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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Antarctic fungi survive Martian conditions on the International Space Station

Madrid, Spain (SPX)
Jan 29, 2016

European scientists have gathered tiny fungi that take shelter in Antarctic rocks and sent them to the International Space Station. After 18 months on board in conditions similar to those on Mars, more than 60% of their cells remained intact, with stable DNA. The results provide new information for the search for life on the red planet. Lichens from the Sierra de Gredos (Spain) and the Alps (Austria) also traveled into space for the same experiment.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys, located in the Antarctic Victoria Land, are considered to be the most similar earthly equivalent to Mars. They make up one of the driest and most hostile environments on our planet, where strong winds scour away even snow and ice. Only so-called cryptoendolithic microorganisms, capable of surviving in cracks in rocks, and certain lichens can withstand such harsh climatological conditions.

A few years ago a team of European researchers traveled to these remote valleys to collect samples of two species of cryptoendolithic fungi: Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri. The aim was to send them to the International Space Station (ISS) for them to be subjected to Martian conditions and space to observe their responses.

The tiny fungi were placed in cells (1.4 centimetres in diameter) on a platform for experiments known as EXPOSE-E, developed by the European Space Agency to withstand extreme environments. The platform was sent in the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the ISS and placed outside the Columbus module with the help of an astronaut from the team led by Belgian Frank de Winne.

For 18 months half of the Antarctic fungi were exposed to Mars-like conditions. More specifically, this is an atmosphere with 95% CO2, 1.6% argon, 0.15% oxygen, 2.7% nitrogen and 370 parts per million of H2O; and a pressure of 1,000 pascals. Through optical filters, samples were subjected to ultra-violet radiation as if on Mars (higher than 200 nanometers) and others to lower radiation, including separate control samples.

"The most relevant outcome was that more than 60% of the cells of the endolithic communities studied remained intact after 'exposure to Mars', or rather, the stability of their cellular DNA was still high," highlights Rosa de la Torre Noetzel from Spain's National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), co-researcher on the project.

The scientist explains that this work, published in the journal Astrobiology, forms part of an experiment known as the Lichens and Fungi Experiment (LIFE), "with which we have studied the fate or destiny of various communities of lithic organisms during a long-term voyage into space on the EXPOSE-E platform."

"The results help to assess the survival ability and long-term stability of microorganisms and bioindicators on the surface of Mars, information which becomes fundamental and relevant for future experiments centered around the search for life on the red planet," states De la Torre.

Also lichens from Gredos and the Alps

Researchers from the LIFE experiment, coordinated from Italy by Professor Silvano Onofri from the University of Tuscany, have also studied two species of lichens (Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans) which can withstand extreme high-mountain environments. These have been gathered from the Sierra de Gredos (Avila, Spain) and the Alps (Austria), with half of the specimens also being exposed to Martian conditions.

Another range of samples (both lichens and fungi) was subjected to an extreme space environment (with temperature fluctuations of between -21.5 and +59.6 + C, galactic-cosmic radiation of up to 190 megagrays, and a vacuum of between 10-7 to 10-4 pascals). The effect of the impact of ultra-violet extraterrestrial radiation on half of the samples was also examined.

After the year-and-a-half-long voyage, and the beginning of the experiment on Earth, the two species of lichens 'exposed to Mars' showed double the metabolic activity of those that had been subjected to space conditions, even reaching 80% more in the case of the species Xanthoria elegans.

The results showed subdued photosynthetic activity or viability in the lichens exposed to the harsh conditions of space (2.5% of samples), similar to that presented by the fungal cells (4.11%). In this space environment, 35% of fungal cells were also seen to have kept their membranes intact, a further sign of the resistance of Antarctic fungi.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Antarctic_fungi_survive_Martian_conditions_on_the_International_Space_Station_999.html.

US remembers astronauts killed, pledges to reach Mars

Washington (AFP)
Jan 28, 2016

The United States marked the 30th anniversary Thursday of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle with a pledge to remember lost astronauts as it presses on toward Mars.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the shuttle blasted off on January 28, 1986, singers in red and blue belted out the Star Spangled Banner for a crowd that included relatives and friends of the seven killed that day.

Six NASA astronauts and Christa McAuliffe -- who would have been the first teacher in space -- died when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff.

The cause was a failed booster engine, according to the US space agency.

"These brave women and men are forever a part of a story that is ongoing," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"It is a story that will bring human beings to Mars and out into our solar system -- and beyond. It is a story made possible by their sacrifice and heroism."

Wreaths were laid at Arlington National Cemetery near the US capitol as NASA commemorated the 24 US lives lost in space disasters and test flights over the years.

