Science: Russia raises money/ Lunar prospects/ Science gets cuddly/ Genetics/ Space talk


Should Russia search for "neutrinos", or seek money? The government there has decided that money is preferable - and intends to sell off seven tonnes of its 60-tonne stock of the rare metal gallium, used to study neutrino emissions from the sun. The sale should raise about $6m (pounds 3.75m) to pay off coal miners.

However, scientists are not happy: 12 Nobel Prize-winning physicists from the US and Russia have written in protest to Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister, calling the move "a huge step backward which will eventually ruin the experiment".

The government insists the sale won't halt the research at SAGE, the Soviet-American Gallium Experiment. But who might buy the Russian gallium? No word yet. Its uses include making semiconductors and other high-tech electronic equipment.

Excited about Lunar Prospector? They are at NASA. The one-metre spacecraft went into a polar orbit 100 kilometres (60 miles) above the moon on Sunday, and should start collecting scientific data today in its one-year mission. "Everything's working just as it had in our simulations," said Scott Hubbard, mission manager at NASA's Ames Research Centre. "Within the first month or so, we expect to get an answer on whether there are large quantities of polar ice." Watch this space ...

Stephen Jay Gould, the bestselling author who happens to be a top evolutionary biologist and paleontologist (or is it the other way around?) has been chosen as the next president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He will succeed the current holder in January 1999. His words for the next millennium? "I want to make people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic and distant, but as something that is important to their lives," he said after his election was announced last month. "We have to ask ourselves why so many people have become afraid of science - it is no more difficult to learn than other things."

India seems to have followed the same lines as the UK over genetic screening for employment and insurance purposes. Its Council of Medical Research released draft guidelines which would allow screening by companies with the consent of employees where it might affect safety - for example, checking airline pilots for sickle-cell anaemia (which is affected by low pressure). But family members would not be entitled to know each other's details: "revealing the information that a wife is a carrier of a recessive disease may lead to the husband asking for a divorce".

Just in case you thought Americans were getting sensible about space, there'll be a dinosaur skull on the next Space Shuttle. Really. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has offered a 214-million-year-old Coelophysis skull, about 20 centimetres long, to NASA for the mission which lifts off on January 22. "This remarkable opportunity to marry the Earth's history with humankind's future is what the Museum of Natural History is all about," said Jay Apt, museum director - and a retired astronaut. Pointless? You bet.

Still in space, that Mir spacewalk last Friday didn't fix an air leak in the space station's exit hatch. The cosmonauts, Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov, discovered that one of the 10 main locks on the hatch door was broken, which prevented a tight seal. The hatch had failed to close properly after a spacewalk in November, resulting in a 16 per cent loss of pressure in the module. But that only affects the Kvant's docking chamber, which is sealed off from the rest of the station. The cosmonauts attempted to lock the chamber tightly by using the hatch's 10 auxiliary locks, only five of which were latched after the spacewalk in November.

Mission control has decided to put off further repair efforts for now, as things are busy enough - a spacewalk tomorrow to collect some scientific equipment on the hull, and the arrival of a Shuttle on January 25, plus a Russian-French team on the 30th.

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