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Comet ISON to approach the Sun on Thanksgiving

Comet ISON, named for the International Scientific Optical Network that discovered it, is now inside Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The comet is approaching the sun for what promises to be a fiery encounter on Thanksgiving Day, November 28.

ISON has never passed into the inner solar system before, being a first-time traveler from the Oort Cloud, a domain of comets that could extend as far away as a light-year from the Sun. ISON is an unfamiliar entity, and so its behavior in the inner solar system will be unpredictable. Matthew Knight, a member of NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign at Lowell Observatory, has assembled in a NASA press release the possible fates that might befall ISON as it nears the Sun.

Scenario #1 is that ISON will simply, spontaneously disintegrate. ISON is in the region of space, within approximately 0.8 AU (astronomical unit = 93 million miles = average distance between Earth and the Sun) of the Sun, in which other comets have suddenly disintegrated. Comet LINEAR (C/1999 S4) and Comet Elenin (C/2010 X1) have both disintegrated in this region, in 2000 and 2011, respectively. If ISON disintegrates, it will be the best-observed such event in history.

Scenario #2 is that ISON will survive the approach to the Sun but will not make it around. At the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, within 621,000 miles of the star’s surface, its temperature will rise to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit; at such high temperatures, most of the dust and rock on ISON’s surface will evaporate. ISON might survive this close encounter thanks to its speed and size; the comet might pass out of the danger zone quickly, and it must be 200 meters wide to survive, a mere fraction of its current diameter of 500 meters to two kilometers. However, even if ISON survives the vaporization of its surface, the Sun’s gravity might shatter it. A similar end came for Comet Lovejoy in December 2011, when it passed within 100,000 miles of the Sun’s surface.

Scenario #3 is that ISON survives its close shave with the Sun and emerges on the other side with enough of its nucleus intact. Even if it endures, ISON will probably lose enough material to generate a spectacular tail, much as Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1) in 2007. Alternatively, ISON might break up into a few large chunks, which would render the comet extremely bright from the ground and provide astronomers a chance to study the 4.5-billion-year-old comet with the most extensive array of orbiting and Earth-based telescopes ever fielded.

“I’m clearly rooting for #3,” said Knight.

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National Cathedral makes controversial decision to charge admission fee

Beginning in January, 2014, the Washington National Cathedral will start charging visitors an admission fee. Not everyone, however, is happy about it.

Struggling to pay for the cost of upkeep, the church needs to generate more revenue, the cathedral’s dean, Rev. Gary Hall, told the Associated Press. He said the decision to charge admission was made reluctantly, but noted that cathedrals in Europe charge admission fees to cover costs of upkeep.

“All we are charging for is tourism essentially,” Rev. Hall said. “We’re not charging for the essential services of the cathedral.”

Cathedral officials said Monday they would be charging $10 admission for adults and $6 for children, seniors, and members of the armed forces. Admission will be free on Sundays and on weekdays for worshippers. The church also will offer a $25 family discounted fee, which includes a one-year National Cathedral Association membership.

In addition to the regular costs of upkeep, the church needs to generate revenue to pay for the whopping $26 million repair bill for fixing damage from the August 2011 earthquake. So far, Hall said, the cathedral has collected only about $7 million.

Rev. Hall also told the AP that a hiring freeze, a salary freeze for the highest paid employees, and a change in vendors have cut $1.7 million from the cathedral’s budget. No staff members were laid off, he said.

“We need to grow in certain areas that we don’t have the resources to do so right now,” Hall said. “If we just keep cutting and cutting and cutting … we’ll just be a kind of shrinking institution.”

Mr. Sokol recognizes that some people might have a negative reaction to the decision to charge admission, but said the move was necessary to prevent a budget crisis.

“The change in entry policy has the potential to generate bad press,” he said, adding the church will need “a communication strategy to mitigate any voiced opposition.”

After the cathedral begins collecting admission fees in January, staff will conduct monthly reviews through June, when they will decide whether or not to continue the practice.

The historic Washington National Cathedral, a cathedral of the Episcopal Church, was built under a charter passed by the U.S. Congress in 1893. Construction began in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the laying of the foundation stone. It’s the sixth largest cathedral in the world.

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Trey Radel pleads guilty to cocaine possession

Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine and was sentenced to one year of probation. He also must get treatment for substance abuse.

Radel was busted last month after buying the illegal drug in the Dupont Circle neighborhood on Oct. 29 in the presence of an undercover agent.

According to court documents, Radel “unlawfully, knowingly and intentionally possessed” 3-5 grams of cocaine. He was charged Tuesday after a Superior Court grand jury handed down an indictment.

