News this Week

Science  18 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6019, pp. 829
  1. Around the World

    1 - Washington, D.C.
    Dueling Science Budgets
    2 - Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India
    Court Ignores Nobelists' Plea to Release Physician-Activist
    3 - Cusco, Peru, and Svalbard, Norway
    Tubers to Seek Safety on Ice
    4 - Dhaka, Bangladesh
    Emerging Virus Strikes Again
    5 - Cusco, Peru
    Yale to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts

    Washington, D.C.

    Dueling Science Budgets

    President Barack Obama sent the U.S. science community a valentine this week, submitting a 2012 budget request to Congress that would increase federal support for basic and applied research by 11% over current spending levels, to $66 billion. It fleshes out his promise in last month's State of the Union speech to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build” the rest of the world.

    The plan is a long way from becoming reality, however. In addition to the usual hurdles facing any presidential budget, there's a new wrinkle this year: Congress has yet to finish work on a 2011 budget for the fiscal year that ends in September.

    Toward that end, Republicans in the House of Representatives have proposed cutting $3.3 billion in research from current spending at various federal agencies, including $1.6 billion from the National Institutes of Health, nearly $900 million from the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and $388 million from the National Science Foundation. Those cuts are part of a campaign to shrink the federal deficit, which both political parties agree is a necessity. But they disagree strongly on how to do it. For details, see page 832.

    Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India

    Court Ignores Nobelists' Plea to Release Physician-Activist

    An appeal by 45 of the world's top scientists to release an Indian doctor accused of helping Maoist insurgents has failed to sway the High Court in India's central state of Chhattisgarh. Binayak Sen, the vice president of India's People's Union for Civil Liberties, was arrested in 2007 and accused of aiding local Maoist rebels, including smuggling notes from one of them who was held in jail. He was initially released but was convicted of sedition and sentenced to life in prison on 24 December 2010.

    In a petition authored by chemistry Nobel laureate and Rice University professor emeritus Robert Curl and released to Indian media, the Nobelists ask that Sen be released on bail, stating that he is an “exceptional, courageous, and selfless colleague, dedicated to helping those in India who are least able to help themselves.” Sen's lawyers have said that they will appeal to India's Supreme Court. http://scim.ag/sen-appeal

    Cusco, Peru, and Svalbard, Norway

    Tubers to Seek Safety on Ice

    CREDIT: ASOCIACIÓN ANDES

    “Potato preservationists” with the Global Crop Diversity Trust plan to send seeds of more than 1500 types of Andean potato to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 1300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The seeds come from Potato Park, a 10,000-hectare reserve in Peru established by indigenous groups to preserve potatoes and their role in local culture.

    In the Andes, potatoes are a cultural symbol and dietary staple that come in thousands of varieties, including the red moro boli (pictured) and the “bride's potato,” which is so bumpy it's considered a test of a newlywed's peeling skills. But global warming and a declining number of varieties under cultivation may threaten the tuber's diversity. “Sending this collection to Svalbard is like sending our family members to a distant place for safekeeping, in case the rest of us need to be rescued by them in the future,” Potato Park agronomist Alejandro Argumedo said in a statement.

    Dhaka, Bangladesh

    Emerging Virus Strikes Again

    CREDIT: FRITZ GELLER-GRIMM/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    A killer is back with a vengeance in South Asia. Over the past 10 years, Nipah virus has haunted villages in western Bangladesh almost every winter and early spring, killing approximately 70% of the people it infects. The virus doesn't seem to spread easily to humans, so the toll has been low—usually less than a dozen deaths each year nationwide. But this season is shaping up to be bad: So far, Bangladesh health authorities have attributed 24 deaths to the virus, whose hallmark symptoms are fever and encephalitis.

    Fruit bats are thought to be the viral reservoir, and in Bangladesh authorities suspect that the virus is transmitted mainly when people drink raw date palm sap tainted with bat saliva or feces. There is no vaccine against the virus.

    Cusco, Peru

    Yale to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts

    Ending a bitter dispute, Yale University will return to Peru thousands of items excavated from Machu Picchu by 20th century explorer Hiram Bingham. In an agreement signed 11 February, Yale and the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco said they would create a new museum and research center in an Inca palace in Cusco, Peru, to display and house thousands of artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and human bones.

    Peru had sued the university, and last November Peruvian President Alan Garcia called Yale's refusal to return the artifacts a “global crime.” “Yale has done the right thing probably if they want a quiet life,” said archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. http://scim.ag/yale-peru

  2. Newsmaker

    Machine Learning Nets Canada's Top Science Prize

    CREDIT: NSERC

    Computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton of the University of Toronto has carried off Canada's most prestigious science prize—along with a $1 million grant to support his research over the next 5 years. Hinton was awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering on 14 February for his work on machine learning. British-born Hinton works on neural networks and their application to processes such as monitoring industrial plants for improved safety and systems for voice recognition. The prize, named after the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, is awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

  3. Random Sample

    New Stem Cell Lab Designed to Inspire

    CREDITS: © BRUCE DAMONTE/UCSF

    A stem cell research building opened 9 February at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is generating oohs and ahhs from scientists and architecture buffs alike. The $123 million Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building, which will headquarter the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, snakes along a 65° slope and features four split-level floors with terraced roofs planted with native grasses. Labs with open floor plans, interspersed with offices and lounge areas, are meant to foster interaction among its 300 researchers. It seems to be working, says the center's director, Arnold Kriegstein: “People are already congregating in the lunchrooms and in the hallways and striking up collaborations.”

