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African leaders arrive in South Sudan to encourage peace talks

The bloodshed is South Sudan may be coming to a close. That’s the hope of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who arrived in the war-torn country for mediation talks Thursday.  An Kenyan delegation also includes Amb Amina Mohammed,  Dalmas Otieno and Amb Bethwel Kiplagat. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia also joined the delegation to South Sudan.

“We call upon the two leaders to end the political violence and have peace talks. We thank Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for showing compassion at our time of need,” said Compatriots of South Sudan for Peace Chairman Makuach Aleu. “It is not the time to engage in destructive political engagement but a moment to look back where the country has come from and build it for the benefit of the posterity of South Sudan.”

War broke out again in the Eastern African nation after a power struggle between president Salva Kirr and former Vice President Riek Machar . Soldiers supporting Macahar attempted a coup to overthrow Kirr. South Sudan is the newest nation, but has had decades of turmoil. South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011 after years of civil war with Sudan. Despite the independence, there has been unease between the two nations. This latest conflict exposes a long-festering tribal war between the Dinka tribe, Kirr’s ethnic group, and the Nuer, Machar’s ethnic group.

Tens of thousands of refugees of all of South Sudan have sought refuge in the UN camps in Bor, where fighting has been rampant. Refugees have also been pouring into neighboring nations of Kenya and Uganda. The hospital has treated hundreds hit by gunfire around the oil-rich cities of  Upper Nile and the ironically named state of Unity. More than 1,000 South Sudanese people have lost their lives in just days of fighting. Though there is no reporting of gunfire in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, fighting makes it difficult for aid to get to the city.

African leaders hope to prevent another civil war in the fragile nation. Kenyatta and his delegation hope to turn a fight over power into a sharing of rich natural resources among the South Sudanese people. The world is watching to see if South Sudan can build a tentative peace for this war-weary country.

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Unemployment extension set to end for 1.3 million Americans on Saturday

An extension of unemployment benefits authorized by Congress to assist the long-term jobless are set to expire on Saturday. According to the National Employment Law Project, Saturday will be the first round of cuts that will affect approximately 1.3 million unemployed  Americans who are currently collecting benefits. An additional 1.9 million are set to lose benefits by mid-2014 when the initial 26-weeks of state-funded benefits expire.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) are collaborating on a new piece of legislation that would extend the emergency benefits for the first three months of 2014, while lawmakers seek an agreement on the $25 billion budget. Without the extension, benefits will abruptly end.

Sen. Reed suggests that the proposed extension is intended to temporarily assist the unemployed while policymakers seek ways to continue the unemployment assistance while balancing the budget. “This is not a program that people are leaving good jobs or not looking for jobs  because they’re doing very well. This is just enough to keep people going, in  some cases barely enough to keep people going,” he said.

Opponents of the extension state that creating an additional piece of legislation to extend benefits will ultimately cost taxpayers in the long-run. Meanwhile, proponents argue that the extension is providing a critical safety net for the unemployed and that cutting off benefits would lead to less economic stimulation and consumer spending.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said if there was a proposal to pay for the unemployment benefit extension that he would support the efforts. However, Democrats assert that long-term unemployment rate is still a problem and is an emergency that does not require payment in advance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said extending long-term  unemployment benefits is a top priority. Ending off-shore tax breaks and closing tax loopholes were some remedies suggested by Senator Reed, despite the fact that GOP members objected  that proposal.

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Google introduces Terminator-style robots at DARPA Robotic Challenge Trials

The folks at Google have a lot to cheer since their newly acquired company, Schaft, Inc. of Japan, won the robotics challenge trials sponsored by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The trials were held this weekend at Florida’s Homestead Miami Speedway.

Sixteen teams with robots competed for a place in next year’s final, when DARPA will award a $2 million grand prize to the winner. The robots were designed to complete eight challenging tasks–the kind that would be required as part of response efforts to natural or man-made disasters, such as walking over uneven terrain, clearing away debris, and climbing a ladder.

The winning Schaft robot, a 209-pound humanoid just under five feet tall, scored 27 out of a possible 32 points, beating Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot by seven points. Carnegie Mellon University’s CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP) came in third with 18 points. The top eight performers will get a chance to compete in the 2014 finals.

