DOWN TO EARTH 

[UPDATED: 1:15 p.m.] The space shuttle Discovery made its final landing on Earth today, wrapping up a 13-day mission in space — as well as an illustrious 27-year career. Discovery, the most heavily traveled spaceship in history, touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before noon, becoming the first of NASA's three shuttles to retire. "To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, 'Farewell Discovery,"' NASA Mission Control's Josh Byerly said as the ship slowed on the runway.

Discovery was the third shuttle to join NASA's fledgling shuttle program when it arrived at Kennedy Space Center in November 1983, taking its first flight less than a year later to deploy three communications satellites. It has flown 148 million miles since then, for a total of 365 days in space, and its 39th and final mission has been widely deemed a success. "We couldn't be more pleased," says LeRoy Cain, NASA's mission management team chairman. "I would be hard-pressed to find a mission of any one of the orbiters that has been cleaner."

Now that it's back on Earth, a new adventure begins for Discovery: Life as a museum relic. Although many expect it will end up at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the New York Times reports that 21 different institutions have submitted proposals to house the retired shuttle. For those that don't snag Discovery for their collections, there will be just two more chances — Discovery's retirement marks the beginning of the end for NASA's 30-year shuttle era, with the last two orbiters slated for their swan songs by midsummer. Endeavour is scheduled to launch in late April, and Atlantis is tentatively set to take off in June.

(Sources: Associated Press, Space.com, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, ABC NewsNASA)

SOMETHING FISHY 

Millions of dead sardines have suddenly floated up in California's King Harbor, echoing massive [skipwords]fish kills in Arkansas and the Chesapeake Bay that drew worldwide attention earlier this year. But much like those die-offs, scientists say there's an explanation for this — and it's not the apocalypse. The fish simply suffocated, thanks to their sheer numbers and a little bad luck. "It looks like they just swam in the wrong direction and ended up in a corner of the pier that doesn't have any free-flowing oxygen in it," says Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. "There's nothing that appears to be out of sorts, no oil sheen, no chemicals, no sign of any kind of illegal activity. As one fisherman just told me, this is natural selection."

Such large fish kills in the area aren't unheard of, but they're usually triggered either by a "red tide," when swarming algae produce deadly toxins, or a "dead zone," when large algae blooms consume oxygen as they decay. Neither appears to have caused this fish kill, though; as the Los Angeles Times reports, the sardines were chased toward land in recent days by a gusty spring storm, with a group of migrating whales also possibly helping scare them shoreward. The problem is that King Harbor is just 22 feet deep even at high tide, leaving too little room for millions of oxygen-breathing sardines. As early as Saturday night, some boaters in the area reported seeing the fish gasping for air at the water's surface. By Tuesday, levels of dissolved oxygen in the harbor were beyond lethal levels, and sardines started going belly-up by the thousands.

City officials and volunteers in Redondo Beach are now racing to collect the dead fish — which are more than 18 inches deep in some places — before they start to rot. "At some point, they will float up to the surface," the head of bait operations at King Harbor tells the Times, "and it's not going to be pleasant." Collected sardines will be recycled into fertilizer, but as Hughan points out, Mother Nature is also pitching in to help recycle the piles of dead fish[/skipwords]. "The seals are gorging themselves," he says. "The sea's going to recycle everything. It's the whole circle-of-life thing."

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Daily Breeze, MSNBC)

EATING LIGHT 

What do grocery shopping and diamond shopping have in common? In both cases, store owners may be using special lights to make their merchandise look more appealing, Discovery News reports. Light-emitting diodes, better-known as LEDs, are increasingly being employed in grocery stores to boost the aesthetics of fruits and vegetables, borrowing a trick that jewelers have used for years. "We're turning oranges into diamonds," says an executive with Nualight, an Irish firm that's pushing into the U.S. retail market. "We want to create a fabulous space, to get [customers] to feel like they are eating the food, tasting the food — all with the lighting."

Nualight and other lighting companies say they can nearly replicate the true color of sunlight using LEDs, and since the energy-efficient bulbs are also widely available in various colors, they can even use colored LEDs to highlight natural hues — yellows and greens for fruits and vegetables, for example, and red for meats. LEDs may produce less lighting power than fluorescent bulbs, but advocates argue they more than make up for that deficit with their color and quality of light. "It really makes the food pop compared to a fluorescent light," says the director of a store in Chestnut Hill, Mass., that went all-LED in 2009. "A few customers commented saying the fruit looks more colorful than other stores."

Some critics are worried this could become deceptive, however, and several states have even adopted an FDA regulation that limits certain kinds of lighting as misleading. Under the rule, "food or color additives, colored overwraps, or lights may not be used to misrepresent the true appearance, color, or quality of a food." There may be a fine line between misrepresenting and enhancing, but LED supporters say the lights could make Americans healthier by enticing them to eat more fruits and veggies. "They will be more palatable to the consumer because the lighting will be more correct," says one retail consulting expert. "It's really a big advance."

(Source: Discovery News)

CAT SCAT 

Researchers in Australia have found an unlikely weapon in the fight against crop-eating animals like goats and kangaroos, the AFP reports. After years of experimenting, they say tiger feces offers a highly effective, non-lethal way to scare off pests — even though few wild animals in Australia have ever met a tiger, whose natural range is limited to Asia. 

Pest repellants are usually created from foul-smelling substances like rotting eggs, blood or bones, but the researchers decided to try capitalizing on grazing animals' natural fear of large predators. They collected feces from tigers in Australian zoos, and spent the last eight years placing the droppings near feeding troughs in goat enclosures, using video cameras to watch how the goats reacted. It turns out goats are instinctively wary of tiger poo, as they avoided the big cats' droppings even more than those of other predators. "The goats really didn't like it," says researcher Peter Murray of the University of Queensland. "They wouldn't go near the trough."

The study also revealed that a tiger's diet influences how frightening its feces become, Murray tells the AFP — dung from a tiger that had recently eaten a goat was much scarier to goats than dung from other tigers. "There's not only a chemical signal in the faeces that says 'Hooly dooley, this is a dangerous animal', it's 'Hooly dooley, this is a dangerous animal that's been eating my friends'," Murray says. The next step, he adds, is to create a kind of synthetic tiger dung that could be developed commercially as a pest repellant. 

(Source: Agence France-Presse)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

A tsunami hits Hawaii, an [skipwords]EPA[/skipwords] administrator resigns, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (space shuttle Discovery in orbit): NASA

Photo (dead sardines in Redondo Beach on March 8): ZUMA Press

Photo (apples at a grocery store in British Columbia): bulliver/Flickr

Photo (tiger growling from bushes): ZUMA Press

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