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News Bytes Of the Week—Robot Race to the Moon

G spot research, wolves under fire and more ...



iStockphoto; Copyright Dan Barnes

Robots race to the moon for $20-million prize

The race to be the first to land a robot probe on the moon—and collect the $20 million grand prize attached to that feat—has tightened significantly as 10 teams announced they will contend for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Entrants include Astrobotic Technology, Inc. (made up of engineers from the University of Arizona, Carnegie Mellon University and Raytheon Missile Systems Co.), Quantum3 Ventures (a private Washington, D.C., enterprise formed last month), LunaTrex (a consortium of aerospace companies, along with the University of Dayton in Ohio) and FREDNET (a multinational team of systems, software and hardware developers whose approach includes the use of open-source software and the Internet). The winner will be the first team to successfully land a privately funded spacecraft on the moon, rove on the lunar surface for a minimum of 1,640 feet (500 meters), and transmit video, images and data back to Earth. The grand prize will drop to $15 million if no one successfully completes the mission by the end of 2012, and the competition will be terminated if the teams come up empty by the end of 2014. The moon's rising, but the clock's ticking.

Where can an earthworm go to find good, clean dirt?

Earthworms eat poop spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer, and end up with heavy loads of disinfectants, fragrances and even pharmaceuticals. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey collected worms from three fields—a soybean field with sewage sludge spread on top, a cornfield fertilized with swine manure, and another soy field with no applications of either in seven years. Of the 28 contaminants in the sewage field soil, 25 showed up in the worms, including tributyl phosphate (a flame retardant), trimethoprim (an antibiotic) and the disinfectant triclosan—a pollution trifecta. It is unclear what effects, if any, these chemicals are having on the worms—or how they might be moving up the food chainbut the worms carried them at much higher concentrations than the surrounding soil, suggesting that the creatures are retaining the substances. And the problem is not confined just to those fields that get the sewage treatment. The researchers found that some of the same compounds, such as triclosan, showed up in all three fields, indicating that they might linger in the soil for years or find their way into farm fields through nearby septic systems or runoff. (USGS; Environmental Science & Technology)

G marks the spot, or sometimes not

If the elusive G spot is for real, then not all women seem to have it equally. MDs used ultrasound to scan the private parts of 20 women, nine of whom reported they experience so-called vaginal orgasms (without direct clitoral stimulation), whereas the rest of whom said no dicetry something else. The mind-blowing climax: the vaginal O group had on average a thicker urethrovaginal space—an area separating the urethra from the front wall of the vagina—where the G spot is alleged to reside and, if it can be found, trigger orgasms. Surveys have indicated that 70 percent of women don't get off during intercourse, which some interpret as a dysfunction (read: male inadequacy). The new finding, to be published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, adds to evidence that says: nope, it's just plain ole physiology.

Gray wolf becomes fair game

The gray wolf—Canis lupus—will no longer enjoy the protection of the federal government's Endangered Species Act in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The roughly 1,500 wolves in this area of the northern Rockies had been protected for a (lucky?) 13 years but now face the wrath of Idaho Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter (R) who vowed, "I'm prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself" as well as to cull 80 percent of the 650 or so wolves in his state via hunting or other means. But wolf-lovers, such as the lawyers at Earthjustice (founded in 1971 as part of the Sierra Club), plan to sue the feds to protect the wolves from aggressive state management plans. "The enduring hostility to wolves still exists," Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold told the Associated Press. Howl! (USA Today)

A green planet gone bad—relax, it's just a video game

A planet in near ecological ruin is in desperate need of alternative energy sources, including solar, water and wind. Obvious parallels with today's Earth aside, this predicament describes the PowerUp sci-fi multiplayer online game recently launched by IBM, not a company typically associated with gaming. PowerUp emerged from the TryScience initiative (sponsored by IBM, the New York Hall of Science and the Association of Science-Technology Centers), whose goal is to get children interested in conservation as well as engineering, science and technology. They aim to use video games as the medium for that message, an approach that Electronic Arts Inc. has likewise pursued with its recent SimCity Societies release. In PowerUp, players are encouraged, for example, to ride over rugged mountains in buggies, build solar towers or search through junk yards to find parts to repair wind turbines. The twist is that this crippled society had already solved its energy problems through the use of sun, water and wind power, only to become complacent and abandon these green technologies. Talk about science fiction!

Whoops, the sun may vaporize Earth after all

British researchers report they've revamped their calculations of Earth's fate during the sun's predicted death, starting about 6.5 billion years from now—and it's not looking good. Their earlier thinking was that as the sun expanded into a red giant, it would shed considerable mass in the form of solar wind, which would weaken its pull on Earth enough for the planet's orbit to enlarge, thereby avoiding destruction, if not a good charring. Now they say one tiny factor was overlooked: the fact that the sun's wispy but expansive outer atmosphere would exert a drag on our mother world, causing it to plunge into the raging red monster and be vaporized. You might think there's nothing to be done, but it ain't necessarily so: They optimistically note that if we could orchestrate a near miss between Earth and a large asteroid once every 6,000 years, we could gradually nudge our planet's orbit far enough out to stay intact and even habitable. Or we could jump ship to another planet. Just a thought. (uk.arXiv.org)

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