    Noted

    >>The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity has produced an interactive online movie called The Lab. The choose-your-own-adventure-style film allows viewers to play as one of four characters, including an insecure postdoc and a promising young graduate student, to avert a case of scientific misconduct. http://scim.ag/labmovie

    Art From Produce

    Using the same MRI machines with which he conducts brain scans by day, Andrew Ellison, a technologist at Boston University School of Medicine, spends his evenings scanning fruit and vegetables. The resulting ethereal videos are produced as the scanner passes through the skin, pith, and flesh of everyday edibles.

    MRI scans of peapods, a watermelon, black raspberries, and a persimmon (clockwise, from top left).

    CREDIT: ANDREW ELLISON/BUMC

    Ellison initially used an orange as a quality control. “A problem with the scanner would show itself with most fruits and veggies,” he explains. But, fascinated by the orange's fleshy insides, Ellison began to scour the markets for other fruit and vegetables to scan. Encouraged by his colleagues' enthusiasm for his new art form, he started to post his videos to a blog (http://insideinsides.blogspot.com) that has received more than 500,000 hits since July 2010.

    Ellison has now racked up 36 different scans and is looking for more-exotic produce. “No one seems to be as amazed and moved by the artichoke as I am,” he says, “but everyone has a favorite.” (See also the Visualization section of this special issue on p. 848.)

    By the Numbers

    The budget for U.S. science got more complicated this week when President Barack Obama submitted his 2012 spending plan. Here are three starting points for the coming debate over how much the country should invest in non-defense research:

    $66.8 billion — The amount President Barack Obama has requested for 2012, a 6.5% increase over current spending levels.

    $62.7 billion — Current spending under a so-called continuing resolution for 2011 that expires on 4 March.

    $58.3 billion — The amount Republicans have budgeted in 2011 as part of a government-wide spending plan being debated this week by the House of Representatives.

    (SOURCE) AAAS R&D BUDGET AND POLICY PROGRAM

  4. Can This DNA Sleuth Help Catch Criminals?

    1. Martin Enserink

    Forensic geneticist Manfred Kayser is exploring whether DNA found at a crime scene can predict what a suspect looks like.

    CREDITS: (PHOTO) RUDD KOPPENOL; (GRAPHIC TREATMENT) N. KEVITIYAGALA/SCIENCE

    ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—The murder was heinous, there were no witnesses, and the police had few clues—except for some skin found under the fingernails of the victim that might belong to the killer. And that was all it took. From a few nanograms of DNA in the skin cells, a police lab determined that the murderer was a man of European origin with brown eyes and straight, dark-brown hair, approximately 45 years old and balding, and likely 1.90 meters in height. Within a few more hours, a police computer spewed out a sketch of the man's face seen from three different angles, which was all over the evening news. Soon, calls started pouring in from people who recognized the suspect.

    Sure, that's science fiction. But according to German gene sleuth Manfred Kayser, the scenario might come true one day. Kayser, who leads the forensic molecular biology department at Erasmus University Medical Center here, is at the forefront of an emerging research area that seeks to predict people's looks, age, and geographic ancestry from their DNA. If successful, the endeavor, sped along by the genomic revolution, could provide crime fighters with a powerful new toolbox.

    Kayser's group made headlines around the world last year with a paper showing how the DNA in a blood sample can give away someone's age—albeit with a margin of error of at least 9 years. His group has developed a DNA test to predict someone's eye color; work on hair color, skin color, and other traits is in progress. Kayser is “an upcoming star” in forensic DNA phenotyping, as the field is called, says Bruce Budowle, a geneticist with 40 years of experience with the FBI who is now at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. He's “a clear leader,” adds Christopher Phillips, a forensic geneticist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

    The genetic clues that Kayser and others are trying to glean from minuscule amounts of blood, semen, saliva, and hair are unlikely to be introduced as evidence in a courtroom. After all, when someone is suspected of a crime, or charged, a conventional DNA fingerprinting test can determine if his or her DNA matches traces found at the crime scene. Instead, forensic DNA phenotyping could be useful during an investigation, when predicting a criminal's looks can help the police focus their search.

    Forensic DNA phenotyping raises new ethical and legal issues, and the Netherlands is the only country so far to regulate the practice in a new law (see sidebar, p. 840). But Kayser doesn't anticipate that the concerns will stop the field. “We are not doing anything else than what police are doing with eyewitnesses,” he says. Except for one thing, he asserts: DNA will prove a more reliable witness.

    Music and animals

    Kayser, 43, isn't fascinated by crime. He doesn't read John Grisham novels or watch CSI, the sleek TV hit show centered on forensic research. His lab looks as unexciting as any other molecular biology lab in the world. In fact, Kayser entered the entire field more or less by chance.

