Brazil: Clash of cultures over Amazon dams

Indigenous groups and river dwellers are battling the government and big corporations over the huge dams being built to meet Brazil’s energy needs.

The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is the world’s fourth largest dam, capable of generating 11,000 MW of energy, and more are planned.

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Blind mice have sight restored

Scientists have discovered how to cure blindness in mice. The stem cells in mice could be applied to treat human blindness caused by retinal degeneration in the future.

Researchers tell the Today programme stem cells from adult mice, which then grew into small patches of light-sensitive retina that were transplanted into the eyes of blind mice, partially restoring their sight.

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Prince Charles co-authors Ladybird climate change book

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The cover of the book was based on an image of flooding in Uckfield, East Sussex

Prince Charles has co-authored a Ladybird book on the challenges and possible solutions to climate change.

It is part of a series for adults written in the style of the well-known children’s books that aims to clearly explain complicated subjects.

The 52-page guide has been co-authored by former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh.

Mr Juniper said he hoped the book would “stand the test of time”.

Ladybird produced a series of books for children in the 1960s and 1970s and has recently found renewed success with a range of humorous books for adults.

Titles include the Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis and the Ladybird Book of the Hangover.

The latest series involves experts explaining complex subjects in simple form.

The prince previously co-authored a book with Mr Juniper and Ian Skelly called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. He also wrote a children’s book entitled The Old Man of Lochnagar.

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The full cover of the climate change book, which goes on sale later in January

Mr Juniper told the Mail on Sunday: “His royal highness, Emily and I had to work very hard to make sure that each word did its job, while at the same time working with the pictures to deliver the points we needed to make.

“I hope we’ve managed to paint a vivid picture, and, like those iconic titles from the 60s and 70s, created a title that will stand the test of time.”

A publishing director for Penguin, which produces Ladybird books, revealed Clarence House had put the latest idea to the publisher.

Rowland White told the Sunday Times: “It was a coincidence where we were thinking about a new series for adults after the huge success of the spoof books, but this time wanted some factual books by experts on science, history and arts subjects.”

Penguin Books said the title, which will be released on 26 January, had been read and reviewed by figures within the environmental community.

The other books in the series are Quantum Mechanics by Jim Al-Khalili, and Evolution by Steve Jones.

Asked how the book might be received in the academic community, Dr Phillip Williamson, an associate fellow at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “There’s the obvious danger that this won’t be taken seriously.

“But if the style is right, and the information is correct and understandable, the new Ladybird book with royal authorship could be just what is needed to get the message across that everyone needs to take action on climate change.”

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Ladybird Books has recently had renewed success with a range of humorous books for adults.

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Inside the secret lives of polar bears

A camera attached to the neck of a female polar bear shows two bears breaking through ice sheets to hunt for prey.

The US Geological Survey hopes the camera will help researchers better understand how the animals are responding to declining sea ice levels.

Footage courtesy of US Geographical Survey

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SpaceX rocket successfully lifts off

The SpaceX company has successfully launched a rocket, its first mission since one of its vehicles exploded in September.

The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast.

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SpaceX returns to flight with Falcon 9 rocket launch

Media captionSpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off

The American SpaceX rocket company has resumed flights, launching a Falcon 9 vehicle from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast.

It is the first mission by the company since one of its vehicles exploded on the launch pad in September.

The return to operations sees SpaceX start to renew what was the original global handheld satellite phone network, run by Iridium.

Lift-off took place at 09:54 local time (17:54 GMT).

A few minutes later, the first stage of the rocket landed successfully on a platform in the Pacific Ocean. An hour and 15 minutes after launch, the mission was complete with the Iridium payload safely in orbit.

SpaceX must now follow through with a steady but rapid series of further flights.

It has a long queue of customers all waiting for a ride to orbit – including America’s civil space agency (Nasa), the nation’s military, and multiple outfits in the commercial sector.

Indeed, Iridium has six further missions it wants to complete with SpaceX inside the next 18 months.

Media captionMatt Desch: “We’re a 20-year, overnight success story”

September’s launch pad mishap was a spectacular reminder of just how unpredictable rockets can be sometimes.

A Falcon 9 was about to go through a routine engine ignition test when fire ripped through its upper stage, consuming the vehicle and the Amos-6 telecommunications satellite it was due to carry to orbit.