Adam Jacoff, a robotics research engineer with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, told Live Science that the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials is “one of the biggest robotics evaluations on Earth and dwarf many military robot tests, both in scale of ambition and the actual effort involved.”

In a recent interview with Live Science, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar shared his impressions of the Challenge, saying one thing that impressed him was how difficult it is to program robots to do what to us are simple tasks.

“We were watching the ladder task,” Prabhakar said, “and I think for the five or seven minutes that I was standing there watching, what we were watching was a robot contemplating the ladder, trying to figure it out so it could start walking up this thing. It just makes you realize how the things we take for granted are so complex when you have to program something to do it.”

While this weekend’s Challenge focused on disaster-response robots, Prabhakar said robotic technologies are important to national security.

“We have always been part of the Defense Department, and our core mission is breakthrough technologies for national security,” Prabhakar explained, adding, “In the military context, our warfighters have to do incredibly dangerous tasks as a core part of their missions. As robotics technology advances and we can harvest it to help alleviate those challenges for our warfighters, that’s absolutely something we will be looking to do.”

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Study: Fall of the Soviet Union may have saved the Arctic

An international team of researchers from the United States, Canada, and Russia, has surprised the scientific community in overturning previous assumptions that high mercury levels in the North American and European Arctic meant those same levels would be found everywhere near the top of the world. The team discovered that mercury concentrations in fish are much lower than expected in much of the continental Arctic and that the economic decline of the former Soviet Union may be responsible.

“It turns out that the economic decline of the former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, appears to have been good for that part of the Arctic environment in that part of the world,” Leandro Castello, assistant professor of fish and wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, said in a statement. He is lead author of a study published in the Dec. 20 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

Most atmospheric mercury comes from mining and ore processing, according to a United Nations Environmental Program study. Under certain water conditions, mercury is converted to a special form that can be absorbed by living organisms–like fish–through a process called methylation.

Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric mercury continued to increase in Europe and North America until the 1970s. It began to decline as a result of emissions controls, according to the researchers, with Asia now leading the world in atmospheric mercury levels.

The scientists compared mercury levels in burbot fish from 20 locations along the Pasvik River on the Norwegian-Russian border and along the Mackenzie River in Canada, where long-term studies have found dangerously high levels of mercury, making its fish unsafe for human consumption. Burbot fish, found throughout the Arctic, are cod-like, non-migratory, freshwater predators.

“The burbot fish was chosen because they are top predators that integrate many bio-geo-chemical processes in the river watersheds,” Castello said. “The fish were collected downstream of the watersheds, so that they would present everything that happened upstream.”

The team found that burbot fish in two Russian rivers, the Lena and the Mezen, were safe to eat. Mercury concentrations from fish in the Mezen were lower than in 10 other locations, but higher than eight in North America. But mercury levels in burbot from the Lena River were among the lowest of all. Castello calls this “good news,” because the Lena River is “one of the largest watersheds in the world.”

According to the researchers, metallurgic industries in the Murmansk region of Russia and smelting operations in the Pasvik watershed explain high levels of atmospheric mercury in the Pasvik River. On the other hand, the decline in economic activity leading up to and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, along with the concomitant reduction of pollution sources near the watersheds of the Lena and Mezen, accounts for the low levels of mercury found there.

“More studies are needed in the Russian Arctic if we are to better understand how mercury moves through this type of environment,” Castello added.

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That one time First Lady Nancy Reagan sat on Mr. T's lap

Never forget.

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DARPA launches spy satellite capable of viewing 40 percent of Earth’s surface at one time

The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has designed a gigantic new spy satellite that will be able to observe 40 percent of the Earth’s surface at any given time. The revolutionary device, called Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE), is made up of 18 folding octagonal mirrors that unfurl to create a telescope that would stretch up to 68 feet (20.7 meters) across vertically, according to a report by PBS.org.

DARPA’s spy telescope would launch as a tightly-packed cluster only 20 feet in diameter and then, upon reaching a distance of 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) above the Earth, would open like a giant flower. Its reflecting mirrors would be able to view almost half the Earth’s surface at once and record high-resolution images and video from anywhere in the world at any time.

