BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for March 2011

A new and sharper view on the cosmos

Tom Feilden | 10:34 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

An artist's impression of telescope dishes at the heart of the network

Scientists and engineers from more than 20 countries meet in Rome today to decide whether the UK (or Germany or the Netherlands), should host the project office for the biggest radio telescope the world has ever seen.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) has been dubbed astronomy's answer to the Large Hadron Collider - a multi billion Euro project that will dramatically improve our understanding of the universe and take us beyond Einsteinian physics.

The telescope is actually not one, but some 3,000 individual dishes all connected together in a series of spiralling arms (it looks a bit like a spiral galaxy), and giving an overall collecting area of a square kilometre - hence the name.

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Because of the vast area of land required, and the need to keep interference from mobile phones, electrical appliances, even people, to a minimum just two front runners have emerged to host the array: A Southern African bid based in the Karoo desert in the northern Cape; and an Australia-New Zealand consortium centred on Murchison in the Western Territory.

But in a sense it doesn't really matter where the dishes are located. What matters, according to the professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University Steve Rawlings, is the resolution they give on the cosmos.

"Even phase one of the Square Kilometre Array is getting on for being a hundred times more sensitive than instruments we have at the moment. That's a massive improvement in capability".

That first phase of the project will allow astronomers to study the so called "dark ages" of the universe, the period before the first stars began to shine, in unprecedented detail. It should confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the ripples in space-time predicted in Einstein's theory of general relativity.

But the real power of the SKA may be to take us beyond Einsteinian physics to explore the structure of dark matter and dark energy.

Before all that can happen, scientists, engineers and government officials meeting in Rome have a series of more mundane decisions to make on funding, the administrative structure of the project, and where all this astronomical data comes back down to earth.

An announcement on the UK bid to host the SKA project office at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics is expected on Saturday.

Messenger reaches its destination

Tom Feilden | 10:33 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

An enhanced photo image of Mercury from its Messenger probe's 2008 flyby of the planet

It's taken the best part of 7 years - including a dozen laps of the inner solar system and six planetary flybys - but at a little after midnight tonight NASA's Messenger spacecraft will fire its main thrusters and manoeuvre into orbit around the planet Mercury.

The "burn" should last about 15 minutes, slowing the spacecraft enough for it to be captured by Mercury's relatively weak gravitational field, and allowing the seven scientific instruments on board to begin Messenger's year long primary mission: to map and study the surface of the smallest and closest planet to the sun.

"What's wonderful about the orbital mission," according to principal investigator Dr Sean Solomon from the Carnegie Institution in Washington, "is that we will be at Mercury continuously. We will be making continuous measurements not only of the surface but of the whole environment of Mercury and how it changes in response to solar activity".

Mercury is a world of violent extremes. While daytime temperatures can reach 427degrees celsius, at night that plummets to -184 degrees. And despite the planet's proximity to the sun - a mere 36 million miles - Messenger could well discover ice at its poles.

The fleet-footed messenger of the gods in Roman mythology, Mercury was one of five planets known to ancient astronomers. A fitting description for the fastest planet in the solar system, which completes a single orbit of the sun once in every 88 earth-days. Oddly, the planet also rotates very slowly so that a single blast-furnace day on Mercury lasts for nearly two of its years.

Partly because of this brutal physical environment, Mercury has often been dismissed as little more than a barren, scorched rock.

Messenger could be about to change all that. Unlike any of the other inner solar system planets Mercury has a huge metal core. Understanding how the planet was created could provide fresh insights into the processes of planetary formation.

The suite of instruments on board will photograph and map the surface of the planet, study its atmosphere and its geological structure and history.

The sun-scorched messenger of the Gods could yet deliver a more profound understanding of our own solar system, and the planetary systems orbiting distant stars.

Three into one fertility treatment

Tom Feilden | 11:54 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

A step in the process of in vitro fertilisation

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to assess a controversial new fertility treatment which could help couples at risk of passing on serious inherited disorders to have a healthy child.

The technique, known as three-parent IVF, has been developed by researchers at Newcastle University and targets mitochondrial diseases - a devastating group of potentially fatal conditions including muscular dystrophy, heart disease and diabetes.

Mitochondria are found in every cell in the human body and provide the energy cells need to function. But because mitochondrial DNA is only passed down the female line, and is not present in the nucleus of a fertilised human egg, it's possible to extract that genetic material - the nucleus - and transplant it into a second, donor egg.

The resulting embryo has nuclear DNA from the mother and father, but mitochondrial DNA from the donor.

"The technique completely prevents the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child," according to Professor Doug Turnbull who lead the research. "Genetic information from the mother and father is transferred from one egg to another, leaving the defective mitochondrial DNA behind."