"As we undertake a journey to Mars, they will be with us. They have our eternal respect, love and gratitude," said a statement by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut.

"On this solemn occasion, we pause in our normal routines and remember."

The other major shuttle accident was on February 1, 2003. Seven people died aboard the Columbia shuttle when it broke into pieces while re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

NASA said later that a piece of foam had come loose from the external tank during launch, and formed a hole in one of the shuttle's wings, causing it to break up 16 minutes before it was to have landed.

- Astronaut honors best friend -

The US space agency also commemorated the three men who died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, before the nation ever made it to the moon.

"Remembering the crews today that we've lost, especially my best friend Ed White who perished in the Apollo 1 fire," astronaut Buzz Aldrin -- the second person to step foot on the Moon after American astronaut Neil Armstrong -- said on Twitter.

Bolden also recalled the 1967 loss of Mike Adams who died on an X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft, and others who perished in "test flights and aeronautics research throughout our history."

Shortly after taking office, Obama cancelled a NASA program to return to the moon, saying he preferred to funnel resources into deep space exploration and aimed to have a human mission to Mars under way by the 2030s.

The space shuttle program was formally ended in 2011 after three decades of ferrying astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

Its retirement left the United States with no vehicle for human space travel.

In the meantime, the world's astronauts hitch rides to the International Space Station aboard Russia's Soyuz capsules, while private companies Boeing and SpaceX ready their own spaceships for use in 2017 and beyond and NASA focuses on building its Orion deep space capsule.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/US_remembers_astronauts_killed_pledges_to_reach_Mars_999.html.

The Milky Way's clean and tidy galactic neighbor

Munich, Germany (SPX)
Jan 28, 2016

IC 1613 is a dwarf galaxy in the constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster). This VST image shows the galaxy's unconventional beauty, all scattered stars and bright pink gas, in great detail.

German astronomer Max Wolf discovered IC 1613's faint glow in 1906. In 1928, his compatriot Walter Baade used the more powerful 2.5-meter telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California to successfully make out its individual stars. From these observations, astronomers figured out that the galaxy must be quite close to the Milky Way, as it is only possible to resolve single pinprick-like stars in the very nearest galaxies to us.

Astronomers have since confirmed that IC 1613 is indeed a member of the Local Group, a collection of more than 50 galaxies that includes our home galaxy, the Milky Way. IC 1613 itself lies just over 2.3 million light-years away from us. It is relatively well-studied due to its proximity; astronomers have found it to be an irregular dwarf that lacks many of the features, such as a starry disc, found in some other diminutive galaxies.

However, what IC 1613 lacks in form, it makes up for in tidiness. We know IC 1613's distance to a remarkably high precision, partly due to the unusually low levels of dust lying both within the galaxy and along the line of sight from the Milky Way - something that enables much clearer observations.

The second reason we know the distance to IC 1613 so precisely is that the galaxy hosts a number of notable stars of two types: Cepheid variables and RR Lyrae variables. Both types of star rhythmically pulsate, growing characteristically bigger and brighter at fixed intervals.

As we know from our daily lives on Earth, shining objects such as light bulbs or candle flames appear dimmer the further they are away from us. Astronomers can use this simple piece of logic to figure out exactly how far away things are in the Universe-- so long as they know how bright they really are, referred to as their intrinsic brightness.

Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables have the special property that their period of brightening and dimming is linked directly to their intrinsic brightness. So, by measuring how quickly they fluctuate astronomers can work out their intrinsic brightness. They can then compare these values to their apparent measured brightness and work out how far away they must be to appear as dim as they do.

Stars of known intrinsic brightness can act like standard candles, as astronomers say, much like how a candle with a specific brightness would act as a good gauge of distance intervals based on the observed brightness of its flame's flicker.

Using standard candles - such as the variable stars within IC 1613 and the less-common Type Ia supernova explosions, which can seen across far greater cosmic distances - astronomers have pieced together a cosmic distance ladder, reaching deeper and deeper into space.

Decades ago, IC 1613 helped astronomers work out how to utilize variable stars to chart the Universe's grand expanse. Not bad for a little, shapeless galaxy.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/The_Milky_Ways_clean_and_tidy_galactic_neighbor_999.html.

Astronomers discover largest solar system

by Brooks Hays
Hertfordshire, England (UPI)
Jan 27, 2016

An international team of astronomers has identified the largest solar system in the universe.

It turns out an object previously thought to be unattached and lost in space is actually orbiting a distant star. The planet and star are more than 620 billion miles apart -- 7,000 times farther apart than the sun and Earth.

