CCNet 48/2003 - 2 June 2003

"The conclusions of the NEO workshop report indicate that any increased effort in assessing the NEO hazard/risk should be considered through an internationally collaborative approach. Following consideration of the workshop's report by the OECD GSF in the middle of the year, 1 will write to you again."
--From Peter McGauran to Jay Tate, 13 May 2003

"The race to find life on Mars is set to begin on Monday with the launch of Europe's first voyage to another planet. Three probes are leaving Earth this summer, starting with the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. It carries the Beagle 2 lander, which, if all goes well, will become the first British-built craft to touch down on another world. The launch marks the start of a new golden age in Mars exploration."
--Helen Briggs, BBC News Online, 2 June 2003 

    BBC News Online, 2 Jnue 2003

    The Daily Sentinel, 31 May 2003

    Odessa American, 30 May 2003

    Jay Tate

    Andrew Yee

    S. Fred Singer

    The Boston Globe, 31 May 2003


BBC News Online, 2 Jnue 2003

By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter

The race to find life on Mars is set to begin on Monday with the launch of Europe's first voyage to another planet.

Three probes are leaving Earth this summer, starting with the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission.

It carries the Beagle 2 lander, which, if all goes well, will become the first British-built craft to touch down on another world.

The launch marks the start of a new golden age in Mars exploration.

The US space agency (Nasa) is sending two missions to the fourth planet. The first of its Mars Exploration Rovers should leave Earth in a week or so.

Another Mars traveller is destined to arrive early next year. Japan's Nozomi craft should reach the planet early in 2004 after a long journey beset by mishaps.

Gold rush

There has long been interest in exploring Mars because it is believed to be the planet most likely to harbour life.

Clues that Mars once had oceans, lakes and possibly microbes have sparked a "gold rush" to send unmanned space craft to visit the planet.

The United States and Russia have spent billions since the 1960s trying to land a dozen or so space craft on the Red Planet.

Only three have been successful so far: Nasa's two Viking probes, which landed in 1976, and its Mars Pathfinder, which explored the surface in 1997.

Mars Express is Europe's first solo mission to Mars and indeed any planet.

Final launch preparations are underway at the Russian Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The first opportunity for the craft to be blasted into space comes on Monday at 1745 GMT (1845 BST).

The orbiter with the lander on board will go up on the Russian rocket that has become the workhorse of the space industry, a Soyuz/Fregat launcher.

Arid wilderness

The space craft will cover a distance of about 400 million kilometres (250 million miles) on the six-month journey to Mars.

Its main scientific goal is to detect vast reservoirs of water thought to be trapped under the Martian surface using a ground-penetrating radar. It will also take images of Mars and conduct a geological survey of the planet.

Between them, Mars Express and Beagle 2 could answer one of the biggest questions in science: Is there, or was there, life on Mars?

The chances depend much on what happened early in the planet's history when it was probably warm and wet like the Earth rather than the frozen, arid wilderness it is today.

"The question is: where is that water? Has it disappeared or is it still there below the surface?" says Mars Express project scientist Agustin Chicarro. "We hope to find that out."

As Mars Express nears the planet, it will drop Beagle 2 into a basin that could once have contained water and life.

The small robotic probe, about the size of a garden barbecue, will dig into Martian rocks and soil to search for the chemical signature of life.

Hunting for life on Mars is a bold move for Beagle 2, a tiny space craft with a small budget.

Mars missions have a high failure rate

Life detection experiments on Mars have only been conducted once before - during the Viking missions of 1976.

While the Viking landers did not find any conclusive signs of life, technology has advanced since then.

"The experiments being used on Beagle are about as good as you can get," says Dr Charles Cockell, a Mars biologist at the British Antarctic Survey.

"It is difficult to know what Beagle might find but if it did find evidence of life, that would be incredible.

"The fun thing is, what questions will it send back and what will it answer?"


The Daily Sentinel, 31 May 2003


MONTROSE - A team of researchers is in Montrose and Gunnison this weekend to gather information that could lead to the discovery of fragments of a fireball that lit the nighttime skies in five states last Thanksgiving.

