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The final design for a “doomsday” vault that will house seeds from all known varieties of food crops has been unveiled by the Norwegian government.

“The Svalbard International Seed Vault will be built into a mountainside on a remote island near the North Pole. The vault aims to safeguard the world’s agriculture from future catastrophes, such as nuclear war, asteroid strikes and climate change.”

Source: BBC

“There are, for instance, well over 100,000 distinct varieties of rice, compared to the 400 or so breeds of dog out there,” Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, told LiveScience. “These represent all the options that crops have for developing in the future, the raw material for plant evolution.”

These distinct varieties may possess extraordinary and possibly unique traits in terms of taste, nutritional quality, pest and disease resistance, or adaptability to various environments. For example, some rice species can grow as much as 20 feet underwater, Fowler explained, or in semi-arid conditions.

Source: LiveScience

Two new reports on global security conclude with a growing risk for nuclear terrorism Reuters report today.

The EastWest Institute and Chatham House, the two think-tanks behind the reports, cite that more states are pursuing their own nuclear ambitions and that the materials and engineering effort for a bomb “have all become commodities, more or less available to those determined enough to acquire them”.

The vulnerability of nuclear power plants are mentioned. This is highly relevant considering all the new power plants under planning or construction. Read about the planned terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant in Australia, “Australia nuclear plant plot trial opens in Paris”, Reuters.

But most suprisingly:

Ken Berry, author of the EastWest Institute report, said the rise of environmental militants would bring “an even bigger prospect that scientific personnel from the richest countries will aid eco-terrorist use of nuclear weapons or materials”.

This reminds me of Pentti Linkola, Finnish eco-philosopher and by many considered an eco-fascist. In a Wall Street Journal interview he expresses the view that World War III would be: “a happy occasion for the planet.… If there were a button I could press, I would sacrifice myself without hesitating, if it meant millions of people would die.”

Source: Reuters.

Read the reports; “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism” from EastWest Institute and The CBRN System: Assessing the threat of terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons in the UK from Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs).

From CNN:

KEKAHA, Hawaii (CNN) — The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency shot down a dummy target missile over the southern Pacific Ocean during a test of the U.S. missile defense shield early Saturday, according to an agency spokeswoman.

First, a dummy ballistic missile was fired from a U.S. mobile launch platform in the Pacific Ocean in a simulated attack.

Moments later, an interceptor missile was fired from the agency’s missile range facility on Hawaii’s Kauai Island and struck the dummy warhead over the Pacific Ocean, military footage showed.

The mobile, ground-based system is designed to protect the United States from short to intermediate-range high altitude ballistic missile attacks in the North American region, agency spokeswoman Pam Rogers said.

The system “intercepts missiles that are shorter range and at the end of their flight trajectory. It is part of the ballistic missile defense system, a layered system that is designed to intercept all types of missiles in all phases of flights,” Rogers said.

After decades of investment, it looks like missile defense systems may actually be paying off. If they ever succeed in a real war scenario, they could save millions of lives and stablize the geopolitical situation. It’s always good to applaud the developments of defense technologies (for actual defense), even if they aren’t perfect.

ec flagThe European Commission, the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) and the European Research Councils have each recently recommended adopting the policy of providing Open Access to research results.

(Very similar recommendations are also being made by governmental research organisations in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Asia.)

There are powerful non-research interests lobbying vigorously against these policy recommendations, so a display of support by the research community is critically important at this time.

A petition in support of the European Commission policy recommendation is now being sponsored by a consortium of European organisations:

JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee, UK),
DFG (Deutsches Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany),
(Danmarks Elektroniske Fag- og Forskningsbibliotek, Denmark)

The petition is to be presented to the European Commission February 15th in Brussels at its conference on “Scientific Publishing in the European Research Area: Access, Dissemination and Preservation in the Digital Age.

Its purpose is to demonstrate the broad-based support for the EC recommendations on the part of the European as well as the worldwide research community, particularly

Recommendation A1:

Signatures may be added by individual researchers or by universities and research institutions.

Institutional signatures, from Europe and worldwide, are fast approaching 1000, while individual signatures are nearing 20,000.

Researchers, lab directors, institutute directors, university research VPs and DVCs, learned society and scholarly/scientific academy presidents are all strongly urged to register your support.

Please sign the OA petition here.

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum

From CNN:

TBILISI, Georgia (Reuters) — Georgian special services have foiled an attempt by a Russian citizen to sell weapons-grade uranium for $1 million in the Georgian capital, a senior Interior Ministry official said on Thursday.

The official said Oleg Khintsagov, a resident of Russia’s North Ossetia region, was arrested in early 2006 and a closed court soon after convicted him to 8 1/2 years in prison.

Khintsagov was detained as he tried to sell uranium-235 to an undercover Georgian agent posing as a member of a radical Islamic group, said Shota Utiashvili, who heads the ministry’s information and analytical department.

“He was demanding $1 million for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of enriched weapons-grade uranium,” Utiashvili said. “This sort of uranium could be used to make a nuclear bomb but 100 grams is not enough.”