2MASS J2126 was first spotted several years ago. Researchers from the United States believed it to be either a failed star or a free-floating planet. A failed star, or brown dwarf, is a gas sphere not quite massive enough to generate fusion.

Size and age help astronomers differentiate gas giants from brown dwarfs, but scientists continue to disagree on the distinction between a large gas giant and a small brown dwarf.

A team of Canadian astronomers determined that 2MASS J2126 was on the low end of the brown dwarf scale -- small enough and young enough to be a rogue planet, a gas giant expelled from its home into interstellar space.

A group of scientists in England took a third look at the object and discovered a link with a distant star. Their calculations showed that 2MASS J2126 and TYC 9486-927-1 were moving through space at the same speed and on a similar trajectory, suggesting they are related.

"This is the widest planet system found so far and both the members of it have been known for eight years, but nobody had made the link between the objects before," Niall Deacon, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire, said in a press release. "The planet is not quite as lonely as we first thought, but it's certainly in a very long distance relationship."

By measuring the strength of the host star's lithium, astronomers determined it to be between 10 million and 45 million years old. The star's age allowed scientists to estimate the mass of 2MASS J2126, which they pegged at somewhere between 11.6 to 15 times the mass of Jupiter.

The object takes 900,000 years to complete a single orbit around its star. Over the course of its lifetime, 2MASS J2126 has completed fewer than 50 orbits.

The new record-setting star-planet duo is described in a new paper forthcoming the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Astronomers_discover_largest_solar_system_999.html.

Russia to Rearm Two More Missile Divisions With Yars ICBMs

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jan 31, 2016

Russia's Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) have started rearmament of two more missile divisions with advanced RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems, SMF Commander Col. Gen. Sergey Karakayev said Friday.

RS-24 Yars (NATO reporting name SS-27 Mod 2) carries ICBMs with multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads and has a range of 11,000 kilometers (some 6,800 miles.)

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Yars entered service with the SMF in 2010.

"We are continuing on a regular basis the production and deployment on combat duty [of Yars missile systems]...and started the rearmament of two more divisions - the Yoshkar-Ola and the Irkutsk divisions," Karakayev said in an interview with Rossiya-24 television.

The general said six regiments of three missile divisions (the Novosibirsk, the Tagil and the Koselsk divisions) had already been rearmed with Yars systems...

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Russia_to_Rearm_Two_More_Missile_Divisions_With_Yars_ICBMs_999.html.

As Russian food prices spike higher, some winners emerge

January 29, 2016

PAVLISHCHEVO, Russia (AP) — For Olga Druganina, Russia's economic turmoil has been a great business opportunity.

Four years ago, the former employee at an industrial machines company began to develop her modest farm near Moscow as a business. She started out simply wanting to feed family and friends, but Russian bans on foreign foods and the plunging value of the currency encouraged her to expand and tap the growing national demand for local produce.

First came President Vladimir Putin's sanctions on U.S. and European Union food products in 2014, a response to international sanctions over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis. Over the last year, the low oil price has brought down the value of the Russian ruble, making imported food more expensive.

"It was a little agriculture to supply our family's needs but when it happened that the sanctions appeared, all that gave a push to our farm's development," Druganina says. "We started developing and got a lot of interest from both small shops and chain stores, and in general from people who want to consume healthy food."

Now, as part of a farmers' cooperative selling high-end organic dairy products to moneyed Muscovites, Druganina employs 18 people and keeps more than 450 cows, sheep, goats and even buffaloes. Her products — cheese, milk, and traditional berry-flavored yoghurts — sell at a premium at the LavkaLavka chain of boutique shops across Moscow, a growing presence named after the Russian for "market stall." Its customers include many who would previously have bought now unaffordable or unavailable imported products.

Local food producers like Druganina are the most visible beneficiaries of the Russian government's policy of import substitution, aiming to replace costlier imported goods with home-grown alternatives. While Putin has called for Russia to head toward self-sufficiency in food, this will take years.

At the other end of the market from Druganina, McDonald's is another surprising winner from Russia's refocusing on domestic food. At a time when sharp food price rises have put Russian family budgets under pressure, the ability to compete on price is key for fast food retailers. Food prices rose 14 percent last year, according to the state statistics agency, at a time when real wages are falling and unemployment rising.

A long-standing policy to source as many ingredients as possible locally has paid off for the U.S. fast-food giant, which says it serves 1.1 million customers a day in Russia. McDonald's opened 59 new restaurants in Russia last year and picked out the country as a high growth market in its 2015 financial results. That's particularly surprising considering the Russian economy shrank 3.7 percent last year and is forecast to remain in recession in 2016.