    He was born and raised in East Berlin in the communist era. As a teenager, he developed passions for both music and the animal world, neither of which were particularly appreciated in the German Democratic Republic, he says. After high school, he worked in the frog collection of the Natural History Museum in Berlin; he was accepted as an accordion student at the Weimar conservatory but eventually chose to study biology at the University of Leipzig in 1989. Two months later, the Berlin Wall came down.

    His first experiences with forensic science left him frustrated. Between 1994 and 1998, at Humboldt University in Berlin, Kayser studied microsatellites—short, repetitive DNA sequences—on the human Y chromosome. The work, carried out mostly at the university's Institute of Legal Medicine's genetic research lab, had obvious forensic applications; in rape cases, for instance, evidence often comes from vaginal swabs that contain a mix of DNA from perpetrator and victim. Zooming in on the Y chromosome ensures that you're looking at the rapist's DNA.

    Kayser's work helped lay the groundwork for male identification using the Y chromosome, a now widespread method. But Kayser says it took a long time for the technique to become accepted in forensics. “Forensic scientists aren't the most open-minded people when it comes to innovative science,” he says. “It was discouraging.” He decided to join anthropological geneticist Mark Stoneking's lab at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Stoneking was piecing together the human history of Polynesia with mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited via the maternal line. Kayser's expertise with the Y chromosome— which tells the male story—complemented this work perfectly, Stoneking says.

    Less than a year later, Stoneking moved to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Kayser joined him and stayed in his old college town until he was offered the leadership of a new forensics department at Erasmus University Medical Center in 2004. In an unusual arrangement, his department is co-funded by the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), a governmental lab in The Hague. NFI management recognized that an academic setting would be a more fertile place to invest in science and development than a lab that's loaded with casework, according to Kayser.

    “When I saw the business plan, I realized this department was really going to be a unique place,” he says, because it would run “the full monty” from basic science to developing and validating tests. Kayser works closely with NFI researchers and with Peter de Knijff, who runs a well-established forensic genetics lab at Leiden University Medical Center where Kayser did part of his Ph.D. work. The three groups have formed a consortium that in 2008 bagged a €6.5 million grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

    Kayser said it was relatively easy to settle in Holland—although he misses sourdough bread and other things German. From his 10th-floor office, he has a view of Rotterdam's ultramodern skyline. And although he would have preferred a city with more historic character, he feels he can't complain: After all, the Germans flattened Rotterdam's ancient center in 1940.

    Eyes, hair, and skin

    The division of labor within Kayser's 15-person lab reflects the stages within the full monty. Some researchers are primarily focused on finding the genes and genetic markers that underlie phenotypic differences, utilizing so-called genome-wide association studies, for instance. Others are working on turning what's found into actual forensics tests and validating them—a laborious process governed by international standards.

    Eye color was low-hanging fruit. Over the past 2 years, his group has developed a test, called Irisplex, based on the identity of just six so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms. It can now predict with over 90% accuracy whether someone has blue or brown eyes—not perfect, says Kayser, but a lot better than eyewitness testimony, which research has shown to be off the mark at alarming rates.

    Last month, Kayser's team published a paper in Human Genetics that indicated hair color, too, can be predicted fairly accurately, at roughly 90% for red or black hair and 80% for blond or brown. Those findings are now being translated in a test kit too—most likely combined with eye color, so as to save precious DNA. Skin color is the next candidate. Although his team and others have identified some of the genes involved—they overlap with those for eye and hair color—the picture isn't complete yet.

    Beyond that, forensic DNA phenotyping quickly gets complicated. Height, for instance, is known to have a high degree of heritability: Although diet plays a role in how fast and tall people grow, much of the variation between people is caused by genes. Indeed, a genome-wide association study among 180,000 people published last year revealed more than 180 genetic loci that appear to influence adult height—but together, they account for only 10% of the variation between individuals. De Knijff believes height to be so complex that a useful DNA test is “a bridge too far.”

    Predictable?

    Many visible traits are at least in part genetically determined and may be predictable from a person's DNA—but the only validated test so far is for eye color.

    CREDITS: (PHOTOS) RUDD KOPPENOL; (GRAPHIC TREATMENT & DETAILS) N. KEVITIYAGALA/SCIENCE

    The age test offered a different challenge, as it's not something one can easily read in a person's genome. People have tried to predict age by counting the number of mutations in a person's mitochondria, or measuring the length of their telomeres—the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, which fray as we age—but both pose practical problems. Kayser's method instead relies on circles of leftover DNA stored in T cells whose amount decreases as people get older.

    The field could also target traits like hair structure, baldness, handedness, and earlobe attachment. Its greatest triumph, however, would be that computer-generated, DNA-based facial sketch. Kayser's group is working on it as part of a consortium of labs called VisiGen that Kayser founded with Tim Spector of King's College London. Fan Liu, a genetic epidemiologist in Kayser's lab, is trying to link genome data to key facial morphology traits, such as facial width or nose size. Kayser is cautious about the prospects. “On paper, it's possible,” he says. The extreme resemblance between monozygotic twins suggests that facial features are mostly genetic. “But we have no idea yet what genes they are or how complex it is.”