Before being arrested, Khintsagov told agents he had another 2–3 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in Vladikavkaz, Utiashvili said. After his arrest he refused to cooperate with the investigation.

It was unclear where the uranium came from. The safety of Russia’s vast stocks of nuclear weapons has concerned world leaders since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia says its nuclear facilities are well guarded. A spokesman for Russia’s atomic energy agency had no immediate comment on the Georgian case.

For more information on nuclear containment and our insufficient effort to prevent proliferation, see Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: a Progress Update.

From The Daily Telegraph:

North Korea is helping Iran to prepare an underground nuclear test similar to the one Pyongyang carried out last year.

Under the terms of a new understanding between the two countries, the North Koreans have agreed to share all the data and information they received from their successful test last October with Tehran’s nuclear scientists.

North Korea provoked an international outcry when it successfully fired a bomb at a secret underground location and Western intelligence officials are convinced that Iran is working on its own weapons programme.

A senior European defence official told The Daily Telegraph that North Korea had invited a team of Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of last October’s underground test to assist Tehran’s preparations to conduct its own — possibly by the end of this year.

There were unconfirmed reports at the time of the Korean firing that an Iranian team was present. Iranian military advisers regularly visit North Korea to participate in missile tests.

Now the long-standing military co-operation between the countries has been extended to nuclear issues.

Worrisome. If Iran develops nuclear weapons, there could be a war.


The revelation last week that China had slammed a medium-range ballistic missile into one of its aging satellites on January 11 and littered space with junk fragments has created its own form of political debris in Washington, D.C.

The test, which the United States military had long anticipated, has touched off debate over how the U.S. government should interpret and respond to China’s actions.

“It’s a very provocative act,” said Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and China expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, “policy makers should respond on the basis of accurate information, not military rhetoric and propaganda.”

For advocates of a more aggressive American posture in space, the anti-satellite test — the first since the United States conducted one in 1985 — confirms long-held suspicions about China’s military ambition in space, and justifies the need for increased spending on space-based weapons programs that recall the star-wars aspirations of the Reagan presidency.

“I hope the Chinese test will be a wake up call to people,” said Hank Cooper, a former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program and the chairman of High Frontier, a missile defense advocacy group. “I’d like to see us begin a serious anti-satellite program. We’ve been leaning on the administration. This argument to prevent weaponization of space is really silly.”

It’s true — when one nation moves into space weapons, others are forced to follow just to keep up. It’s the Red Queen scenario, where you have to keep moving forward just to stay in the same place. Because preventing the weaponization of space is likely impossible, it looks like we will have to come to terms with it. One beneficial side effect of a space weapons could be the development of better space systems in general, which could eventually be used to create autonomous colonies.

From the Unemumerated blog, this piece was originally written in 1993:

Using materials native to space, instead of hauling everything from Earth, is crucial to future efforts at large-scale space industrialization and colonization. At that time we will be using technologies far in advance of today’s, but even now we can see the technology developing for use here on earth.

There are a myriad of materials we would like to process, including dirty organic-laden ice on comets and some asteroids, subsurface ice and the atmosphere of Mars, platinum-rich unoxidized nickel-iron metal regoliths on asteroids, etc. There are an even wider array of materials we would like to make. The first and most important is propellant, but eventually we want a wide array of manufacturing and construction inputs, including complex polymers like Kevlar and graphite epoxies for strong tethers.

The advantages of native propellant can be seen in two recent mission proposals. In several Mars mission proposals[1], H2 from Earth or Martian water is chemically processed with CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, making CH4 and O2 propellants for operations on Mars and the return trip to Earth. Even bringing H2 from Earth, this scheme can reduce the propellant mass to be launched from Earth by over 75%. Similarly, I have described a system that converts cometary or asteroidal ice into a cylindrical, zero-tank-mass thermal rocket. This can be used to transport large interplanetary payloads, including the valuable organic and volatile ices themselves into high Earth and Martian orbits.

Earthside chemical plants are usually far too heavy to launch on rockets into deep space. An important benchmarks for plants in space is the thruput mass/equipment mass, or mass thruput ratio (MTR). At first glance, it would seem that almost any system with MTR>1 would be worthwhile, but in real projects risk must be reduced through redundancy, time cost of money must be accounted for, equipment launched from earth must be affordable in the first place (typically

A special consideration is the operation of chemical reactors in microgravity. So far all chemical reactors used in space — mostly rocket engines, and various kinds of life support equipment in space stations — have been designed for microgravity. However, Earthside chemical plants incorporate many processes that use gravity, and must be redesigned. Microgravity may be advantageous for some kinds of reactions; this is an active area of research. On moons or other plants, we are confronted with various fixed low levels of gravity that may be difficult to design for. With a spinning tethered satellite in free space, we can get the best of all worlds: microgravity, Earth gravity, or even hypergravity where desired.

