Two days after blasting off from Earth for the last time, the space shuttle Atlantis successfully docked with the International Space Station Sunday morning, another major milestone in its farewell flight. But as a reminder that nothing is routine in space — even after 30 years and 135 shuttle launches — Atlantis and the ISS are now bracing for a possible collision with a piece of speeding space junk. "It's not uncommon," shuttle program deputy manager LeRoy Cain told reporters Sunday. "There's a lot of junk in orbit." Flight controllers are currently keeping tabs on more than 500,000 pieces of debris, NASA says.

The most-watched junk at the moment is a piece of Cosmos 375, a Soviet-era satellite launched in 1970 that recently broke apart after colliding with a fellow satellite. The ISS crew already had to take refuge last month when another piece of debris buzzed by, and while it remains unclear how big the newest object is, USA Today points out that even tiny objects like screws and paint chips are dangerous at high orbital speeds (the ISS itself orbits at 17,000 mph). NASA is now tracking the debris to determine the likelihood of a collision, which would take place when its trajectory brings it closest to the ISS and shuttle, estimated at 12:59 p.m. Tuesday. A spacewalk is scheduled to be going on that day, but Cain downplayed the chance it would be disrupted by debris. "In all likelihood, we will not need to initiate debris avoidance," he said at Sunday's press briefing, adding that it's still too early to say for sure. "What we were told today is very preliminary," he said. "It is a potential right now."

Meanwhile, despite the specter of space junk, the final mission for NASA's shuttle program seems to be going smoothly. Atlantis docked with the ISS on schedule, and its crew is now unloading a year's worth of supplies needed to keep the outpost running in the post-shuttle era. Atlantis' cargo module was packed to the brim with 9,500 pounds of parts and supplies, and its four astronauts now face a hectic schedule of unloading and unpacking all that stuff within about 160 hours. "We're going to be able to keep them very busy," Cain said Sunday.

(Sources: Washington Post, USA Today, Agence France-Presse,


The tides seem to be rapidly turning on shark finning, with Taiwan becoming the fourth country in less than a week to unveil plans to outlaw or restrict the controversial practice. Following recent announcements of tougher rules in the Bahamas, Chile and Fiji — as well as earlier bans by Honduras, the Maldives and Palau — Taiwan's plans could help generate further momentum for the anti-finning movement, shark advocates say. And the timing couldn't be better: "Shark Week" is just 20 days away.

Fishermen in Taiwan are already banned from throwing sharks back into the ocean to die after removing their fins, which are considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and must instead ship the carcass to shore. But conservationists have long argued that legal loopholes have allowed shark finning to continue in Taiwan, so the new law will make it illegal to remove a shark's fin while onboard any fishing vessel. "Any violators may be fined, barred from leaving ports, have their catches confiscated or even have their fishing boat licences revoked, depending on how seriously they contravene the measures," fisheries agency chief James Sha tells the AFP, adding that it makes more economic sense to bring the shark back to shore, anyway. "They have no reason to dump the meat of the sharks," he says, "as local consumers eat them and they can be sold at good prices here."

The Environmental and Animal Society of Taiwan estimates that up to 4 million sharks are killed every year by fishermen from Taiwan, one of the world's major shark-catching nations. The new law has been welcomed by the group as well as by environmentalist organizations worldwide, since the threat of plummeting shark populations is global. Experts estimate that up to 73 million sharks are killed around the planet annually for their fins, reducing the populations of some ancient species by up to 90 percent.

(Sources: AFP, Focus Taiwan)


An oppressive heat wave is spreading across the U.S., CNN reports, leading officials to issue heat advisories in 15 states where temperatures are forecast to exceed 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Several cities are also under "excessive heat warnings" — including Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Memphis, Tenn. — with heat and humidity combining to make it feel like 110 to 115 degrees. The advisories and warnings will likely remain in effect until at least Tuesday, and several areas have already seen high-temperature records fall.

Oklahoma City reached a record-high 108 degrees last week, for example, while Tulsa endured a record of 104. Tornado-damaged Joplin, Mo., sweltered at 106 Sunday, and Springfield, Mo., hit 102, both breaking records set in the 1980s. Wichita, Kan., saw thermometers surge to 111 on Sunday, a high the city has reached just 10 times since July 1888. A high-pressure system over the Plains is keeping the hot weather in place while suppressing the development of thunderstorms, CNN reports, although some relief may arrive by midweek. The high pressure is expected to shift to the southeast in a few days, allowing much-needed storms to cool down and moisturize the hot, dry central Plains. 

Until then, the National Weather Service advises that people in affected states protect themselves by reducing outdoor activity during the hottest part of the day, wearing lightweight clothes and drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. It also recommends skipping caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, and warns that even eating too much meat or other protein can boost metabolic heat production. The states included in the heat advisory are: Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi.

(Sources: CNN, National Weather Service)


The new film "Zookeeper" isn't exactly wowing audiences, the Huffington Post reports, with both animal-rights activists and movie critics lambasting it for cruelty and/or unoriginality. While stars Kevin James (pictured) and Rosario Dawson attended the film's premiere last week, activists picketed it over allegations of animal abuse, including the death of Tweet the giraffe, who collapsed and died after completing all his scenes. Critics and movie-goers weren't much gentler: IMDb users have rated "Zookeeper" 3.3 out of 10, while Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele laments its "personality-blind ridiculousness" and warns that it "gets old quickly."

According to PETA, "Tweet spent the last few months of his life confined to a 20-foot-by-20-foot stall, which was barely large enough for the 18-foot-tall giraffe to lie down in. In their natural habitat, giraffes live in vast home ranges of up to 400 square miles." An elephant named Tai, whose alleged abuse recently spurred outrage over his role in the film "Water for Elephants," reportedly stars in "Zookeeper" as well. The American Humane Association, which works with the film industry to oversee the treatment of animal actors, has refuted claims of abuse related to "Zookeeper," HuffPo reports. Still, PETA dismisses the group's credibility: "Moviegoers may be surprised to learn that the presence of American Humane Association representatives on a movie set is no guarantee that animals were not exploited, hurt, or even killed during production. AHA representatives only monitor what occurs during filming, not what happens during off-set training sessions, where abuse is most likely to occur."

Aside from accusations of animal mistreatment, several film critics have also attacked the film purely on its comedic merit. As Abele writes in the LA Times, "More curious is how ineffectual the gabbing menagerie shtick is, as if a group of majestic beasts ... are only interesting when hanging around tossing out one-liners. (A comment on captivity, perhaps?)."

(Sources: Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, IMDb)


Global human population hits 5 billion, Lady Bird Johnson dies, and more.

Russell McLendon

Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.

Image (rendering of space junk orbiting the Earth): NASA

Photo (whitetip reef shark swimming through coral): ZUMA Press

Photo (sun shining in a cloudless sky): U.S. Interior Department

Photo (Kevin James at a July 7 promo event for "Zookeeper"): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 7/11/2011
Space junk haunts shuttle, heat wave hits U.S., critics boo 'Zookeeper,' and more.