The charge against Radel, who was elected last year with Tea Party support in the Fort Myers-Naples area district, sent shockwaves throughout his community.

“Your honor, I apologize for what I’ve done,” Radel told the judge. I hit a bottom and I realize I need help.”

Radel said he was sorry for violating the law. “I have let my constituents, my country, and my family down. I want to come out of this stronger and I intend to do that, to be a better man, a better husband, and continuing to serve this country,” he said.

In a statement issued after he was charged Tuesday, Radel attributed his actions in part to alcohol addiction.

“I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice,” he said. “As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them … I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it.”

As for any possible repercussions in the House of Representatives, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the matter would be handled by the criminal justice system.

“Members of Congress should be held to the highest standards, and the alleged crime will be handled by the courts,” said Michael Steel. “Beyond that, this is between Representative Radel, his family, and his constituents.”

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Rate of asteroid impacts underestimated

When an undetected asteroid exploded over the town of Chelyabinsk in Russia on February 15 of this year, it awakened the world’s astronomers to the threat posed by such relatively small and unseen space rocks.

Now, a new study led by Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario has determined that relatively small near-Earth objects careen into Earth’s atmosphere with alarming frequency. The team examined 20 years of data accrued by sensors used by United States government and infrasound sensors stationed around the world. The detectors were originally installed to detect nuclear weapon launches, but they also register the shockwaves produced by asteroids.

Brown and colleagues discovered that, during the 20-year period, about 60 asteroids up to 20 meters in diameter had plummeted into the atmosphere. Most exploded over the oceans or remote areas on land. In any case, this is a much higher number than was recorded by telescopes, indicating that the danger of small asteroids has been underestimated and is 2 to 10 times higher than previously thought.

An event of similar magnitude to the Chelyabinsk meteor would be expected to occur every 150 years or so based upon telescopic data, but every 30 years according to Brown and team’s findings. More devastating explosions, such as the Tunguska event that flattened thousands of square miles of Siberian forest in 1908, would be expected every few hundred years rather than every few thousand. Brown and colleagues recommend that a global early warning system be established. The system would scan the skies for small asteroids that might otherwise go undetected.

A separate study led by Jiri Borovicka of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic determined that the Chelyabinsk meteor might have spalled off of a much larger asteroid. Asteroid 86039 is 2 kilometers wide and has an orbit similar to that ascertained for the Chelyabinsk meteor after the impact was analyzed.

Both studies have been published in the November 7 issue of the journal Nature.

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First results of groundbreaking dark matter experiment are in

Dark matter is the most enigmatic and abundant form of matter in the universe, thought to comprise as much as 85 percent of the universe’s matter. Its elusiveness is due to the facts that it rarely interacts with other forms of matter, and it does not emit or reflect light. Dark matter can be discerned only by its gravitational effects on other types of matter; indeed, in the absence of dark matter’s gravity, galaxies would fly apart and disperse into the cosmos.

Because interactions between dark matter and other matter are so rare, an exceptionally sensitive apparatus is necessary to detect them, a crucial step towards characterizing dark matter. “To give some idea of how small the probability of having a dark matter particle interact, imagine firing one dark matter particle into a block of lead,” explained Rick Gaitskell of Brown University, according to Phys.org. “In order to get a 50-50 chance of the particle interacting with the lead, the block would need to stretch for about 200 light-years – this is 50 times farther than the nearest star to the Earth aside from the Sun.”

Overcoming this enormous hurdle requires LUX, the Large Underground Xenon experiment. LUX resides 4,850 feet under the hills of South Dakota, at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, shielded from the noise of cosmic radiation. The vital component of LUX is the “can”, a cylindrical vacuum thermos containing a third of a ton of ultra-pure liquid xenon, cooled to minus 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This exotic fluid will bathe an array of photosensors able to detect a single photon. The can is in turn encased in a 71,600-gallon tank of deionized water, affording even more protection from radiation noise.

LUX has just finished its initial 90-day operation, which has shown that the detector is functioning well at a sensitivity higher than any other experiment to directly detect dark matter. The most likely candidate for the identity of dark matter is a class of particles known as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS). WIMPS assume either a high-mass or a low-mass form. LUX is twice as sensitive to high-mass WIMPS, which are about 40 times the mass of a proton, and is also more sensitive to low-mass WIMPS.

LUX looks for xenon flashes in the range of energies expected for dark matter. Researchers examine the interactions of particles with the xenon atoms to determine whether they are caused by dark matter or normal background radiation. Dark matter and normal radiation react with xenon atoms in different ways: dark matter would interact with the nucleus, while background radiation interacts with the outer electrons. So far, LUX has not shown the nuclear recoil that would signify the direct detection of dark matter particles; all the interactions so far detected have been electron recoil.

