult and can be "very dangerous without outside assistance," he said.

The Shepherd Center in Atlanta specializes in treating and rehabilitating victims of spinal cord injuries. John Anschutz, manager of the Assistive Technology program at the center, says it's important that the new device allows users to navigate very tight spaces.

"I don't know of a traditional wheelchair that can get into tight spaces like the [Tek RMD] can," he said. "To allow access to small-type spaces and allow for reach in those environments is really exciting."

But he also says that this device may not replace the traditional wheelchair.

"I suspect that this would not be used as a primary chair. It seems that it's more useful in a home or office environment."

The Tek RMD costs $15,000 and is sold in Turkey. There is not yet a distributor in the U.S.

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Filed under: Discoveries • News • Robots
ISS astronauts take shelter from space junk
Six astronauts took shelter in escape capsules when orbiting junk threatened the international space station.
March 24th, 2012
08:25 AM ET

ISS astronauts take shelter from space junk

A piece of a debris from a Russian Cosmos satellite passed close enough to the international space station on Saturday that its crew was ordered into escape capsules as a precaution, NASA said.

The six crew members were told to take shelter late Friday in their Soyuz capsules after it was determined there was a small possibility the debris could hit the station, the U.S. space agency said in a statement.

NASA said it began tracking the debris early Friday morning but only decided to take the precautionary steps after an analysis showed a slight possibility of hitting the space station.

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space
China wants to dock in space
A Chinese spacesuit is displayed at the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum.
March 23rd, 2012
12:01 AM ET

China wants to dock in space

Watch out, America. China is steadily catching up in space.

Between June and August this year, China plans to send three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-9 for manual docking of the spacecraft with Tiangong 1, a space lab that has been orbiting the Earth since September.

One of the astronauts will not board the space lab, media reports say, but will remain inside the spacecraft in case of emergency.

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March 22nd, 2012
02:03 PM ET

Backyard beekeeping creates buzz

Cassandra Lawson admits that beekeeping wasn't popular and was considered "a little eccentric" when she first started.

"Most people thought that it was weird," the Decatur, Georgia, beekeeping teacher says. "Why would you want bees and you live in the middle of a city?"

But Lawson's not the only one fascinated with bees these days. Interest in beekeeping, or apiculture, has been on the rise in the United States.

Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, estimates about 150,000 noncommercial beekeepers are in the United States up from 110,000 in 2008.

The bee's role as a pollinator is an important part of commercial agriculture as well as gardening. Or as Lawson puts it, "Pretty much if we didn't have bees or other pollinators, we'd eat mush."

But what is the attraction for these urban and suburban beekeepers, who may live far from any large-scale crops?

One appears obvious: honey. Charles Berry, who came out for Lawson's introduction to beekeeping class, says, "I'm naturally a city boy, but I've always been very interested in bees and what they do, and I love honey."

But honey fiends should keep in mind that bees eat the honey as well, and Lawson recommends that you not take any honey from the bees for at least a year in order to have a productive hive.

But it's not just the honey. Some people say they are intrigued by the complex society and behaviors of the bees and see them as pets, while others find beekeeping as a way to connect with nature better.

"Bees pollinate everything that we eat so you're doing your benefit for Mother Nature," Berry says.

Michael Bush, a Nebraska computer programmer who has become a prominent voice in the backyard beekeeping community and the author of a book on the subject, said that bees are so fascinating to people that they become an obsession. " 'Bee Fever' has been well-documented for centuries. Bees are too interesting," he said via e-mail.

But while there has been a rise in backyard beekeeping in recent years, commercial beekeepers have been battling a problem known as colony collapse disorder.

The commercial beekeepers have found their bee colonies stricken by mysterious failures that have been attributed to various causes from pesticides to lack of genetic diversity to the chemicals used in beekeeping to try to keep bees pest-free.

Some have even speculated that cell phones somehow interfere with bees' navigational senses. No definitive cause has been determined, with major studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finding a variety of factors responsible for the cases it documented.

Given the worry over the insect's future, many of the new wave of beekeepers see their role as defenders of bees to help propagate the population if commercial colonies suffer a catastrophic decline.

Bush said he recognizes that concerns about colony collapse disorder may be a driving force in the rise behind beekeeping, and he sees the increase as a good thing.

"For one thing, it makes people aware of reality," he said. "Bees are tied into the entire ecology around you, and when you keep bees, you begin to be aware of that ecology and that real world instead of the virtual world of TV and the Internet."

For her part, Lawson said the disorder whatever the cause is not something about which backyard beekeepers have to worry.

But there are plenty of other hazards that can befall urban beekeepers, and Lawson has some advice for neighbors who can make the environment more hospitable to bees: Avoid "monoculturing" their yards.

"Let the clover and dandelion grow. Don't mow all the time. Don't use pesticides unnecessarily. ... Let your yard be a meadow," she said.

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Filed under: On Earth • Voices
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