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SMC Heads-Up: Curiosity heads to Mars

SMC Heads-Up: Curiosity heads to Mars, tropical Antarctica, plug pulled on second cable

Curiosity Mars rover countdown
The excitement around the landing of NASA's latest Mars rover hasn't skipped New Zealand.

At approximately 5.24pm this Monday, the Mars Curiosity Rover (AKA Mars Science Laboratory) will begin its descent through the Martian atmosphere to the surface of the Red Planet

In what scientists have dubbed the 'seven minutes of terror', the spacecraft must slow down from an incredible speed of 12,000 mph to nearly zero for a successful landing in a basin known as the Gale Crater (see NASA video).

Once on the surface - if all goes to plan - the rover will negotiate the rough terrain, taking video and photos and recording data from geological and atmospheric samples.

Here in New Zealand, Wellington's Carter Observatory plans to host a special event to monitor the final descent as well as provide an opportunity to hear from the Kiwimars crew who went on a 2 week exploration of the 'Martian' desert of Utah, USA.

Armchair astronauts can also follow the landing on NASA uStream channel.

Life on Mars?

One of the key objectives of the Mars Science Laboratory is to determine whether Mars could ever have supported life. Among the plethora of technology on board the rover is equipment to analyse the planet's methane levels which, according to recent research from Canterbury University's Dr Christopher Oze, could indicate the presence of life (at least as we know it).

You can read more about the mission, watch videos and keep up to date on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory website.

Pacific Fibre - economics didn't stack up
A group of high-profile New Zealand businessmen this week abandoned efforts to build a second major undersea broadband cable linking New Zealand to Australia and the United States, citing problems raising the $400 million required for the project.

While Pacific Fibre had secured contracts to the tune of $200 million to supply international capacity on the cable from customers such as Vodafone, iiNet and the Research and Education Advanced Network (REANNZ), a "difficult" global investment market had stymied Pacific Fibre's efforts to secure funding.
"We started Pacific Fibre because we know how important it is to connect New Zealanders to global markets. The high cost of broadband in New Zealand makes it hard to connect globally and it is this market failure, not a technical failure, that we tried hard to solve", said investor Rod Drury.

Dr Fernando Beltran, a senior lecturer in The University of Auckland Business School who runs the Pricing in Next-Generation Networks research group (PING), told the SMC that the impact on the Government's ultrafast broadband plans and wider efforts to drive innovation would be hard to gauge, but that the lack of a second operator would prices less likely to fall and the trend towards more generous data caps less likely to continue.

"Capacity-wise, its been said there is enough capacity on the cable. The important thing is the economics, not the technology. The problem is that if you charge too high, no matter how capable your cable is or how much capacity it has, you are discouraging people from using it just because of the price," he said.

"If you have a second or third cable, what happens is that the users of the cables, the internet providers, are the ones determining which one to use and how to use it. That would bring better prices just due to that competition."

Pacific Fibre co-founder Rod Drury, said in a statement that the high cost of international capacity would remain a barrier to the country's efforts to develop ultra-fast broadband.

But interviewed recently on the Sciblogs podcast, the Southern Cross Cable Network's Ross Pfeffer claims that international capacity was inflating the price of New Zealand broadband plans were a "myth". The network kept access pricing for New Zealand customers at the same rate as offered to Australian clients, so New Zealand was not disadvantaged by having one connection.

Read more commentary on the Science Media Centre website.

On the science radar...
The perfect sandcastle, Greenland's ice loss,elephant voices, coffee and Parkinson's, antisocial commuters and the Age of Great Quakes?

Olympics: Faster, Higher, Stronger
The Olympics is well and truly underway, and the SMC is keeping pace with the media, ready to help journalists cover all the science angles of the world's greatest sporting event.

The SMC has proactively contacted a number of scientists - including a few who have worked directly with Olympic teams- and they are ready and waiting on the sidelines to help with background and commentary on a wide range of issues, including:
• Drugs in sport
• Injuries and recovery
• Genetics
• Biomechanics
• Sports psychology
• Fairness and ethics
• Women in sport
• Diet and nutrition
• Olympics and politics
• Sports physiology
• The Paralympics
• ...and much more!

"I think that New Zealand society, or at least substantial elements of it, are becoming too dependent on the magic money tree that apparently provides funding for the health budget without taking responsibility for their own health."

Dalton Kelly, Cancer Society Chief Executive

'Near tropical' Antarctic climate
Antarctica's ancient coastline sported forests not dissimilar from those currently found in New Zealand, according to new research.

A study published this week in the leading science journal Nature analysed pollen and biological materials in sediments to uncover more about Antarctica's climate history.

Researchers (including a New Zealander, Dr Robert MacKay) on-board a specialist drilling ship bored over a kilometre down into the ocean floor off the coast Antarctica to gather samples. Analysis of the sediment cores they pulled up the revealed that, some 50 million years ago, the Antarctic coast had once been home to palms and ferns similar to those found in modern day New Zealand.

In the Nature article the authors state that Antarctic climate during the 'Greenhouse' Eocene epoch - 55 to 48 million years ago - was very warm, leading to the growth of "highly diverse, near-tropical forests".

The research also has implications for the future, as lead author Prof. Jörg Pross, a paleoclimatologist at the Goethe University notes:

"By studying naturally occurring climate warming periods in the geological past, our knowledge of the mechanisms and processes in the climate system increases. This contributes enormously to improving our understanding of current human-induced global warming."