Unlike traditional space telescopes, which are made of thick, expensive glass, MOIRE is constructed of much lighter and cheaper plastic. The new spy satellite was designed to provide less expensive, more efficient options for space and satellite imaging. The MOIRE currently is in the second phase of its development. A ground-based prototype already has been successfully tested.

“It would be optimal to have real-time images and video of any place on Earth at any time–a capability that doesn’t currently exist,” DARPA writes on its website.

Prior to DARPA’s ground-breaking new design, the logistics of transporting a satellite the size of MOIRE made such a venture impossible. But MOIRE’s 18 octagonal plastic mirrors are made of a membrane only about as thick as Saran Wrap and, besides being significantly lighter than glass lenses, the new material is much more flexible, so it can fold up and take up less space at launch. In addition, the plastic membranes are easier to protect and can survive more wear and tear.

“Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages,” DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Larry Gunn said in a statement. “In that respect, we’re ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ that traditional materials impose on optics design.”

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Dawn spacecraft captures stunning landscapes on asteroid Vesta

The asteroid Vesta is, at over 300 miles in diameter, the second-largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In normal visible light, it appears as a grey and crater-riddled body. However, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has revealed Vesta to be a spectacularly colorful little world, in the right wavelengths of light.

Dawn studied Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and now is en route to its next destination, Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. According to a NASA press release, a team led by Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research has taken a fresh look at images obtained by Dawn’s framing camera. They assigned colors to various wavelengths of light, uncovering hitherto obscured details of Vesta’s composition and geography.

Light emitted by Vesta was captured by seven color filters on Dawn; the seven filters indicated compositional differences around Vesta’s surface, since different minerals reflect light at different wavelengths and different angles. The onboard camera system is capable of detecting the slightest variations in brightness.

The results are images of Vesta’s surface in astounding detail and vibrancy. Especially striking are the vicinities of the craters Aelia, Antonia, and Sextilia, where distinct impact melts can be seen. Exotic material delivered by other asteroids and craters hidden by dust and quakes are also discernible, at a relatively high resolution of 200 feet per pixel. The new images will unveil the richness of Vista’s geological history.

Said Martin Hoffman, a member of the camera team at Max Planck, “No artist could paint something like that. Only nature can do this.”

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Unexpected exoplanet orbits where it should not

Exoplanet HD106906b is a comparatively young world; at only 13 million years old, it still shines, at least at infrared frequencies, with the remnant heat of its formation. Even so, at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, the planet is far cooler than its host star. HD106906b is also 11 times more massive than Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

HD106906b’s young age and mass are remarkable, but its orbit is truly extraordinary. A new study led by University of Arizona graduate student Vanessa Bailey has shown that HD106906b orbits 650 AU from its Sun-like host star; 1 AU equals approximately 93 million miles, the average distance between Earth and the Sun. According to a UA press release, this extreme orbital distance is unique and is at odds with traditional scenarios of planet formation.

Under one model, the coalescing process of planet formation occurs too slowly to form such gigantic planets so far from their star. Another model hypothesizes that massive planets can form from rapid collapse and coalescing of disk matter orbiting a young star; however, such disks usually don’t contain sufficient matter in their outermost edges to create a planet as massive as HD106906b.

Another possibility is that HD106906b and its parent star represent a failed binary system. In a binary star system, two coalescing bodies accrue enough mass to ignite and become stars; these two bodies are also close enough to each other that they exert mutual gravitational pulls and orbit one another. In the case of HD106906b, it simply did not accumulate enough mass to ignite and become the binary companion of its parent star. However, this model is undermined by the mass ratio between the star and HD106906b; the ratio is more than 100 to 1, whereas, if HD106906b were part of a failed binary system, it should be no more than 10 to 1.

Mysterious though it is, the HD106906 system will reveal more information about planet and star formation; in addition to the planet HD106906b, Bailey and colleagues detected the residual disk of matter left over from the birth of the system.

The research team used two UA-designed instruments on the Magellan Telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile: the Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and Clio2 thermal infrared camera. MagAO was used to filter out the haze of Earth’s atmosphere and light pollution from the host star, while Clio2 was used to detect the faint heat signature of HD106906b. The team then used data collected eight years ago by the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm that HD106906b is indeed traversing the sky with its host star. Finally, they used the FIRE spectrograph, also on the Magellan telescope, to confirm that the properties of HD106906b are consistent with it being a supermassive planet.