The Nov. 28 fireball weighed around 200 pounds before it broke up about 23 miles above the ground, according to researchers with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, formerly the Denver Museum of Natural History.

Curator of Geology Dr. Jack Murphy said it may have been the largest and brightest fireball to come down over Colorado in several decades. The rock may have broken apart near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, about 10 miles northeast of Montrose.

But Murphy and Chris Peterson, a physicist and research assistant, believe meteorites might have landed in more than one place along the fireball's flight path. They think Gunnison and Montrose counties are likely locations.

Murphy and his team gave a presentation Friday night at Montrose High School on what local residents should look for if they go out meteorite hunting. After a search near the north rim of the Black Canyon today, another presentation is scheduled for Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Elk Creek Visitor Center in Gunnison.

The fireball was the first to be recorded by a video camera linked to the museum's All Sky monitoring program. The camera is on top of Montrose High School, while a security camera on top of a building in Longmont also filmed the fireball.

Nearly 350 witness reports from Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah were received.

"The eyewitness reports are especially helpful in determining the track of the fireball," Murphy said.

His team planned to interview Montrose-area witnesses this weekend.

But Murphy isn't sure what - if anything - might be found. Of Colorado's 81 confirmed meteorites, only five were found on the Western Slope, he said.

"Most of them are plowed up on the eastern plains, but they do fall evenly everywhere," Murphy said. "It's just a matter of people finding them and they're hard to recognize in the mountains where you have so many rocks and boulders. They can also bury themselves and some of them erode fairly rapidly."

Montrose High School science teacher Mike Nadiak and some of his students analyzed data from their school's All Sky camera as part of the investigation.

"We got about a half dozen really good pictures," Nadiak said. "It looks like a bright light, then it gets brighter and then it explodes. It was one of the most amazing things for people to see in the sky around here."

The security camera video shows the rapid, fiery atmospheric entry and a large bright flare as the meteor broke apart midway through its descent. After the flare, the video shows the meteor continuing toward the southwest horizon.

Last week, Murphy and his team were in Rifle to donate a plaster of Paris replica of the 113-pound Rifle meteorite to the Rifle Creek Museum.

That meteorite was found around 1948, about 10 miles northwest of Rifle. Until the last few years, it was believed the Rifle rock was a piece from the well-known Canyon Diablo meteorite in Arizona. Recent study confirmed its unique geological properties and it is now listed in the World Catalog of Meteorites as the "Rifle" meteorite.

Mike McKibbin can be reached via e-mail at .

© 2003 Cox Newspapers, Inc.

Odessa American, 30 May 2003

By Julie Breaux

A trio of scientists trying to get the Odessa meteor crater to give up its age were met by stiff resistance at the prehistoric site Thursday.

The three University of Arizona scientists pulled several core samples of sediment from beneath the floor of the crater, a National Natural Landmark located about seven miles west of Odessa.
Led by Vance Holliday, a professor of anthropology and geoscience, the group included David Kring, professor of geoscience and planetary science, and James Mayer, a field assistant who is studying for his doctorate in geosciences.

The group is taking core samples so Holliday can determine the exact age of the crater, which has never been done before, Holliday said.

But at about 20 feet below ground, the doughnut-shaped drill bit attached to a long hollow tube in which the core samples were being collected struck something so impenetrable that the field work came to halt.

The group arrived at the site just after daybreak to begin boring through infill sediment at the approximate center of the crater, which is 510 feet in diameter, its deepest depression about 30 feet below the surface of the surrounding, mesquite-choked plain.

Holliday, Kring and Mayer hope to leave Odessa with 40 feet or more of core samples, Holliday said.

From them, Holliday may be able to determine when chunks from a huge iron asteroid that broke up in the atmosphere slammed into the ground at an estimated 40,000 miles an hour, Kring said.
Holliday estimated the cosmic event happened between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. The core samples will help pin that timeline down and more, Kring said.

Kring, who specializes in studying the impact of meteor craters, said he will use analyses of the organic makeup of the soil to reconstruct what the environment was like thousands of year ago, what types of plants and animals were living here when the meteor struck West Texas.
"So this is a time when this part of North American had mastodons and mammoths and giant ground sloths and things of that sort," Kring said. "But until we get a precise date, we won't be able to gather that picture with any detail."