The amount of genetic material contained in mitochondrial DNA is very small - just 13 protein producing genes compared to the 23,000 genes we inherit from our parents - but even this limited genetic relationship to a third parent has raised ethical questions.

Speaking on the programme this morning, Dr David King from the pressure group Human Genetics Alert claimed that manipulating embryos in this way risked long term genetic damage to the child.

"I hate to be the one to pour cold water on people's hopes, but we already know that there are significant risks to the child from manipulating embryos in this way. There is a perfectly viable and safe alternative which is to use donated eggs."

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That might not be enough to satisfy Beth Wilkes, whose son Caspar died from the mitochondrial disorder Leigh's disease in July last year aged just 3 months. In a moving testimony on the programme this morning Mrs Wilkes talked about the devastating impact of the disease as it progressed.

"It was six weeks before we realised there was something wrong. He was floppy and he wasn't as responsive as he had been. He stopped crying. He just wasn't the baby we brought home from the hospital."

Mrs Wilkes is trying for another child, but wants to be sure the baby is free from mitochondrial disease. The three-parent IVF technique developed at Newcastle might ensure that, but it's not yet available as a fertility treatment. "We've not only lost our child, we've lost our future" she says.

The researchers concede the technique is not yet ready to be rolled out as an IVF treatment, but the science is progressing very fast. They want the review process, which will inform a wider political debate, to start now.

And it seems that the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley agrees. He's instructed the HFEA to set up an expert panel to assess the effectiveness and safety of the new technique.

In a statement issued this morning a DoH official stressed the technique was not allowed under current legislation. "When the expert group reports back, and based on the evidence available, we can decide whether it is the right time to consider making these regulations".

That would involve votes in both Houses of Parliament.

A roadmap for wildlife

Tom Feilden | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The RSPB's Andre Farrah standing beside the Holme Fen post at Holme Fen National Nature Reserve

Standing beside the Holme Fen post on the edge of what was once the largest lowland lake in England, Whittlesey Mere just south of Peterborough, you get some idea of the formidable task at hand.

The post, originally a cast iron strut from the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition, was driven into the peat flush with the ground in 1852. But as the fenland habitat has been drained to make way for intensive agriculture the peat has shrunk, exposing more and more of the post which now towers overhead.

It's a tangible reminder, according to the RSPB's Andre Farrar, of the staggering power of the incremental changes man has wrought on natural habitats and the ecosystems they sustain.

"It illustrates just how much we've lost over the last 150 years. As the peat dries out it oxidises and erodes. It simply blows away. And while this little patch is still a great haven for wildlife, it's nothing compared to the 1000 square miles of wetland habitat that used to be the fens".

A further demonstration of that power came last year (the International Year of Biodiversity), when the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon was forced to admit that efforts to halt the remorseless decline of plant and animal species worldwide had failed.

The 2010 deadline was originally set - amid much fanfare and back slapping - at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and world leaders met in Nagoya, Japan last November to pick over the ashes of that failure and to agree a new deal. That they did, promising to halt the loss of global biodiversity by 2020.

Both the EU and the British Government have signed up to the new target, but what are the chances that this time it will be met?

The RSPB isn't waiting to find out. The charity is launching what it claims is the most ambitious campaign of its 122 year history. Stepping Up for Nature sets out a roadmap to reach the 2020 target, incorporating a series of interim targets and objectives to keep the government on track.

Phase one of the plan focuses on reforming European farming policy, the creation of marine protected areas, halting the loss of tropical rainforests, and amending planning legislation in the UK to take more account of the environmental impact of development.

"When we missed the 2010 biodiversity target we failed nature," says the RSPB's chief executive Mike Clarke. "We can't let that happen again. We have a choice here, and if we make the right choice we can create a space for nature, ensure vital habitats are not lost, and bring back those species on the brink."

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One of the key speakers at the launch will be Environment secretary Caroline Spelman. Commenting on the programme this morning she stressed the Government's commitment to the environment and to establishing a green infrastructure, joining up the network of wildlife sites across the country.

Interestingly the Government seems to have identified conservation as an area where the Big Society is already flourishing. Caroline Spelman wants to tap into the expertise - and the vast army of potential volunteers the RSPB's million members represent - to monitor the impact of environmental stewardship schemes.

"We give money to farmers to attract birds to come and nest, but who checks the outcome? Did the skylarks come, did they successfully nest? That's where these partnerships with the RSPB and with farmers come in. Is the money we're devoting to these schemes really producing the outcomes we want to achieve?"

Whether the RSPB, or its members, will be as keen to take on the role of environmental policeman remains to be seen.

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