The space shuttle Atlantis is spending its final hours in space today, with its last-ever landing scheduled for 5:57 a.m. Thursday at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Shuttle landings are always a big deal, but none has ever been as dramatic as this: After Atlantis touches down, NASA's 30-year shuttle program will come to an abrupt end, marking the start of a murky new era for the U.S. space agency.
"You know what? I really do feel like it's coming near the end," shuttle commander Chris Ferguson tells the AP. "It's going to be tough. It's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat." After undocking from the International Space Station Tuesday, Atlantis deployed its last satellite early Wednesday, a small Defense Department spacecraft that marks the 180th and final payload ever deployed from a space shuttle. Astronaut Rex Walheim read a poem to mark the occasion: "One more satellite takes its place in the sky, / the last of many that the shuttle let fly. / Magellan, Galileo, Hubble and more / have sailed beyond her payload bay doors. / They've filled science books and still more to come. / The shuttle's legacy will live on when her flying is done."
Good weather is expected for Thursday's landing, CBS reports, so NASA isn't staffing its backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (If the weather changes, Atlantis will just stay in orbit another 24 hours and try again Friday.) Ferguson and pilot Douglas Hurley will fire the shuttle's braking rockets at 4:49 a.m. Thursday to drop out of orbit, and will then aim to land about half an hour before the sun rises over eastern Florida. As Ferguson points out, it will be a historic finale. "I'll say that to everybody who has an opportunity to perhaps see the landing realtime or see the shuttle on the runway," he said Wednesday. "Take a good look at it and make a memory, because you're never going to see anything like this again. It's been an incredible ride."
Just because NASA's manned space program is going on hiatus doesn't mean the agency will rest on its laurels. The Dawn spacecraft is offering a timely reminder of that this week, the BBC reports, sending back eerie images of the asteroid Vesta (pictured) just as the last space shuttle is preparing to return to Earth. And on Friday, NASA will reveal the planned landing site for its next Mars rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to launch later this year. Both are important symbolic events for NASA, helping bridge into its new deep-space focus on targets including asteroids and Mars.
Dawn's arrival at Vesta is big news, explains lead investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California Los Angeles, because it marks an advance into an underexplored frontier of space. "We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," Russell tells the BBC. "This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta's history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons." Dawn allowed itself to be captured by Vesta's gravitational field on Saturday, and will begin inching closer and closer to the asteroid over time. This will help it study Vesta's mineral and elemental makeup before it moves on to its next target: Ceres, an even larger asteroid that has been classified as a "dwarf planet" similar to Pluto. NASA hopes to launch more asteroid missions in the coming years.
NASA also hopes to make news Friday when it announces where it will send its next Mars rover, a beefed-up mobile robot named Curiosity. (The list of potential landing sites has been whittled down to just two: Gale crater or Eberswalde crater.) Coming 35 years after Viking 1 first touched down on the red planet, the car-sized Curiosity is much larger than Spirit and Opportunity, the now-famous rovers that arrived on Mars in 2004. It's the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is scheduled to launch in November and should arrive on Mars in August 2012. Unfortunately for NASA, however, it will likely have to contend with the 2012 presidential election for headlines at that point.
U.S. science education is too focused on fact memorization, and should instead place more emphasis on problem-solving, according to a new report by the National Research Council. This transition will be needed "to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science," the report's authors assert.
"That is the failing of U.S. education today, that kids are expected to learn a lot of things but not expected to be able to use them," lead author and retired physicist Helen Quinn tells the New York Times. The 282-page report is the latest of many efforts over the decades to boost U.S. science aptitude, the Times reports, aiming to improve the performance of American students on international comparison tests. The NRC, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, last issued recommendations about science-education standards in 1996. Its updated advice will now be expanded from a mere framework into a concrete set of standards, an effort led by the nonprofit organization Achieve Inc. The group hopes to finish that work by the end of the year, according to the Times, although actually employing the standards in classrooms will likely take several more years.
Achieve is working with individual states to develop these standards, but as the organization's president, Michael Cohen, tells the Times, core scientific principles like evolution will not be subjects for debate. "What we're not going to do is compromise the science just to get states comfortable," he says. States will make the final decision on whether or not to adopt the new standards.
High food prices in the U.S. are being inflated by demand for biofuels, according to a new study produced by Purdue University for the Farm Foundation policy organization. High demand for corn to make ethanol, enabled by federal government subsidies, is a major factor in the price spikes, combined with a rise in imported Chinese soybeans, the report concludes.
A growing number of U.S. farmers have switched to corn and soybeans during the last six years, a trend matched in other countries, but the demand for biofuels has still continued to grow, according to the report. "In 2005, we were using about 16 million acres to supply all of the ethanol in the United States and Chinese soybean imports," co-author Wallace Tyner tells the Guardian, adding that it took 46.5 million acres in 2010 just to satisfy that growing demand. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that, for the first time, U.S. ethanol refiners are consuming more corn than livestock and poultry farmers are. Somewhere between 27 percent and 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop now goes to produce ethanol, up from just 10 percent in 2005, Tyner tells the Guardian.
An influx of Chinese soybeans has contributed to rising food prices, but the report focuses on a U.S. government mandate for ethanol production, as well as the controversial $6 billion in annual subsidies that have only recently come under serious scrutiny on Capitol Hill. As General Mills CEO Ken Powell tells the Financial Times, there's little doubt that ethanol subsidies are making food more expensive overall. "We're driving up food prices unnecessarily," Powell says. "If corn prices go up, wheat goes up. It's all linked."
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Photo (space shuttle Atlantis drifting over Earth): NASA
Photo (Vesta asteroid as seen by Dawn spacecraft): NASA
Photo (science students): U.S. National Institutes of Health
Photo (corn field in Pennsylvania): fishhawk/Flickr