Kring came to Odessa with impressive credentials.

He was a principal investigator at the Chicxulub Scientific Drilling Project near Merida, Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact of the Chicxulub meteor is believed to have led to one of the greatest mass extinctions on Earth, including that of the dinosaur.

Because relatively few large meteor craters remain intact, the Odessa meteor crater is a "fantastic and rare educational opportunity" for area residents and the scientific community.
"Impact cratering is the dominant geological process in the solar system," he said. "It is the process that shapes planets moreso than any other process."

Impact cratering alters the environment, moving water around and creating a new habitat for plants and animals. That has occurred in Odessa, but to what extent isn't known - yet.
"The Chicxulub crater wiped out the dinosaurs, and it wiped out more than 75 percent of the species of plants and animals, both on land and in the sea, from the face of the Earth," Kring said. "And that cleared the way for mammals to evolve. If that impact didn't occur, we wouldn't be here. So having a center like this is an extraordinary opportunity. ."

Copyright © 1999-2003 Odessa American. All rights reserved.


Jay Tate < ]


The list might be interested in this letter just received at the Spaceguard Centre from Australia. Unless I am very much mistaken it boils down to "we are going to do nothing as a nation, and we'll wait to see what the OECD decides to do in the future."

Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600 T (02) 6277 7440 F: (02) 6273 7330 E:

13 May 2003

The International Spaceguard Information Centre
Llanshay Lane
Powys LD7 ILW

In 2002 1 received correspondence from you concerning Australia's involvement in activities to monitor asteroids and other 'Near Earth Objects' (NE0s) of potential concern.

You may recall that in my reply, I referred to Australia's membership of the OECD's Global Science Forum (GSF), which established a steering committee in January 2002 to advise on what might be done to study the NEO issues and give advice to governments on what is known and what more might need to be done.

This GSF NEO steering committee organised an international workshop on NEOs which was held at the European Space Research Institute, Frascati, Italy from 20-22 January, 2003. With assistance provided by the Federal Government, Australia was represented at the workshop by an expert in risk modelling, Dr John Schneider, Group Leader, Geohazards & Urban Risk Research, Geoscience Australia.

A draft report on the outcomes of the workshop has been released on the OECD's website: . I have enclosed an extract from the report listing its conclusions.

The outcomes of the workshop will be discussed at the next meeting of the OECD GSF to be held in late June this year. Professor Vicki Sara, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council is the head of the Australian delegation to the OECD GS17.

You may already know that Australia invests around $40 million each year on astronomy research. The Federal Government contributes the major proportion of this, including $14 million annually through the CSIRO, with Universities spending over $24 million.

In 1995, a review of astronomy research by the Australian Academy of Science's National Committee for Astronomy established that areas other than asteroid detection had higher priority in the astronomy community. The funding priorities were reviewed in 2001, and there was no change to those identified in 1995.

Astronomers placed access to the major international Gemini telescope project, and participation in the early stages of international work towards a major new telescope - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), as their top priority, to which the Government responded.

The Government provides $23.5 million for Australia's participation in the Gemini and SKA projects. These funds also provide for increased computing capacity at Swinburne University's Centre of Astrophysics and Supercomputing and the Parkes Radio Telescope as part of the SKA project.

The Government also funds astronomy projects through the Australian Research Council's grants programs and ongoing support of the Anglo Australian Observatory.

Astronomy is a collaborative world activity, with no one country able to cover every issue. Australia is a respected and leading member of the world's astronomy community and contributes substantially to discoveries of major importance.

The attached conclusions of the NEO workshop report indicate that any increased effort in assessing the NEO hazard/risk should be considered through an internationally collaborative approach.

Following consideration of the workshop's report by the OECD GSF in the middle of the year, 1 will write to you again.

Yours sincerely
Peter McGauran


Andrew Yee < >

BioMed Central Limited
London, U.K.