The subsequent investigation pinned the most likely cause of the failure on a design problem in the rocket’s helium pressure tanks. But with corrective action SpaceX believes it is now safe to return to service.

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The new constellation will track ships across the globe

On this flight were 10 spacecraft for the Iridium satellite voice and data company. The batch represents the first phase in the roll-out of Iridium’s NEXT constellation.

A total of 81 satellites have been ordered from the European manufacturer Thales Alenia Space to completely overhaul the original but now ageing network.

“Today Iridium launches a new era in the history of our company and a new era in space as we start to deliver the next-generation of satellite communications,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer of Iridium.

“We have been working endless hours for the last eight years to get to this day, and to finally be here with 10 Iridium NEXT satellites successfully launched into low-Earth orbit is a fulfilling moment.”

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Iridium has ordered 81 satellites from the French-Italian manufacturer Thales Alenia Space

Iridium is famous for being the very first commercial company to provide global, hand-held satphone coverage, and supplying voice connections to anywhere on the planet is still very much part of its business. But its network has increasingly been used to feed data from remote systems, such as pipelines, ocean buoys, and mining equipment.

Iridium has become a big player in what is termed M2M, or “machine to machine” services. And the company is banking on that market getting ever bigger as more and more systems are linked together.

As well as improving the data connection speeds for those services, the new spacecraft carry additional payloads that allow Iridium to enter new markets.

These involve the tracking of ships and planes when they are out of sight of VHF radio, in the case of maritime vessels, and radar, in the case of aircraft.

One thing the new satellites will not be capable of doing, however, is producing Iridium “flares”. These are the flashes in the sky that result when sunlight glints off the antennas of the old spacecraft.

The new satellites do not have the same configuration, so once the original constellation is de-orbited the flashes will cease.

“I’m afraid those who’ve been tracking that phenomenon over the past 20 years have another year or two to see it,” Mr Desch told BBC News.

“As someone who’s seen a couple myself, you can imagine what a thrill it is to be the CEO of a company like this and watch your satellite go overhead. But we weren’t going to spend money just to make angular shiny things on our satellites, so that phenomenon will go away – but it’s been fun.”

Big demand

The launch was a high-pressure event for both Iridium and SpaceX.

For the former there was a need to get its new constellation in place before more of the current satellites fail. Some gaps in service have started to appear and this will only increase as time passes.

And for SpaceX there was pressure to prove it can deliver on its promises to service so many customers at once.

Rachel Villain is principal advisor with respected industry analysts Euroconsult in Paris.

She told BBC News: “All Iridium’s eggs are in the same basket, which was not the case when the first constellation was deployed.

“The satellites back then were booked on different launch vehicles, and so it allowed at that time to have a quick deployment.

“Here, SpaceX is required to launch 70 satellites, 10 at a time, still in 14 months. If Iridium were the only client for SpaceX – that would be fine. But SpaceX has big clients, like Nasa, and other commercial operators like SES.”

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Iridium’s satellites are arranged in six planes to provide global coverage

  • The constellation comprises 66 Low-Earth Orbit satellites
  • 15 spares (6 in-orbit, 9 ground) have also been ordered
  • The network flies at an altitude of 780km (485 miles)
  • Roll-out of the new satellites should take over a year
  • Once complete, the old constellation will be brought down

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New candidate for ‘missing element’ in Earth’s core

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This study suggests silicon exists in the Earth’s inner core with iron and nickel

Japanese scientists believe they have established the identity of a “missing element” within the Earth’s core.

They have been searching for the element for decades, believing it makes up a significant proportion of our planet’s centre, after iron and nickel.

Now by recreating the high temperatures and pressures found in the deep interior, experiments suggest the most likely candidate is silicon.

The discovery could help us to better understand how our world formed.

Lead researcher Eiji Ohtani from Tohoku University told BBC News: “We believe that silicon is a major element – about 5% [of the Earth's inner core] by weight could be silicon dissolved into the iron-nickel alloys.”

Hard to reach

The innermost part of Earth is thought to be a solid ball with a radius of about 1,200km (745 miles).

It is far too deep to investigate directly, so instead scientists study how seismic waves pass through this region to tell them something of its make-up.


Orcas reveal the origin of menopause

A 40-year study of a population of killer whales off the US Pacific coast has helped British researchers to solve an evolutionary mystery – why killer whales and humans are two of only three species that go through what we call menopause – stopping reproduction part-way through their lives.