    Ingrained racism

    Kayser's department is also working on tests that can determine someone's biogeographical ancestry. The technique appears to have been used in hundreds of crime investigations in the United States, but modesty is still in order, says Kayser. Although several companies offer detailed ancestry tests to the public, scientists don't have a strong basis to go much beyond the continental level—that is, predicting whether someone is, say, European, sub-Saharan African, East Asian, or Native American. Distinguishing a Norwegian from a Swede, for example, is not usually possible, and Kayser rejects as “totally baseless” a controversial U.K. program to use DNA to determine asylum seekers' nationality (Science, 2 October 2009, p. 30).

    This application of forensic DNA phenotyping is an area filled with explosive issues about race and crime about which the debate hasn't fully begun. Most forensic DNA phenotyping predictions will likely come with a significant level of uncertainty, as opposed to conventional DNA fingerprinting matches, and police officers may have trouble interpreting them. Moreover, genetic ancestry does not equal race, a concept that most scientists shun because it has no well-defined meaning, and does not necessarily predict someone's appearance. “Ancestry and appearance overlap, but they're not the same,” Kayser says.

    Just how important caution is was driven home to Kayser by a series of psychology studies, published in 2004, that showed how deeply ingrained stereotypes about black men and crime are among U.S. law enforcement officers. “It was an eye-opener to me,” he says. It will be important for scientists like him to explain the uncertainties in DNA-based phenotyping carefully, he stresses.

    Fortunately, says Budowle, Kayser is unlikely to oversell his science to overzealous cops. “Manfred knows the molecular biology but also the population genetics and the statistics,” he says. “He won't overstate the evidence, and he'll make clear what the limitations are.”

  5. Emerging Forensics Field May Hit Legal, Ethical Obstacles

    1. Martin Enserink

    The Dutch parliament adopted a law in 2003 regulating forensic DNA phenotyping, the use of DNA samples to predict a suspect's ancestry or physical characteristics. But the Netherlands is still the only country to have done so.

    A year after a 16-year-old girl was brutally raped and murdered in the Netherlands in 1999, forensic geneticist Peter de Knijff broke the law himself. At the police's request, he set out to determine the geographic ancestry of the murderer from DNA in his semen. That was, he later admitted, “completely illegal” under Dutch law, which at the time allowed using DNA for traditional DNA identification but not for determining race, looks, or disease risk. De Knijff has no remorse. The police were unable to solve the case, and tensions were escalating in the rural community where the girl lived. Many pointed fingers at a nearby hostel for Kurdish, Iraqi, and Afghan asylum seekers. De Knijff's analysis showed that the killer was most likely from northwest Europe, which helped cooler heads prevail.

    His dilemma could arise any day in many countries. In the wake of the murder—still unsolved today—the Dutch parliament adopted a law in 2003 regulating forensic DNA phenotyping, the use of DNA samples to predict a suspect's ancestry or physical characteristics (see main text). But the Netherlands is still the only country to have done so.

    Countries such as Belgium and Germany—and the U.S. states of Indiana, Rhode Island, and Wyoming—explicitly ban the practice, says Bert-Jaap Koops, a professor at Tilburg University Law School who studies the issue. In the United Kingdom and most U.S. states, forensic DNA pheno-typing isn't explicitly regulated but is allowed under existing laws for forensic DNA. Geographical ancestry tests appear to have been used in several hundred U.S. investigations, says Pamela Sankar, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. Most were done by a company called DNAPrint Genomics, she says, which ceased operations in 2009.

    Sankar, who is tracking the field with funding from the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, says forensic DNA phenotyping raises ethical and legal issues that need more debate. Her own research, for instance, suggests that police officers may not realize that—as opposed to the high degree of certainty in DNA fingerprinting—phenotyping is probabilistic in nature. Cops could also use ancestry predictions, however imprecise, as an excuse to target minority populations, she says.

    Other dilemmas loom. In theory, knowing that a criminal is, say, a hemophiliac or a diabetic could help nab him. But the 2003 Dutch law categorically bans looking for disease-related genes because it would violate a suspect's privacy and the “right not to know,” a basic tenet of medical ethics. (The law allows only the prediction of visible traits and “race.”)

    Koops argues that these restrictions are overly protective; if genetic sleuthing can reveal that a killer has a very mild or curable disease, or is likely to be a chain smoker, solving the crime might well trump individual rights, he says. The distinction between visible traits and disease is not always tenable anyway, says forensic geneticist Christopher Phillips of the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. A mutation in a gene called MC1R can cause pale skin, for instance—which increases the risk of melanoma. “Predictive tests should confine themselves to the visible,” he says, “but sometimes this encroaches on the private at the same time.”

    The paradox is that conventional DNA fingerprinting has been introduced with the reassurance that it can never reveal any personal information—but now, it's personal information that forensic geneticists are after. That's why caution is important, says Phillips. “If we move too quickly, the whole edifice of public confidence in DNA profiling could erode.”

  6. Planetary Science

    NASA Weighs Asteroids: Cheaper Than Moon, But Still Not Easy

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Budgetary realities are driving U.S. astronauts away from the moon toward near-Earth asteroids, but the new goal on the way to Mars should prove uniquely challenging.