However, this is hardly a failure. LUX’s initial results have refuted previous experiments with less sensitive devices that reported interactions in the lower energy ranges that would be consistent with dark matter. In contrast, LUX found no evidence for dark matter in those lower ranges, suggesting that previous detections of low-mass WIMPS were due to background radiation, rather than dark matter.

The LUX researchers are now making fine adjustments in preparation for a 300-day run to commence in 2014. As LUX operates over longer intervals, the odds that a dark matter interaction will be detected will increase.

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Officials investigating Creigh Deeds attack

Creigh Deeds, a Democratic state senator from Virginia, lies in a hospital in critical condition after his son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, attacked him with a knife and then killed himself on Tuesday morning.

Now, as police are reviewing evidence about events that led to the attack, a Virginia health official said he would be opening an investigation into why Gus Deeds was released from emergency custody the day before he stabbed his father and then died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

According to the Associated Press, an emergency order to detain Gus Deeds was issued, but no one yet is saying why. Apparently, he was transported to the Rockbridge Area Community Services Center, which treats mental illness and substance abuse, but soon released because no psychiatric bed was available. However, following the stabbing, several hospitals told reporters that they had empty beds. The AP was not able independently to confirm the custody order.

The director of the inspector general program for behavioral health in Virginia, G. Douglas Bevelaqua, said his office is launching an investigation into what he said were conflicting reports about the incident. He did not reveal whether the investigation was based on information gathered by his office or if it was founded solely on news reports, the AP said.

“Suffice it to say, we had sufficient information to warrant opening an investigation,” Bevelaqua said.

State police said the local sheriff’s office responded to what they characterized as a non-emergency call at the legislator’s home on Monday, but declined to say why.

People acquainted with the senator and his son are at a loss to explain the violent attack. Most say the pair’s relationship was close and that Gus Deeds possessed not only a prodigious intellect but was an outstandingly talented musician as well.

“He was one of those people who could go and take a test and not have to study for it and he’d get 100 on it,” Casey Forbes, who went to elementary and high school with the senator’s son, told the AP. “It didn’t matter what class it was. He really didn’t have much of a challenge.”

Gus Deeds had studied music on and off at the College of William and Mary since 2007, but recently dropped out. One of his teachers, an associate professor of music theory and composition, said Deeds played many instruments, including banjo and piano, and performed with the college’s Appalachian Music Ensemble.

“He seemed to be really happy in the music department and that’s the only side of him I ever saw,” said Brian Hulse. “He was extremely unique in the most positive sense.”

The seriously injured Creigh Deeds reportedly suffered multiple stab wounds to his head and upper torso. After the attack, Gus Deeds shot himself with a gun. The son was alive, police say, when officers arrived on the scene but died despite efforts to save him.

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Senate passes ENDA, but likely stalled in House

On Thursday, the Senate passed an historic gay rights measure that would ban employer discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) cleared the chamber with 64 votes, including the support of ten Republicans.

ENDA has had a long and torturous legislative history, first failing in the Senate by one vote in 1996 and unable to move beyond the House in 2007. Despite the strong Senate vote in favor, the statements by House Speaker John Boehner and his staff make it sound unlikely that the bill will clear his chamber and become law.

“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous legislation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, told Politico last week.

But Boehner’s stance drew criticism from Democrats, who pushed back against a larger argument that the law is unnecessary because protections are already present for many Americans.

Saying that “the time has come…to pass a federal law,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also noted that many are under the impression something like ENDA is already in place. “Well it isn’t already the law…Let’s do what the American people think already exists.”

Despite being from the same party and state, Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio did not agree with Boehner and supported the bill.

“People should be judged by their experience, their qualifications, and their job performance, and not by their sexual orientation,” Portman said. “Someone should not be able to be fired just because he or she is gay.”

But even with the strong showing in the Senate and pressure from Democrats, Politico has reported that “senior House Republican aides” say ENDA will almost certainly not even come up for a vote. Because of a prevailing sentiment that protections exist and the bill is therefore unnecessary, Boehner will probably not bring it to the floor. That would delay it yet again, but given the increased Republican support this time around, it may get another chance sooner rather than later.

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Pacific Navy bribery scandal spreads

Federal prosecutors in San Diego, California, have charged “Fat Leonard” Francis with bribery in connection with a series of fake contract bids submitted to the United States Navy.

Francis runs a Singapore-based company called Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd, also known as GDMA. The company has serviced US Navy warships throughout the Pacific region for the better part of 25 years. Francis is a celebrity in Navy circles, well known to ship captains and other navy officials in the area for his ostentatious ways and flaunting of his wealth. Since 2007, visitors have descended on his 70,000 square foot property in Singapore to see an elaborate display of Christmas decorations.

