Wired: Two US astronomers have proposed that our solar system’s asteroid belt may have been necessary for life to develop on Earth. Rebecca Martin of the University of Colorado Boulder and Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore have hypothesized that asteroid belts tend to form near the snow line, the region of space far enough from the Sun for hydrogen compounds to condense into solid ice grains. Gravitational forces between the Sun and giant planets such as Jupiter could have kept the grains from consolidating into planets and instead sent them hurtling into the planets in the inner solar system, including Earth. The ice grains may have drastically influenced early Earth’s climate and environment and provided the raw materials needed for life. Because of the dearth of asteroid belts in exosolar systems, there may be fewer planets that could support life than we previously thought. Martin and Livio’s paper appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
New York Times: Biomedical and bioengineering advances promise physical, genetic, and bionic advantages for humans, for example in hearing, eyesight, prosthetics, disease resistance, and capacity for endurance. But the Age of Enhancement will also bring a new range of ethical challenges, with questions of safety, cost, privileged versus general accessibility, and effects on the social compact. Brain implants are beginning to re-empower the paralyzed. What about augmenting the nonimpaired—for example, elective enhancements to memory, alertness, attention, and general cognitive efficiency? Might society begin to demand such changes in key national leaders, for example? What about surgeons, if enhancements can safely boost concentration and steady the scalpel-holding hand? If elective artificial enhancements became the norm in competitive academic environments, and not just in athletics, would parents and students feel forced to adopt them?
Science: The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will remain intact despite a proposal to merge with the National Oceanography Centre. Last week the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which proposed the merger earlier this year, made the decision to cancel in the wake of protests from many in the scientific community and objections by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Although NERC claimed the move would save money, many worried that it would “erode the survey’s celebrated reputation in polar research,” writes Carolyn Gramling for Science. Despite the pall cast by the proposed merger, 2012 was a banner year for the BAS: It opened its state-of-the-art Halley Research Station and sent scientists to Antarctica to prepare for a historic drilling into a subglacial lake.
BBC: More than 5000 parts that weren’t certified for use in nuclear power plants were found in two of the reactors at Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant, which prompted the South Korean government to shut them down. The parts, which cost $750 000, had been obtained from eight different suppliers since 2003. Although none of the parts pose immediate safety concerns, the country’s Knowledge Economy Minister Hong Suk-woo said that comprehensive safety checks are necessary. The result will likely be unprecedented power shortages for the next several months, because 35% of the nation’s electricity is generated by its 23 nuclear reactors. This latest development follows several malfunctions at South Korea’s nuclear plants over the past several months, which have increased opposition to the government’s attempts to expand the industry.
Nature: Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) fires a laser into a chamber that has been filled with Martian air, and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, examine the resulting absorption lines. Based on their samples so far, they have found no evidence of methane, which deals a blow to hopes for the presence of microbial life on Mars. Methane, which exists on Earth at levels of about 1700 parts per billion, is primarily produced by living creatures. Past remote observations of Mars had detected levels of 30 parts per billion and 45 parts per billion, but the methane often appeared as localized blooms that quickly disappeared. What caused the blooms to occur and why the methane seemed to disappear instead of dispersing are both unknown. Chris Webster, head of the team running the TLS, says that Curiosity will continue taking air samples. The team will attempt to remove the carbon dioxide and then concentrate the air samples to try to increase the device’s sensitivity by a factor of 10. However, at that level, any methane detected could be the product of natural processes such as comet or meteorite impacts.