A bigger challenge is developing chemical reactors that are small enough to launch on rockets, have high enough thruput to be affordable, and are flexible enough to produce the wide variety of products needed for space industry. A long-range ideal strategy is K. Eric Drexler’s nanotechnology [2]. In this scenario small “techno-ribosomes”, designed and built molecule by molecule, would use organic material in space to reproduce themselves and produce useful product. An intermediate technology, under experimental research today, uses lithography techniques on the nanometer scale to produce designer catalysts and microreactors. Lithography, the technique which has made possible the rapid improvement in computers since 1970, has moved into the deep submicron scale in the laboratory, and will soon be moving there commercially. Lab research is also applying lithography to the chemical industry, where it might enable breakthroughs to rival those it produced in electronics.

Tim May has described nanolithography that uses linear arrays of 1e4-1e5 AFM’s that would scan a chip and fill in detail to 10 nm resolution or better. Elsewhere I have described a class of self-organizing molecules called _nanoresists_, which make possible the use of e-beams down to the 1 nm scale. Nanoresists range from ablatable films, to polymers, to biological structures. A wide variety of other nanolithography techniques are described in [4,5,6]. Small-scale lithography not only improves the feature density of existing devices, it also makes possible a wide variety of new devices that take advantage of quantum effects: glowing nanopore silicon, quantum dots (“designer atoms” with programmable electronic and optical properties), tunneling magnets, squeezed lasers, etc. Most important for our purposes, they make possible to mass production of tiny chemical reactors and designer catalysts. Lithography has been used to fabricate a series of catalytic towers on a chip [3]. The towers consist of alternating layers of SiO2 4.1 nm thick and Ni 2–10 nm thick. The deposition process achieves nearly one atom thickness control for both SiO2 and Ni. Previously it was thought that positioning in three dimensions was required for good catalysis, but this catalyst’s nanoscale 1-d surface force reagants into the proper binding pattern. It achieved six times the reaction rate of traditional cluster catalysts on the hydrogenolysis of ethane to methane, C2H6 + H2 –> 2CH4. The thickness of the nickel and silicon dioxide layers can be varied to match the size of molecules to be reacted.

Catalysts need to have structures precisely designed to trap certain kinds of molecules, let others flow through, and keep still others out, all without getting clogged or poisoned. Currently these catalysts are built by growing crystals of the right spacing in bulk. Sometimes catalysts come from biotech, for example the bacteria used to grow the corn syrup in soda pop. Within this millenium (only 7.1 years left!) we will start to see catalysts built by new techniques of nanolithography, including AFM machining, AFM arrays and nanoresists Catalysts are critical to the oil industry, the chemical industry and to pollution control — the worldwide market is in the $100’s of billions per year and growing rapidly.

There is a also big market for micron-size chemical reactors. We may one day see the flexible chemical plant, with hundreds of nanoscale reactors on a chip, the channels between them reprogrammed via switchable valves, much as the circuits on a chip can be reprogrammed via transitors. Even a more modest, large version of such a plant could have a wide variety of uses.

Their first use may be in artificial organs to produce various biological molecules. For example, they might replace or augment the functionality of the kidneys, pancreas, liver, thyroid gland, etc. They might produce psychoactive chemicals inside the blood-brain barrier, for example dopamine to reverse Parkinson’s disease. Biological and mechanical chemical reactors might work together, the first produced via metaboic engineering[7], the second via nanolithography.

After microreactors, metabolic engineering, and nanoscale catalysts have been developed for use on Earth, they will spin off for use in space. Microplants in space could manufacture propellant, a wide variety of industrial inputs and perform life support functions more efficiently. Over 95% of the mass we now launch into space could be replaced by these materials produced from comets, asteroids, Mars, etc. Even if Drexler’s self-replicating assemblers are a long time in coming, nanolithographed tiny chemical reactors could open up the solar system.

[1] _Case for Mars_ conference proceedings, Zubrin et. al.
papers on “Mars Direct“
[2] K. Eric Drexler, _Nanosystems_, John Wiley & Sons 1992
[3] Science 20 Nov. 1992, pg. 1337.
[4] Ferry et. al. eds., _Granular Nanoelectronics_, Plenum Press 1991
[5] Geis & Angus, “Diamond Film Semiconductors”, Sci. Am. 10/92
[6] ???, “Quantum Dots”, Sci. Am. 1/93
[7] Science 21 June 1991, pgs. 1668, 1675.

These microreactors have a multiplicity of uses in various Lifeboat-relevant endeavors, including making human beings more resistant against harmful diseases. Molecular nanotechnology, rather than being long-range, is likely to be developed between 2010 and 2020. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has written at length in favor of this view.

The New Scientist also has an article about how exploding robots could be sent to determine the composition of Near Earth Asteroids. This would be relevant in developing a proper Asteroid shield. A current project is the Lifeboat AsteroidShield

An illustration from Ball Aerospace and New Scientist.

The Ball Aerospace proposal of many small probes seems cost efficient and worthy of being advocated by the Lifeboat Foundation.