    Where do I stand?

    Visiting a small, nearly gravity-free asteroid would be like taking a spacewalk rather than landing on the moon, but without a space station's handholds.

    CREDIT: ©DANIEL DURDA/FIAAA

    Asteroids are about to get a new reputation. For decades, those that pass near Earth on their circuits about the sun—the so-called near-Earth asteroids (NEAs)—have played the heavy. A huge NEA 10 kilometers across killed off the dinosaurs, after all. And there was that tiny, perhaps 40-meter-diameter NEA that leveled 2000 square kilometers of Siberian forest in 1908. Earth will inevitably collide with more, both huge and small.

    But NEAs could soon be redeemed. They recently became the next prized destination in the U.S. human exploration of space. President Barack Obama has declared that the path to landing astronauts on Mars is dotted with NEAs. Rather than first returning astronauts to the moon before heading off to Mars, NASA will be aiming for asteroids as steppingstones in the human exploration of deep space.

    Smaller still.

    Spacecraft have visited two near-Earth asteroids, big Eros (left) and little Itokawa. The first target for astronauts would likely be just 100 meters across.

    CREDIT: NASA/JHUAPL/ISAS/JAXA/EMILY LAKDAWALLA

    The new approach has disappointed lunar scientists, naturally enough, but planetary scientists who study the small bodies of the solar system are delighted. For them, the redirection promises a bonanza of new data that had seemed beyond their reach for decades to come. And astronomers looking for that next catastrophic impacter would get a boost just as their ongoing search gets a lot harder (see sidebar, p. 843).

    But the same planetary scientists who would most benefit from an NEA-studded “flexible path” to Mars are warning that the new route looks bumpy. So far, no one knows of even one NEA that would clearly serve as a practical first target for astronauts. And no one knows what the first visitors will find at a tiny, nearly gravity-free body, except that it could be both bizarre and dangerous. From what they do know, planetary scientists say, meeting the president's 2025 schedule would be a heck of a rush requiring considerable investment.

    A bridge too costly

    Mars has long been the ultimate goal of U.S. space exploration. Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush promulgated national space policies that would have humans setting foot on Mars in the coming decades. In the past decade, NASA took up George W. Bush's plan, spending $9.1 billion on the development of a giant rocket that could get astronauts to the moon by 2020, paving the way for a permanent base. Only then would NASA turn toward Mars.

    But this moon-first strategy wasn't going to fly, according to a committee set up by Obama and headed by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin. “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” its September 2009 report found.

    The Augustine committee did see options for returning to the moon under increased NASA budgets, but its novel contribution was the “Flexible Path.” This is an approach that leads—at least for years if not decades to come—anywhere but to the moon's surface: to lunar orbit, to gravitationally balanced holding patterns near Earth called Lagrange points, to NEAs, and to the tiny moons of Mars. The strategy would be to put off the considerable expense of a vehicle able to ease astronauts onto the lunar surface and lift them off again against the moon's pull, not to mention the cost of building an outpost on the surface. The idea, says Augustine committee member Christopher Chyba of Princeton University, was “let's avoid going into gravity wells as long as we can.”

    On to an asteroid

    A matter of scale.

    Asteroid Itokawa dwarfs the international space station (lower right) and the Orion crew exploration vehicle (upper right). The 50-meter-long boulder Yoshinodai on Itokawa is about the size object astronauts would visit.

    CREDIT: P. ABELL ET AL., METEORITICS & PLANETARY SCIENCE 44, 12 (DECEMBER 2009)

    The Obama Administration went for the flexible path, aiming at visiting an asteroid, which can have nearly no gravity well at all. Going to an asteroid would not require any construction on the surface, but NASA would acquire experience in long-duration, deep-space operations needed for the trip from Earth to Mars. By 2025, “we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” Obama told an audience at Kennedy Space Center last April. As for the moon, he said, “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We've been there before.”

    Those were harsh words for lunar scientists, or “lunatics,” as some call themselves. In the past few years, lunar science has experienced a renaissance as the European Union, Japan, China, India, and the United States sent robotic missions into lunar orbit. Sending humans to the moon motivated both U.S. and Chinese efforts, which included NASA's $504 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) still orbiting the moon as well as the LCROSS mission that “bombed” the moon for water ice of potential use to astronauts.

    Whatever the motivation, the rush to the moon has revitalized lunar studies. At the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held each March in Houston, Texas, the number of moon sessions has more than doubled since 2007 to five times the number of asteroid sessions and equal to the number of sessions on perennial favorite Mars. Researchers' attachment to our nearest neighbor is stronger than ever. “It's not just any moon, it's our moon, with a shared history with Earth,” notes planetary scientist David Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, who has been involved on both the lunar and asteroid sides.

    Now, in the wake of Obama's speech, “small NEAs are it,” says Morrison, at least in the United States. The president's fiscal year 2011 budget request (yet to be taken up by Congress) more than triples NASA's budget for the search for NEAs to $20.3 million. Any newly discovered NEAs could be the targets for a series of robotic missions called for in the budget request, as outlined last September at a NASA meeting in Washington, D.C., by Jason Jenkins of NASA headquarters. The notional schedule through 2018 has major missions to an NEA launching in 2014 and 2017 that would cost $640 million to $840 million each and a third NEA mission launching 2014 that would run $100 million to $200 million.