You can read more about the research on the Science Media Centre website.

New from the SMC

Experts respond:

Pacific fibre plans cut: An ICT expert comments on the abandoned efforts to build a second major undersea broadband cable linking New Zealand to Australia and the United States.

Psychological distress: New research identifies links between anxiety and depression symptoms and an increased risk of death over an eight year period. Experts respond.

Sea lion safety: an expert questions government claims that devices built into trawling nets are saving sea lion lives as intended.

In the News:

Tropical Antarctica: A drilling expedition off the coast of Antarctica has revealed the icy continent once boasted a warm, "near tropical" climate.
Reflections on Science:

Space 2.0: Vanessa Hill, of the CSIRO, Australia, writes about the final frontiers of space and web 2.0 for the Conversation website.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Grizzly Beastly Magically Science Stories in Museums - Killer baby bottles and other artefacts get Brigid Gallagher pondering how museums engage with public.
Digging the Dirt

Sharks don't get cancer?Some fishy health product claims are no match for Alison Campbell's evidence-based bite.
Bio Blog

Dangerous nutrition advice? What's the difference between a nutritionist and dietician in New Zealand? Amanda Johnson explains.
Food Stuff

The shortest distance between two points - Marcus Wilson gives the straight dope on getting from A to B.. which turns out to be a surprisingly flexible journey, depending on the circumstances.
Physics Stop

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Past extinctions predict little: Scientists can't rely on historical extinction patterns among New Zealand birds to predict future population declines, according to new research. The drivers for extinction have varied, particularly with changes in human impact on ecosystems. Patterns of current extinction risk don't necessarily reflect past patterns, and these changes may confound attempts to pick which species are most at risk.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Bird flu outbreak in seals: A novel avian influenza virus has acquired the ability to infect aquatic mammals and was responsible for an outbreak of fatal pneumonia that recently struck harbor seals in New England. New research, spurred the deaths of 162 baby seals last year, has identified a new strain of avian H3N8 influenza virus as the culprit. Full genome sequencing traced the virus back to an avian strain that has been circulating in North American waterfowl since 2002.

Teen predictors: Young people who say they expect to die young may actually be be predicting their own future. For American teens, an expectation of death before the age of 35 predicted increased risk behaviours - including substance abuse and suicide attempts. The youngsters making the predictions had double or triple average mortality rates in young adulthood - and such predictions may be useful for identifying at-risk youth.

Carbon sinks going strong: Global carbon uptake by land and ocean carbon sinks has almost doubled in the past 50 years, according to a new study. Research analysing the global carbon budget found that global carbon uptake has almost doubled from around 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon per year in 1960 to around 5.0 billion tonnes of carbon per year in 2010. These data indicate that carbon uptake by land and ocean sinks remains strong at present, contrary to some suggestions of an already diminishing carbon sink.

Sunburnt fish: Melanoma skin cancer has been identified in wild coral trout in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In the absence of microbial pathogens and given the strong similarities to the UV-induced melanomas, scientists conclude that the likely cause was environmental exposure to UV radiation - possibly due to depletion of the ozone layer. It is the first time the disease has been documented in wild fish although other species of fish exposed to UV light in the laboratory have used as a model for human skin cancers.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Pest plants prohibited: Under an agreement between government agencies, regional councils and the nursery industry, thirteen new plants have been confirmed as pests and added to a list of species that are illegal to propagate, distribute or sell.

Marine mammal protection: The Government has launched the new Code of Conduct which sets out operational requirements that aim to protect marine mammals from potential impacts of seismic survey work used exploration, prospecting and research.

PCE slams EEZ: The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has criticised the proposed statement of purpose of the EEZ bill aiming to regulate activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Upcoming sci-tech events
• So you think you are a social smoker - who are you kidding? - Public lecture from Dr Joseph DiFranza - 6 August, Wellington.
• Mars Curiosity Rover "LIVE" Landing at Carter Observatory - 6 August, Wellington.
• 'Am I my genes?' & 'Genes behaving badly?'- with Professor Robert Klitzman (Columbia University) and Prof Grant Gillet (Otago) - 6 August, Auckland; 8 August, Wellington.
• Mating Systems: Monkeys, Apes, and Humans - Lecture from Prof Alan Dixson - 7 August, Wellington.
• Understanding human responses - 'a teaspoon of light' - with Prof Peter O'Connor, part of the 2012 Winter Lectures: Hazards, disasters, risks and responses: Auckland are you ready? - 7 August, Auckland.
• As the world turns, how goes NZ? - Rod Oram discusses his trip to the UN Rio +20 Conference - August 7, Wellington.
• Exercise as Life-long Medicine - with Profs Elwyn Firth and Paul Hofman, part of 2012 Vice-Chancellor's Lecture Series: Exercise is Medicine - 7 August, Auckland.
• What If we could predict human behaviour in labour markets? - 'What if Wednesday' lecture from Simon Gächter (University of Nottingham) - 8 August, Christchurch.
• Exercise is Medicine: What is the Evidence Supporting this Initiative? - with Prof Steven N. Blair (University of South Carolina), part of 2012 Vice-Chancellor's Lecture Series: Exercise is Medicine - 9 August, Auckland.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

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