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Botched launches

Science | Russia's space slump gives Americans reason for concern

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, faced international embarrassment in August when it botched two rocket launches in one week. In the first, the agency lost contact with a $265 million satellite intended to provide TV, internet, and telecom signals to Russian citizens. The second failure involved a Soyuz rocket mission to the International Space Station (ISS): The rocket's unmanned Progress capsule, prepared to deliver 3 tons of supplies to the ISS crew, disintegrated in the atmosphere over Siberia after a third stage engine shut down prematurely.

They were only the latest in a series of mishaps costing an estimated $550 million. Last December Roscosmos lost three satellites built for the GLONASS navigation system, a Russian rival to the U.S.-made GPS. In February it botched the launch of a military satellite. Officials fired several officials, including the agency chief, over the failures.

The occasional launch failure is inevitable, but a string of them? The Moscow Times reported that Russia's space program is suffering from mismanagement and a lack of funding and expertise: "The system is still recovering from a 15-year slump after the Soviet collapse and lacks a cohesive revamp plan."

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That would be of little concern to Americans if U.S. astronauts weren't scheduled to ride aboard the usually reliable Soyuz rockets, currently the only launch vehicles certified to take humans to the ISS. NASA plans to shell out over $50 million apiece for Soyuz seats in the coming months or years, until a private U.S. firm can build a space vehicle as safe-or safer-than Russia's.

Uncertain reserve

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimate of natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale-a rock formation stretching from Tennessee to New York-was released Aug. 23 and threatened to dampen confidence in a 100-year gas supply. The USGS said the Marcellus had about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas, recoverable using hydraulic fracturing drilling technology. The amount, though large, was sharply less than the estimated 410 trillion cubic feet published in April by another federal arm, the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Early reports said the EIA would cut its estimate in deference to USGS, but part of the discrepancy is due to different measurement schemes: The April estimate included gas reserves already being mined, but the August estimate didn't. That distinction didn't close the entire gap in the two figures, though, prompting some to call for more transparent math.

Research roundup

Nuclear physics: Data from the Large Hadron Collider in Europe suggests the "Higgs boson," a particle deemed necessary for the Big Bang, may not exist after all. If not, it calls into question the popular subatomic theory of "supersymmetry."

Antibiotics: Martin Blaser, a New York researcher, hypothesizes that antibiotic use may be permanently eradicating some good bacteria species from our gut. He suggests the loss of these bacteria is connected to the rise in obesity, asthma, and other maladies (Nature).

Family: Children whose fathers are actively engaged in their lives tend to be more intelligent and have fewer emotional problems, such as anxiety, withdrawal, or sadness, according to a long-term study. Girls are especially affected by absentee dads (Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science).

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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