    These missions would check out potential targets for human exploration, but Jenkins did note the “tremendous potential for collateral benefit” for NEA science. Lunar science would not fare so well. Only one mission would target the moon, sending a tiny rover to the surface in 2015 to verify some of LRO's observations. Laurie Leshin, NASA deputy associate administrator in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, says that even then, most funding early on would go to developing NEA missions, putting the modest lunar rover mission on the back burner for the moment.

    But wait

    Extending humans' reach into deep space within 15 years is all well and good, NEA researchers say, but there are some costly and time-consuming hurdles to be cleared. First, someone needs to find a suitable asteroid. “There just aren't very many targets out there,” says NEA researcher Alan Harris of the Space Science Institute in La Cañada, California. “Even though there are thousands and thousands of objects out there, there are only a few tens that will ever fit the bill.”

    Some NEAs are too small, little larger than the craft that would carry astronauts to them. Some spin so fast—with a “day” of minutes or an hour or two—that they couldn't be approached and would fling away any astronaut touching down on them. The toughest requirement is finding an asteroid with an orbit enough like Earth's that astronauts could catch up with it using a practical amount of fuel and get back to Earth in a reasonable amount of time—say, 6 months.

    A NASA study of possible asteroid targets conducted last fall came up empty-handed. “We've found only a handful of objects accessible in the 2025 to 2030 time frame,” says Lindley Johnson, NASA program executive for near-Earth object observations, “all of them quite small and not particularly attractive targets.” All were smaller than 50 meters in diameter; objects about the length of a football field or pitch are thought more desirable. So right now, Johnson says, there's no steppingstone known on the way to Mars around the president's target date.

    They're out there, everyone agrees; it's just a matter of looking harder. In a report in October on the threat of impacts on Earth, a National Research Council committee looked at two ways of searching for small NEAs. The cheaper way of finding 90% of objects 140 meters in diameter and larger passing near Earth is using a telescope on the ground, the committee concluded. But even for these larger objects, the survey would not be completed until late in the 2020s, far too late for Obama's goal. A telescope with a better vantage point, one orbiting the sun inward of Earth's orbit, would cost more than a ground-based telescope—perhaps half a billion dollars—and involve greater risk, but it could complete the survey faster, “perhaps as early as 2022.” Given the need for robotic scouting missions in the 20-teens and a likely requirement for backup targets, says Morrison, “we really need to get cracking. We all have 2025 looming.”

    Another challenge unique to the asteroid-first approach is tiny NEAs themselves. On a 100-meter NEA, an astronaut would weigh something like 10 grams, Harris notes, space suit included. Operating around such an object would be like a spacewalk around the international space station, says Morrison, but without the built-in handholds. And making handholds or installing instrumentation on the surface could be a dicey business, says planetary dynamicist Daniel Scheeres of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Hundred-meter NEAs could be “rubble piles” of boulders, cobbles, and pebbles held together, barely, by their own microgravity. Stepping onto the surface could be “like jumping into a pit of Styrofoam ‘peanuts,’” he says. Once kicked up, dust and pebbles could take hours or days to settle out. Even NEAs of equal size could have different reactions to the tread of astronauts because NEAs come in rocky, metallic, and crumbly carbonaceous versions.

    Is the moon in the stars after all?

    Although Obama's vision for space exploration has often been said to “bypass the moon,” it may not happen that way. “I still don't think a rational person would try to go to Mars without going to the moon first,” says geochemist David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, principal investigator of the institute's Center for Lunar Science and Exploration. Actually, the Augustine report leaves that possibility wide open. “When we said ‘flexible path,’ we meant it,” says committee member Chyba. The moon “is not the near-term objective,” but a decision to return humans to the moon could be made further down the road, he says.

    Moon advocates argue that the return should come soon. The moon is, after all, our nearest near-Earth object, they note. It's easier to get to than an NEA whizzing by on its way around the sun. It offers a far more complex setting befitting the problem-solving skills of on-scene astronauts. Much more remains to be learned about the moon chemically, mineralogically, and geologically than about asteroids, they say; samples from asteroids—meteorites picked up on Earth—number over 50,000, whereas there are little more than 2000 samples with which to unravel the moon's more complex history.

    The strongest argument, moon advocates say, is gravity: The moon has it and NEAs don't. Most crucially, the safe landing and return of astronauts could be demonstrated only on the moon, not to mention astronaut activities on a solid surface. But that may not help. The president's own National Space Policy, released in June after his asteroid-first speech, directs that the NASA administrator shall “by the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.” His policy for the next 30 years says nothing about landing on Mars.

  7. A Windfall for Defenders of the Planet

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Only about 5% of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) 140 meters in diameter and larger—so-called city killers—have been found under NASA's search program. If U.S. astronauts hopscotch from one NEA practicing for their trip to Mars, it will be a big help to the search.

    If U.S. astronauts hopscotch from one near-Earth asteroid practicing for their trip to Mars (see main text), it will be a big help to astronomers campaigning to find and fend off the rare NEAs that threaten to collide with Earth.