The paper describing the team’s findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Extremely bright supernovae powered by strange force

“These are the dinosaurs of supernovae. They are all but extinct today, but they were more common in the early universe,” said D. Andrew Howell of two bizarre, recently discovered supernovae. Howell, of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, and colleagues associated with the Supernova Legacy Survey have discovered two of the most distant supernovae known, but what sets the ancient stars apart is their extraordinary luminosity.

According to a UC Santa Barbara press release, the two supernovae are 10 billion light-years away and a hundred times brighter than normal supernovae. When Howell and team first found the two supernovae in 2006 and 2007, they were puzzled by their extreme brightness, which could not be explained by the standard model of the collapse of a massive star to form a black hole or neutron star.

Now, thanks to five years of follow-up observations by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Very Large Telescope, and the Gemini and Keck telescopes, the distances and energies of the two supernovae have been determined and their origins clarified. One of them, SNLS-06D4eu, is the most distant and perhaps brightest example of a recently recognized class of exploded stars known as superluminous supernovae. Such explosions seldom occur, happening once for every 10,000 standard supernovae; they seem most common in primitive galaxies that contain smaller amounts of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The two newly discovered supernovae exploded when the universe was only 4 billion years old, long before the birth of our Sun.

The extreme distance is part of what initially befuddled Howell and team. The two supernovae are so distant that the ultraviolet light they emitted was stretched by the expansion of the universe; this redshift, in which the light’s wavelength increased, made the light visible to Earth-based telescopes. Astronomers had never before documented a supernova with such an extreme redshift.

The new data allowed coauthor Daniel Kasen to construct a model to explain the supernovae. His model shows a superluminous supernova originating from the explosion of a star only a few times more massive than the Sun and rich in carbon and oxygen. The star started off much larger, but cast off its outer layers eons before the explosion.

When the star’s core finally collapsed, it would create a magnetar, a highly magnetized neutron star rotating hundreds of times per second and packing the mass of the Sun into a extremely small volume. The extraordinary rate of rotation would have fueled magnetic fields a hundred trillion times more powerful than Earth’s, providing an energy source for the exceptional brightness of superluminous supernovae.

The new research will be published in the December 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

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China lands on the moon, Did they steal U.S. space secrets to get there?

The U.S. has some company when it comes to lunar landings.

China has officially successfully landed a rover on the moon, making it just the third nation (behind the U.S. and Russia) to do so. In a statement released through the Chinese state media, officials said the lunar lander had successfully guided itself onto the surface.

“It landed on the Moon,” state media announced in a live broadcast on Saturday night. “Chang’e has landed.”

Television footage showed the lander softly touching down on the lunar surface before deploying a six-wheeled, solar-powered moon rover called “Yutu” or “Jade Rabbit.”

Weighing 140 kilograms, the slow-moving rover carries an optical telescope for astronomical observations and a powerful ultraviolet camera that will monitor how solar activity affects the various layers — troposphere, stratosphere and ionosphere — that make up the Earth’s atmosphere, China’s information technology ministry said in a statement.

“Chang’e Three’s mission requires mastering many key technologies. The technical difficulties and the risks involved in carrying out the mission will be high,” spokesman Wu Zhijian told a news conference, carried live on state television.

With the landing, though, some are raising questions as to the path forward for the U.S. in space. A number of top U.S. lawmakers have already posited that China may have focused its intelligence agencies on stealing a number of technology-based plans from the U.S. As Congress reported in 1999, China’s  “appetite for information and technology is insatiable, and the energy devoted to the task enormous.”

The U.S. Department of Defense, which has yet to release a statement on the landing, has repeatedly expressed concerns with China’s mission to the moon, warning it could usher in a new space race. In a report released earlier this year, the DoD noted that China’s rapid progress will likely demand greater attention from the U.S.

“We see a good deal of continuity in terms of the modernization priorities,” the report notes.

Among the concerns expressed by the DoD include the fact the space-based technologies could ultimately bolster China’s anti-access and area-denial capabilities.

“The issue here is not one particular weapons system,” said David F. Helvey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. “It’s the integration and overlapping nature of these weapons systems into a regime that can potentially impede or restrict free military operations in the Western Pacific. So that’s something that we monitor and are concerned about.”