News this Week

Science  24 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6208, pp. 402

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  1. This week's section

    Siding Spring comet snapped

    Siding Spring buzzed by Mars this week (above), but left orbiting NASA and ESA probes unscathed.


    Planetary scientists have lifted the veil from comet Siding Spring, which brushed past Mars on 19 October. The image of the comet's nucleus at left—usually hidden in a cloud of gas and dust—was taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at a distance of 138,000 kilometers, or nearly a third of the distance between Earth and the moon. It is the first resolved picture of a long-period comet, one with an orbit of a million years or more and originating from the Oort cloud, a shell of icy planetesimals at the edge of the solar system. Siding Spring's nucleus is smaller than expected—about half a kilometer across—and the comet is half the size of a typical short-period comet (hailing from the Kuiper belt past Neptune). The size difference might point to different formation mechanisms in the different parts of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

    Virus killing Europe's amphibians

    Few common midwife toads remain healthy.


    A type of ranavirus (RV) is being blamed for gruesome deaths and declining populations of a wide range of species in the Picos de Europa National Park in northern Spain, according to research published online last week in Current Biology. The virus was first noticed in 2005; park biologists tracking six common species of amphibians there have seen sick animals with necrotic tissue, open sores, and internal hemorrhages. The common midwife toad has been most severely affected, as well as the common toad and the alpine newt. The virus, named the common midwife toad virus, adds to the woes of the world's amphibians, which have been declining at a worrying rate. A major culprit, the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has apparently driven many species of frogs extinct in the tropics. The new RV, in contrast, seems to be a problem for temperate species.

    $4,500,000—Legal fees paid by the University of California, Los Angeles, to defend chemistry professor Patrick Harran in a case involving a fatal laboratory fire in 2008. The case was settled in June.

    “Everything is slowed down. But I wouldn't make that statement.”

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci on Meet the Press 19 October, contradicting National Institutes of Health (NIH) head Francis Collins's statement that an Ebola vaccine would have been available were it not for NIH budget cuts.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    Icy worlds for post-Pluto visit

    Members of NASA's New Horizons team can breathe a sigh of relief: The mission won't have to end with its July 2015 visit to Pluto. On 15 October, NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had identified three candidate Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) for a follow-on mission after the Pluto flyby. Finding target KBOs—small icy worlds that circle the sun in orbits beyond Neptune—was a challenge, both because the objects are so faint and because telescopes had to find them against the bright, cluttered backdrop of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Hubble has identified one target that is definitely within reach given New Horizons' remaining fuel, and two others that are potentially so. They are 1% to 2% the size of Pluto.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Lockheed's new fusion machine

    Defense firm Lockheed Martin caused a stir last week when it revealed it was working on a fusion reactor that could power a small city, fit on a truck, and would be ready for commercialization in a decade. Twitter was abuzz, and researchers likened it to the 1980s frenzy over cold fusion. At a 20 October press conference, team leader Thomas McGuire revealed plans for a device that combined techniques known as cusp confinement and magnetic mirrors, both approaches that were tested by fusion researchers and largely abandoned last century. “We have an idea that makes us very excited,” he told reporters, but declined to reveal any results on the device's performance. That will come next year. The team is now looking for technology partners.

    New Delhi

    India boosts students' stipend

    As a “special gift” on the holiday of Diwali, in which Hindus honor the goddess of wealth, the Indian government announced on 21 October that the monthly stipend for state-funded graduate students and postdoctoral students, amounting to about 71,000 researchers, will go up by 60% on average. Researchers had protested the low pay for months. “No doubt this is long overdue … but what is really required is a policy by which there are periodic and predictable revisions in scholarships,” says evolutionary biologist Raghavendra Gadagkar, the president of the Indian National Science Academy. “The demand was legitimate and the science ministry worked doubly hard to get this pay hike implemented,” says India's science minister, Jitendra Singh.

    Nye County, Nevada

    Yucca Mountain passes hurdle

    Remember Yucca Mountain? A 781-page report, published 16 October by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), on the proposed nuclear waste repository has given the site a thumbs up, concluding that it has “multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment” for hundreds of thousands of years. The report is the second of five assessment volumes to be published on Yucca. The site was designated in 1987 legislation as a repository and has faced political opposition in Nevada ever since. In 2008, the Department of Energy submitted a license application to open the repository, but withdrew it 2 years later. Last year, a court ordered NRC to move forward with its review and licensing process.

    Washington, D.C.

    Fusion road map criticized

    Mock-up of the ITER fusion reactor, under construction in France with U.S. and other international support.


    U.S. fusion scientists are blasting a Department of Energy (DOE) report outlining a 10-year plan for their field. Drafted in double-quick time by a subcommittee of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) that, at DOE's request, included no members from existing U.S. fusion labs, the report proposes less basic plasma physics and more technology for future power reactors. It recommends that the United States be ready to build a large new reactor in 10 years' time. Fusion researchers attacked the report, calling it “flawed” and rife with conflicts of interest. Of the 23 FESAC members who voted on the report on 10 October, 14 recused themselves for connections to a lab that might benefit from the report's recommendations. The nine remaining voters voted 6 to 3 to approve the report.


    Obama names Ebola czar

    Last week the Obama administration named lawyer Ron Klain to coordinate Ebola efforts. Lawmakers had called on the president to designate an Ebola czar in the wake of the mishandling of the first U.S. case, and Klain, former chief of staff to two Democratic vice presidents, is a battle-scarred veteran of Washington policy crises. At the same time, Klain's appointment highlighted the absence of a Senate-confirmed U.S. surgeon general. The 15-month vacancy is the result of Republican opposition to Vivek Murthy, a 36-year-old physician and health care advocate who was nominated in November 2013.