By examining a record of every birth and death in every orca family, scientists discovered that the menopause gave new calves a better chance at survival – preventing what they called “reproductive conflict” between mothers and daughters.

Prof Darren Croft from the University of Exeter, who collaborated with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island and Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the study, says the findings, published in the journal Current Biology, could reveal how and why the same phenomenon evolved in humans.

The study is part of an ongoing project to study the lives and family bonds of this unique population of orcas.

Video by Victoria Gill and David Cheeseman

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Alien bird risk from pet trade

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There is a growing trade in exotic birds

The trade in caged birds poses a risk to native species if the pets escape into the wild, UK researchers say.

They identified almost 1,000 species of bird introduced into new areas by human activity over the past 500 years.

More than half of these arrived after 1950, probably driven by the trade in exotic birds.

Global demand for parrots, finches, starlings and other exotic birds has soared.

“Areas that are good for native birds are also good for alien birds,” said Prof Tim Blackburn, of University College London and the Zoological Society of London, who worked on the study.

“It’s a worry because aliens may threaten the survival of native species.”

Alien birds

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The ring-necked parakeet is now a common sight in London

  • Ring-necked Parakeets: introduced from the Asian subcontinent, these birds are now common living wild in and around the south-east of England, where they can compete with native species for food and breeding sites
  • Ruddy ducks: a cull was ordered in the UK after ruddy ducks from North America were found to be breeding with native European ducks

The first wave of introductions happened in the mid-19th Century as Europeans, predominantly the British, deliberately moved game birds such as duck, geese, grouse and pheasants into new territories.

This is reflected in a high number of alien bird species in the mid-latitudes, including former British colonies.

After World War Two, there was a second wave, which continues today, most likely driven by growth in the pet trade.

More birds have been introduced into the wild in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 than in the 400 years from 1500 to 1900.

“We’ve been able to map alien species richness for an entire group of organisms for the first time in such detail that we can locate populations and the historical processes that led to their introduction,” said lead researcher Dr Ellie Dyer, of UCL and ZSL.

“It has given us valuable insights into the different stages of species invasion – humans play a key role, but so too do environmental factors that allow alien bird species to thrive in new locations.”

Growth area

“An enormous increase in global trade and areas around the world that are growing in their wealth and disposable income has led to a much greater demand for birds as pets and so there’s a large trade in birds and lots of species are moved around the world,” Prof Blackburn told BBC News.

“For a variety of reasons, those species can get out into the wild and they can establish populations in areas where they haven’t naturally occurred.

“That trade has become so large that it’s now a really significant driver of the establishment of new bird populations around the world.”

The research, published in PLOS Biology, was carried out by international scientists based at UCL, ZSL, the University of Adelaide, the University of Cambridge, the University of Exeter, the University of Queensland and Imperial College London.

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Primate tool-use: Chimpanzees make drinking sticks

Media captionCritically endangered chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast craft extra-absorbent drinking sticks, remote cameras reveal.

Researchers have used camera traps to film tool-use that is unique to chimpanzees in Ivory Coast.

The footage revealed that the clever primates habitually make special water-dipping sticks – chewing the end of the stick to turn it into a soft, water-absorbing brush.

Primate researchers examined the “dipping sticks” and concluded they were made specifically for drinking.

The findings are reported in the American Journal of Primatology.

Lead researcher Juan Lapuente, from the Comoe Chimpanzee Conservation Project, in Ivory Coast, explained that using similar brush-tipped sticks to dip into bees’ nests for honey was common in chimpanzee populations across Africa.

“But the use of brush-tipped sticks to dip for water is completely new and had never been described before,” he told BBC News.

“These chimps use especially long brush tips that they make specifically for water – much longer than those used for honey.”

The researchers tested the chimps’ drinking sticks in an “absorption experiment”, which showed that the particularly long brush-tips provided an advantage.

“The longer the brush, the more water they collect,” said Mr Lapuente.

“This technology allows Comoe chimpanzees to obtain water from extremely narrow and deep tree holes that only they – and no other animal – can exploit, which [gives] them a superb adaptive advantage to survive in this dry and unpredictable environment.”

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Kathelijine Koops

This suggests that this particular population of chimpanzees has what the researchers call a “drinking culture” – a custom shared throughout this group of making these special water-dipping sticks to help them through the dry season.

The population belongs to the Western Chimpanzee sub-species, now critically endangered.

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© Warren Fyfe