McDonald's is "definitely benefiting" from having a Russia-based production network for many of its products, says Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Pantyushin of Sberbank, who points out that the company's signature Big Mac is cheaper in Russia than almost anywhere else in the world when compared to local earnings. The Big Mac is also the centerpiece of the localization strategy, with all its ingredients produced in Russia.

It is a surprising turnaround for a company which less than two years ago was under apparent political pressure in Russia. Some of its flagship restaurants were temporarily shut down in Moscow by Russian health watchdogs at a time when Russia was hit with U.S. sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

Pantyushin said many Russian consumers are switching to cheaper food products — swapping out beef for chicken, for example — and avoiding imported fruit and vegetables. "Right now it's maybe even historically the deepest effect on consumption levels since the 1990s," when Russia was in economic chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said. However, modern consumers are not faced with empty shelves and have more choice when looking to cut spending.

"Back then, I remember people were really living on basic staples, like cereals," Pantyushin said. "Meat was expensive but even more importantly, meat was not available in the same quantity that it is now."

Ellingworth reported from Moscow.

Russia developing space age fighter jet

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jan 25, 2016

MiG-41. This superfast interceptor is not yet off the drawing board at the Mikoyan military aircraft design bureau, but the final draft may be ready already within the next couple of years with mass production scheduled to begin before 2025, Zvezda television channel reported on Friday.

There is not very much known about the MiG-41 because everything about this plane, just like with all top modern military projects, remains classified.

All we know is that the Mikoyan bureau has been working on the design of a long-range interceptor, based on their MiG-31, since 2013 as part of a plan to replace the ageing fleet of MiG-31 fighter jets whose active service life expires in 2028.

Even though the MiG-31 is the fastest military aircraft around, it will eventually have to make way for newer and more advanced types of aircraft.

Like the MiG-41, which will be years and years ahead of its predecessors and able to intercept even the hypersonic drones now being developed in the United States no existing missiles, except Russia's S-500 will theoretically be able to shoot down.

"The MiG-41 will embody all the advantages of the MiG-31 fighter-interceptor," Alexander Tarnayev, a member of the State Duma's Defense Committee, said.

This will require numerous testing platforms, which may be why hundreds of MiG-31s will be overhauled and put into service with the Russian Air Force.

The main features of the MiG-41 are not yet known, but one thing is clear: a plane flying faster than missiles (the MiG-41 is designed to fly at Mach 4.0 and even Mach 4.3) is a convincing deterrent against any aggression.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Russia_developing_space_age_fighter_jet_999.html.

India marks Republic Day with camels and stunt-riders

New Delhi (AFP)
Jan 26, 2016

Thousands gathered in New Delhi amid tight security Tuesday for India's annual Republic Day parade, a pomp-filled spectacle of military might featuring camels and daredevil stunt riders, with French President Francois Hollande the chief guest.

A contingent of French infantry in India for joint military exercises led the march down the capital's central Rajpath avenue, the first time foreign troops have ever taken part in the parade.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Hollande in a show of solidarity with France after Islamist attacks in Paris last November killed 130 -- recalling a 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166.

The two leaders agreed in talks Monday to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks and a deadly siege this month on an Indian air force base near the Pakistan border.

The mood on Tuesday was more celebratory, with Modi -- sporting a gold turban that rivaled the spectacular military headgear on display -- and Hollande chatting as they sat side by side in a bulletproof glass enclosure.

An estimated 10,000 spectators braved thick smog and air quality levels classified as hazardous on the US embassy website to watch the display, the highlight of annual celebrations of the birth of modern India.

Delhi is the world's most polluted capital and levels of PM2.5 -- the tiny particles that can enter the bloodstream -- frequently reach 10 times the World Health Organization's safe limit.

But the skies remained dry, unlike last year when chief guest US President Barack Obama was forced to shelter under an umbrella throughout.

- Human pyramid -

The two-hour showcase of military might and cultural diversity included everything from tanks and state-of-the-art weaponry to camels and traditional dancers.

The mounted camels of the Border Security Force -- an annual highlight -- put in an early showing, decorated in brightly colored caparisons.

Traditional dancers representing some of India's diverse regional cultures performed on colorfully decorated floats showcasing selected states.

A dog squad drawn from the Army's Remount Veterinary Corps returned to the parade after a gap of 26 years to perform a march past wearing striped coats in their unit's colors.

They were followed by motorbike stunt riders performing a human pyramid, another annual tradition, before the grand finale of the event, a fly-past by Indian fighter jets.