    With a nudge from Congress, NASA-led astronomers have now reached a major milestone in their search for threatening NEAs. After a decade-long concerted hunt, they have found enough of the largest NEAs to reduce their estimate of the potential hazard by about 90%. That's because they have now found about 90% of the estimated 1000 NEAs a kilometer across and larger that could have been on a collision course with Earth. It turns out that none actually are, so the risk in this century of a civilization-ending impact is essentially gone.

    But that leaves the other part of the threat, the one from objects 140 meters in diameter and larger—so-called city killers. Only about 5% of them have been found under NASA's search program. In 2005, Congress directed NASA to identify 90% of city killers by 2020, but so far, Congress has provided no additional funds for its mandated search. Funding has been about $4 million a year recently, raised to $6.5 million last year. But at current discovery rates, most of the city killers would remain undetected for many decades.

    In October, an ad hoc task force on planetary defense recommended to the NASA Advisory Council that NASA should meet the 2020 congressional target date using a space-based telescope rather than the slower ground-based option. And the president's fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA (not yet acted on by Congress) includes a boost in search funding from $6.2 million to $20.3 million.

    Planetary defense may be in line for a boost, but the present Congress is in a serious budget-cutting mood. That's where the human exploration of space could come in. If NASA hopes to meet the president's goal of sending humans to an NEA by 2025, the search for small NEAs will have to be at least as fast as that required to meet the 2020 planetary defense goal. That's because NASA would need to identify potential exploration targets before 2020. And the asteroids easiest for astronauts to reach happen to be the ones most likely to strike Earth. So human exploration could pick up the half-billion-dollar-or-more tab for an NEA search that the NASA task force recommended. In addition, the precursor robotic missions needed to inspect potential targets for later astronaut visits would provide information on the physical makeup of NEAs crucial to deciding how to nudge a threatening NEA off its collision course with Earth.

    Inbound.

    Asteroids will pass near Earth this century, but none are known that will hit.

    CREDIT: ©DANIEL DURDA/FIAAA

    Human space exploration could also benefit planetary defense by prodding governments to prepare for the inevitable. “Increasing [NEA] surveys are going to create many worrisome situations” that no one is yet ready for, says asteroid researcher Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. A newly discovered NEA may have a small but significant chance of hitting Earth that will take years to evaluate. “We should be ready,” says Binzel.

    There are early signs that we could be. In October, at the direction of Congress, the president's science adviser, John Holdren, outlined a plan to notify federal agencies and emergency response organizations in case of an impending threat and recommended that NASA be the agency responsible for protecting the United States from a specific threat.

  8. Newsmaker Interview: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

    Europe's Eager Reformer Takes on Framework Funding Goliath

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    An outsider to the scientific community, the E.U.'s new research commissioner promises to cut red tape, champion basic research, and fight to save ITER

    CREDIT: EUROPEAN COMMISSION

    For Irish teacher-turned-politician Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, landing one of Europe's top political jobs in charge of research has meant a steep learning curve. Having served her country in ministerial roles covering Gaelic culture, justice, and European affairs, she then spent 10 years overseeing European Union finances. But in her first year as E.U. commissioner for research, innovation, and science, she has had to come up with plans to reengineer the European Union's huge €54 billion research-funding program, prepare for a battle over budgets, find extra funding for the troubled ITER fusion reactor project, and has managed to raise the profile of science policy at the European Union's highest levels. She spoke with Science last week in her Brussels office. Her remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity. (You can read more of this interview at http://scim.ag/MG-Q.)

    Q:You weren't known for much involvement with science before taking this job. What's the most provocative or most interesting bit of science you've come across in your first year?

    M.G.-Q.:Oh, there have been lots of things, but I suppose at the very beginning when I went to one of my first meetings at the ERC [European Research Council], there was a professor from Italy who was getting a large grant to get this driverless truck to go from Europe to Shanghai. And that was just mind-boggling. I said to myself, “It's not going to happen.” And yet it did. Later, I told everybody about it: “I was there when he was telling us about this, and I had a doubt in my mind!” To me it proves that the ERC is about championing researchers with good ideas who would never get that kind of substantial money from a member state. So there are fantastic possibilities in what they do. And it has made me ever since a real strong supporter and probably the ERC's greatest fan.

    Q:If that's the case, ERC leaders are hoping for a big boost in funding …

    M.G.-Q.:Aren't we all!

    Q:They're hoping for as much as €24 billion between 2013 and 2020. What's your reaction?

    M.G.-Q.:My reaction is that we've only just started the budget question. No figures are on the table, and no gures will be on the table for quite some time. First of all, I have to make a pitch for my two directorates general. And depending on what we get out of that, I hope to be in a position to be able to strengthen the ERC.

    Unfortunately, we're in the hands of two other institutions—the Council [of Ministers] and the [European] Parliament—who decide whether or not to give us an increased budget and what that increase might be. I think it will be one of the most difficult budgetary discussions that the E.U. has ever had, mainly because of the financial crisis. I think you'll find that a lot of those member states who have had to take deep cuts in their own budgets will try and curtail any increases in the E.U. budget. But within all of those possibilities, the ERC has a very strong supporter in myself.