Gemma Bradley, , +44 (0) 20 7323 0323

Embargo until 28 May 2003, 13:00 GMT

Born under the sun: UV light and the origin of life

Early evolution of life as we know it may have depended on DNA's ability to absorb UV light. This insight into the early moments of life on Earth comes from research published today in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

The research fills in one of the major gaps in our understanding about the origins of life: how single molecules were able to join together to create the self-replicating long chain molecules of RNA, the precursors of DNA. It "sheds new light on the earliest steps of evolution," write Armen Mulkidjanian and his colleagues from Osnabrück University, Germany and National Institutes of Health, USA.

With no ozone layer the primordial Earth was a hostile place. This was especially true for long-chain molecules that would be broken up by UV radiation, which was at 100 times today's level. Most existing theories about how life evolved involve hiding the first life forms away from the light. Instead, Mulkidjanian and his colleagues have investigated the idea that high levels of UV light hitting the primordial earth were vital to RNA's survival.

The researchers used computer-modelling technology to assess the ability of RNA to form from its constituent parts, sugar phosphates and nitrogenous bases, with and without high levels of UV light. They found that the ability of nitrogenous bases to absorb and disperse UV radiation could protect the backbone of primordial RNA from breaks. Under high levels of UV, RNA molecules were more stable than other large molecules and the small molecules that join together to create the RNA. This gave RNA molecules a selective advantage, so that their levels then increased through the simulated process of natural selection. Moreover, part of the energy from the absorbed UV light could have driven the elongation of RNA chains.

"The suggested mechanism turns the high UV levels on primordial Earth from a perceived obstacle to the origin of life into the selective factor that, in fact, might have driven the whole process", write the authors.

"It seems quite unlikely that the extremely effective UV-quenching by all major nitrogenous bases is just incidental. We can assume that these bases were selected to perform the UV-protecting function before they became involved in the maintenance and transfer of genetic information. In this (primordial) world the nitrogenous bases served just as protecting units. Accordingly these units were replaceable and variable. Exactly this variability could have paved the way to the variability of the future genomes".

Three of the four nitrogenous bases that protected RNA from UV on primordial Earth are the same as those that make up the genetic code of DNA. Ironically, the ability of DNA to absorb UV light is now responsible for many skin cancer deaths. When the bases of DNA absorb UV light they often suffer structural damage, although the DNA backbone remains intact. If this damage occurs within a gene it can lead to the alteration of that gene, which may cause cancer.

Notes for editor

Upon publication on Wednesday 28th May at 13:00 GMT, this article will be freely available online via, according to BioMed Central's policy of open access to research articles:

    Survival of the fittest before the beginning of life.
    Selection of the first oligonucleotide-like polymers by UV light
    Armen Y. Mulkidjanian, Dmitry A. Cherepanov, Michael Y. Galperin
    BMC Evolutionary Biology

Please publish the URL in any news report so that your readers will be able to read the original paper.

Contact the authors:

Dr. Mulkidjanian can be contacted by phone on +49-541-969-2871 or by email at

Dr. Galperin can be contacted by phone on +1-301-435-5910 or by email at

For any further information please contact Gemma Bradley by email at or by phone on +44 (0)20 7323 0323 x2331.

BMC Evolutionary Biology ( is published by BioMed Central (, an independent online publishing house committed to providing immediate free access to peer-reviewed biological and medical research. This commitment is based on the view that open access to research is essential to the rapid and efficient
communication of science. In addition to open-access original research, BioMed Central also publishes reviews and other subscription-based content.



S. Fred Singer < >

Dear Benny

While I generally agree with Williams' arguments that "SARS is not from Mars" (CCNet 29/05/03), I just wish to point out that radiation belts do not "protect'" from solar or cosmic radiation. On a different note: One remarkable feature was the rapid identification and characterization of the virus. Another positive development from the SARS epidemic was the active collaboration between scientists and laboratories from different continents. We may be thankful some day for having had this experience. If and when a new viral disease appears in future -- whether natural or manmade -- the world will be better prepared --  thanks to the SARS opportunity to test defenses.

Best                          Fred


From The Boston Globe, 31 May 2003

By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff

Richard Binzel is in charge of preventing global catastrophe. But when the federal terror alert level was raised from ''elevated'' to ''high'' last week, he didn't pay much attention.

''The scale doesn't say what anyone should do differently,'' said Binzel, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has some experience in designing warning systems. He helped create what is known as the Torino Scale to assess the risks of an asteroid or comet striking the earth, and whether its consequences could ''threaten the future of civilization.''