India launched a nationwide security crackdown in the lead-up to the celebrations, which mark the adoption of the country's constitution on January 26, 1950 following independence from Britain in 1947.

Counter-terror police arrested a group of suspected Islamist radicals and seized bomb-making material in a series of nationwide raids last week, and some 50,000 police, army and paramilitary forces were deployed across the capital on Tuesday.

It was the fifth time a French president has been chief guest, the greatest honour India can bestow on a foreign leader.

Hollande was due to leave Delhi later Tuesday at the end of a three-day official visit that began in the northern city of Chandigarh.

His visit had raised hopes of a conclusion to a long-delayed, multi-billion-dollar deal for New Delhi to buy 36 French Rafale jet fighters.

The two sides said they had not yet arrived at an agreement on the price, which experts say could reach around five billion euros ($5.6 billion).

Rafale manufacturer Dassault said after the announcement it was hopeful the price negotiations could be completed within the next four weeks.

India entered exclusive negotiations on buying 126 Rafale fighters in 2012, but the number of planes was scaled back in tortuous negotiations over cost and assembly of the planes in India.

On Monday the two men laid a foundation stone at the new headquarters of the International Solar Alliance, a 121-nation group launched by Modi at the Paris COP21 conference in November to expand affordable solar power.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/India_marks_Republic_Day_with_camels_and_stunt-riders_999.html.

Australia bushfires raze ancient World Heritage-listed forests

Sydney (AFP)
Jan 30, 2016

World Heritage-listed forests whose origins pre-date the age of the dinosaurs are being destroyed by raging Australian bushfires, with conservationists increasingly fearful they could be lost forever.

Firefighters in Tasmania -- a state south of the mainland known for its cooler temperatures -- have been battling bushfires for 18 days, with 95,000 hectares (234,750 acres) of land burnt so far, authorities said Friday.

While no properties have been destroyed and no one hurt in the infernos -- which are so numerous that firefighters from across Australia and New Zealand have been flown in to help -- parts of western Tasmania's famed wilderness have been destroyed by the flames.

"The fires in western Tasmania are occurring in basically an ecosystem which is a remnant from the geological past, so they are of immense significance scientifically," David Bowman, professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, told AFP.

"These systems were once more widespread and indeed grew on Antarctica billions of years ago, so they are living fossils... they go back to well before the age of the dinosaurs, they are a tangible connection to Gondwana."

Gondwana was a land mass that included present-day Africa, South America and Australia and formed the southern part of an ancient supercontinent called Pangaea.

One of the last expanses of temperate wilderness in the world, the Tasmanian Wilderness was entered into the World Heritage list for its significant natural and cultural values in 1982 and covers nearly 20 percent of the island, or 1.4 million hectares.

It includes the Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, home to popular bushwalking tracks.

With the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) battling more than 70 blazes and access to remote areas difficult, a spokesman said the agency was not able to gauge how much forest had been burnt, although most of the fires are in the west and encompass vast swathes of protected land.

Species under threat include the southern beech forests, also known as nothofagus, the pencil pine -- a distant relative of American redwoods -- and the king billy pine, Bowman said.

Some species are only found in Tasmania, leading to concerns that if the ancient, slow-growing trees are obliterated by the blazes, they could take many years to regrow, if at all.

- 'Even the soil is burning'-

Bowman warned that despite the firefighting efforts, only soaking rain could end the emergency as the soil of western Tasmania was drying and turning into so-called "brown coals" that burn tree roots.

Light rain now falling on the island has failed to douse the flames, with lightning strikes sparking more blazes, the TFS told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Lightning strikes were "insignificant sources of ignition" just a few decades ago, Bowman said. But three years ago, a major bushfire that destroyed more than 100 homes was also in part sparked by lightning.

Bowman said that from his assessment, the recent blazes in Tasmania, along with a trend of rising temperatures in Australia and across the world, reflected an increase in extreme fire situations that pointed to climate change.

But all may not be lost.

James Wood, the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens' seed bank manager, said last year the organisation had been able to collect thousands of montane conifer seeds.

"In these sort of circumstances, the seed bank's take is that we may lose the ecology but we don't necessarily have to lose the species so we can preserve them."

But he warned that while it might be possible to overcome sporadic events, long-term environmental changes -- such as those that appeared to be caused by climate change -- were harder to protect against.

"For really protracted, long-term changes, there's nothing we can do," Wood told AFP, adding that even without the fires, warming temperatures were changing the landscape, including how plants and insects interact.

"We know that with climate change, even if we curb or stop CO2 emissions, the actual climate change implications are still going to wear on."

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Australia_bushfires_raze_ancient_World_Heritage-listed_forests_999.html.