Rear Admiral Terry McKnight called Francis “… a larger-than-life figure, you talk to any captain on any ship that has sailed in the Pacific and they will know exactly who he is.”

That extravagance comes at a cost, however, and now prosecutors say that Francis has been bilking the navy for tens of millions of dollars in fake contracts for years. According to court documents, Francis bribed senior navy commanders such as Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz with tickets to shows like the Lion King and Lady Gaga, as well as prostitution services. In exchange for the favors, Misiewicz provided information and changed the itinerary for key vessels so that they would be steered to ports around Asia where GDMA overcharged the navy for food, fuel and maintenance.

Several other individuals have been charged as the size of the investigation widens. Senior navy officials say that more may be implicated but could not give specifics due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

The allegations have set off alarms as high as the Pentagon. McKnight said that the scope of the corruption was surprising to many familiar with the case: “It’s pretty big when you have one person who can dictate where ships are going to go and being influenced by a contractor… A lot of people are saying how could this happen?”

A spokesman for the Navy Criminal Investigative Service  said that the Francis probe began back in 2010. All of the defendants connected to the charges have pleaded not guilty at this time. If convicted, they could be sentenced to as many as five years in prison for conspiracy to commit bribery.

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Cartwright puts forward legislation to save paper savings bonds

Today, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright introduced the bipartisan Save Access to a Valuable Investment Needed to Generate Savings (SAVINGS) Act with the support of 25 colleagues. The SAVINGS Act would prohibit Treasury from discontinuing the Tax-Time Savings Bond Program for five years unless the Department implements a universally accessible non-electronic alternative.

At present, the only means of purchasing paper bonds is through the U.S. Treasury’s Tax-Time Savings Bond Program which allows individuals to use a portion of their federal tax refund to purchase savings bonds. Treasury has committed to maintaining the Tax-Time Savings Bond Program through the 2014 tax season only.

“Savings bonds represent a powerful and patriotic savings vehicle for millions of American families,” said Cartwright. “Treasury’s decision would severely restrict access to savings bonds for many low-income families. Every family deserves access to an affordable savings vehicle and an opportunity to attain financial security.”

The termination of the Tax-Time Savings Bond Program would restrict the purchase of savings bonds to online purchase only, which would cut off savings bond access to the approximately 20 percent of Americans who lack internet access, and the more than 10 million Americans who do not have a bank account.

“We’re delighted that Congress, through Congressman Cartwright’s leadership, shares the Administration’s goal to help millions of Americans save money at tax time,” said Tim Flacke, Executive Director of the D2D Fund.

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Earth’s early evolution revealed by cooled lava

In the earliest stages of its 4.5 billion-year history, Earth was a molten planet. The processes that formed the stable crust that life, such as ourselves, enjoys have been mysterious. One of the most prominent problems concerns conflicting findings about the early magma ocean. The geological record indicates that cooling of the magma ocean would have taken tens of millions of years, whereas models of magma cooling suggest the ocean would have cooled far faster, within only one million years.

Now, a team led by Chrystéle Sanloup of the University of Edinburgh has carried out an experiment to reconcile the condradictory geological and modelling conclusions. The team used samples of basalt, cooled lava, and subjected them to the extreme pressure, 60 gigapascals, present at approximately 1400 kilometers under Earth’s surface. The team found that the chemical structure of the basalt changed at such crushing pressures.

The team used high-powered lasers at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchroton to simulate the high pressures. Two infrared lasers were focused on an area of the basalt sample only 20 micrometers across, equivalent to about 2,000 times the power density of the surface of the Sun. This intense beam heated the basalt to 3,000 degrees Celsius in only a few seconds, until it was completely molten. The diffraction of X-rays through the molten basalt was measured, revealing that a remarkable chemical change had occurred in the sample. The element silicon, the most abundant element in magma, was rearranged such that each silicon atom had six oxygen neighbors instead of the usual four. This change resulted in the basalt increasing in density from 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter (g/ccm) to nearly 5 g/ccm at 60 gigapascals of pressure. This means that the magma becomes less fluidic and more difficult to compress.

This chemical change in the molten basalt suggests that, in the young Earth, the mantle, the molten layer under the crust, might have been divided into upper and lower layers by a crystalline layer. The pressure at the depth of the lower magma ocean would have been made the ocean extremely dense, such that rocks would not sink into it but rather float on top. This would have allowed a crystalline layer to form at a shallower depth where the pressure was 35 gigapascals.

The new study has been published in the November 7 issue of the journal Nature.