Like business leaders in industries such as nuclear power and chemical manufacturing who study the problem of how to warn the public of an impending danger, Binzel worries the government's five-color Homeland Security Advisory System is too vague to generate the attention it deserves. But Binzel has adjusted his own warning scale to include more specific information -- and acknowledges he's been having trouble finding just the right words to convey what actions people should take.

''You have to get it down to a simple take-home message in which people can say, `Should I pay attention to this or not?' ''

Binzel's struggles show the broader problem facing emergency officials trying to categorize unpredictable, threatening events. The federal advisory system was much maligned by comedians as ''a national mood ring'' when it was introduced in March 2002, and it's hard to say how much notice it gets with the public. After officials raised their official warning color to ''orange'' on May 20, because US intelligence officials concluded that Al Qaeda may resume attacks on US soil, it was rare to find people who said they had shifted their routines as a result.

''I wouldn't change my regular behavior because it's not clear how or why I should change it,'' said Alicia Bucknam, a public relations executive from Melrose. Yesterday, federal officials reduced the level back to ''yellow,'' the middle level of risk on the five-color scale, citing a decrease in threatening signs and the passing of the Memorial Day holiday. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security referred questions about the scale to the agency's public affairs office, which wouldn't make anyone available for comment.

But this week, department secretary Tom Ridge also gave the first sign that he thinks the country needs a nationwide emergency-alert system that would make use of new communications technologies. ''At the end of the day [we need] an emergency alert system that communicates to telephones, wireless systems, pagers, and the like,'' he said at a May 28 meeting at the Federal Communications Commission, according to Government Computer News, a trade publication.

Kenneth Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning, a nonprofit advisory group backed by Bedford-based Mitre Corp., said Ridge's comments were also the first time he has acknowledged publicly there is work to be done beyond the warning scale.

''He may be starting to understand that the color scheme works to tell everybody what is the national mood . . . but that if something happens and we want to get the word out to people, there will be all these issues'' about exactly how to do it, said Allen, who attended the meeting.

Government officials and company executives have struggled since the depths of the Cold War to come up with a system that would alert Americans to impending danger, often with mixed results.

The widely known Emergency Alert System can be used to broadcast official warnings over television and radio stations, but previous talk of upgrading it to send warnings over cellphones and pagers has made slow progress. On Sept. 11, 2001, an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency put the system on standby, but didn't activate it. (Late-night TV viewers know the system from its occasional practice runs: ''This is a test of the Emergency Alert System -- this is only a test . . .'')

Since then, many industries and officials have debated a host of measures for how to make the best use of the country's warning infrastructure to minimize the risks of terrorism. Some of these have generated derision, such as Ridge's suggestion earlier this year to stockpile duct tape. Other policy debates have been sharper, such as whether the Commerce Department's weather radio system should the basis of an all-hazard warning system.

But the central challenge involves how to develop a warning system that conveys remedies as well as risks. ''One of the messages that sociologists give us, and which I think is right, is that you never present a risk without telling people what they should do about it,'' said Lucy Jones, chief scientist at the Pasadena, Calif., office of the US Geological Survey, which tries to alert residents of earthquake aftershocks.

People who have met with Ridge's staff, such as David Ropeik, who studies risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, say officials at least understand the concern.

Ropeik worries that using the color-coded scale alone raises the level of fear in general. ''Frightened people make dangerous choices,'' he said. For instance, some people will drive rather than fly, statistically a safer activity. Also, Ropeik noted an FBI finding that firearm sales have gone up about 5 percent after terror alerts.

Ropeik doesn't condemn the advisory system, however. Without access to more classified intelligence, he said, ''it's impossible to say that they're doing well, or poorly, or whether they're giving us enough specifics about what they're warning us about.'' Another past federal adviser, John Sorensen, a researcher at Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee and the author of several academic studies of effective warning, said he would scrap the current five-color warning system.

''It doesn't bring any credibility to the agency and I think it creates a public perception that even if they knew something, they're withholding information,'' Sorensen said. ''That's the wrong way to communicate with the public.''

Ross Kerber can be reached at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 5/31/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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