Science  16 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5388, pp. 389

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  1. DOE Mulls Restarting Spacecraft Fuel Production

    In a proposal that promises to spark further furor over the use of nuclear power aboard spacecraft, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to begin making radioactive spacecraft fuel at home again. Department officials announced on 5 October that they are considering restarting production of plutonium-238—used to produce heat and electricity aboard some of NASA's planetary probes—at government reactors.

    The move comes amid worries that future political instability in Russia could threaten NASA's supply of plutonium, which has come mainly from Russia since domestic production ceased in the early 1990s. It also follows protests against launches of several NASA craft carrying plutonium-powered generators, such as last year's Cassini mission to Saturn, which activists say could shower Earth with radioactive debris in the event of an accident (Science, 12 September 1997, p. 1598).

    DOE officials estimate that the United States needs to make 2 to 5 kilograms of Pu-238 a year over the next 25 years to fuel NASA spacecraft. Before production can begin, however, DOE must complete an environmental study, which is due next spring.

  2. X-ray Telescope Delayed Again

    In a move that could scramble space shuttle schedules, NASA has again delayed the launch of its $2 billion x-ray observatory. Last week, space agency officials announced that flight software troubles will prevent manufacturer TRW Inc. from shipping the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility from its California plant to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in time for a planned launch aboard the shuttle next January. That launch date was set following a 5-month delay announced last January (Science, 16 January, p. 318).

    NASA officials say that this time, they don't know when the troubled satellite will finally fly. While TRW tries to exterminate software bugs, NASA Chief Engineer Dan Mulville will lead a top-to-bottom review of the program aimed at producing a realistic schedule. But the report isn't due until January, and some scientists worry that reshuffling launch plans will delay missions critical to assembling the international space station and maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope.

  3. Billfish Plan Not Sharp Enough?

    A new plan to protect Atlantic billfish such as marlin and sailfish doesn't go far enough to protect dwindling stocks from accidental catches, fisheries experts say. The guidelines, released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are the first of 39 new conservation plans covering key fish species required by a 1996 law designed to prevent overfishing.

    It has been illegal for commercial fishers to sell Atlantic billfish since 1988, but the fish are still legally caught in tournaments and accidentally snared by longlines intended for swordfish and other species. Russell Nelson of the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission says localized bans on longline fishing would reduce the accidental “bycatch” by more than 25%, while causing only a 5% loss in swordfish catches. He hopes such statistics convince NOAA to impose such a ban. The plan is open to public comment until early next January.

  4. White House Orders Study of International Energy R&D

    President Clinton is seeking expert input on global energy research. To get the most from U.S. spending on international collaborations aimed at understanding global warming and other issues, he has asked the President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) to review U.S. involvement in international energy R&D projects.

    The request follows a PCAST study of domestic energy R&D issued a year ago. Led by Harvard environmental policy professor John Holdren, it helped boost the president's 1999 budget request for energy research. Now, Holdren will produce a sequel with an international flavor. The report, due in April, will tally what various U.S. and international agencies already do and offer advice for the coming decades. White House official Sam Baldwin says the panel will focus on applied research, but could comment on anything from fusion research to clean coal technology in China.

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