    Q:The green paper you issued last week on future E.U. research funding included few concrete proposals, which disappointed some observers. What do you say to them?

    M.G.-Q.:The green paper is the start of the conversation. I don't think you should ever start a conversation by laying down in black and white the answers you want. So instead you pose questions, you put it out there. We are very anxious to encourage the scientific community and the other stakeholders to really get involved and engaged in this conversation, because this is an opportunity to really change the whole landscape of the way we fund research and innovation.

    I want to help the people who have said to me, “Look, we're overloaded with the E.U. administrative burden. The bureaucracy has gone mad. There's so much red tape that if we could find the money elsewhere, we wouldn't come to the European Union.” And to me that's a tragedy.

    In looking at all of this, we looked at what does a small research center have to do when they come for the funding? If they're going to the Framework Programme, they go to one postbox. If they are going to the CIP [Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme], they go to another. If it's contributions to the EIT [European Institute of Innovation and Technology], then it's another. So let's bring it all together, under one framework so that there is one postbox: one simple, unique set of rules so that it cuts out all the extra paperwork that people have to go to—and the expense that they have to go to—to put together an application. For the moment we're calling it the Common Strategic Framework, but that's not going to be the name.

    Who's paying and who's driving?

    The ITER fusion reactor project under construction in France (top). ERC-funded driverless solar-powered trucks (bottom) at the Shanghai Expo.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): F4E/ITER; VIAC/VISLAB

    Q:Under your proposal, EIT would become part of the new, expanded program. The scientific community has viewed EIT with a healthy dose of skepticism. What value do you think it will really add to European research?

    M.G.-Q.:I think it's very, very early to be judging something that has just been set up. [European Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso, as I understand it, went to MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and was very impressed with what he saw. Now MIT has taken quite some time to become as successful and well-known as it has become. [The EIT] needed to have security, and I think the EIT is very happy to be within the Common Strategic Framework now. I think it sees it has a home. It's like a sapling; we have to help it to grow and nourish it. I really do believe that once it is up and running, it's going to be a very, very positive element within the E.U.

    Q:How is the commission intending to cover the €1.4 billion shortfall in ITER funding for 2012 and 2013, and how will further cost increases be contained in the Common Strategic Framework?

    M.G.-Q.:ITER. [Laughs] Wonderful. When I came into this office almost a year ago now, one of the first files that was put on my desk was the ITER file, and I wanted to run out the door and go home. This project was badly managed. There were issues not just in relation to the financing of it, there were also issues of governance that needed to be tackled. Those were resolved, at both the European and international level. Then we sat down to discuss with the budget commissioner and the commission as a whole how we might fill this [laughs] “hole,” as it were, for 2012 and 2013. And we agreed that two-thirds of the money would come from unspent funds and one-third from the Framework Programme.

    We had that package put together, and we went to the parliament and the council. And suddenly you had the commission caught in a row between the parliament and the council. That row had nothing to do with ITER. [The ITER package was cut out of the budget deal.] As a result, we now have to restart the whole thing again. We still have the two-thirds/one-third on the table. [Budget] Commissioner Lewandowski has been strongly supporting that and pushing that. And we have to live in hope and watch what happens with the parliament and the council.

    It's very hard for our international partners to understand. When the U.S. government makes a decision, it's implemented. The E.U. works in a different way. The commission makes a proposal, but then it's in the hands of the parliament and the council to decide, and they have to agree to do it.

    Q:Some worry that the new funding program will focus on “innovation” and that basic science will be squeezed. What do you see as a proper balance between the two?

    M.G.-Q.:You can't have innovation, as I keep saying, unless you have really excellent basic research and unless you give support to excellent basic research. My problem is that we have had this wonderful, excellent research here. We have delivered the goods, as it were, on the research side. But we have failed to bring that research all the way to the marketplace. It has been brought to the marketplace elsewhere, outside the E.U. And I want to see the excellent research that we do here brought to the market here.

    But we can't have innovation of any kind unless you have basic research. So my commitment is total when it comes to basic research. It is so vital and so important.

    Q:Will there be a European chief science adviser?

    M.G.-Q.:It will absolutely happen. President Barroso is very committed to a chief scientific adviser. I know he is looking at a list of people that's been drawn up and trying to decide what the best solution would be.

    I'm very anxious for it to happen. I think it strengthens the whole area of research and science, which is what I'm interested in doing. You know, for us to have a European Council meeting just last week that discussed energy and research and innovation was almost a miracle when you consider everything else that was going on.

    And I think discussing research and innovation proved that the European heads of government realize that it's an economic policy. And it's the policy that will bring us the growth, the competitiveness, and the jobs. That shows the tremendous importance that is now attached to the whole area of research and innovation.

    When [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama gave his State of the Union address, I thought it was fantastic. It happened just before the European Council, and it reinforced once again how important research and innovation is on a world scale. It shows that on both sides of the Atlantic we're competitors, but there are lots of things I believe we should cooperate on in order to compete with the rest of the world. There are lots of ways that we do cooperate, but we should even intensify our cooperation.

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