Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ice deposits found at Moon's pole

Page last updated at 05:10 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ice deposits found at Moon's pole

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, The Woodlands, Texas

Chandrayaan 1 (ISRO)
India's Chandrayaan-1 probe carried US equipment to the Moon

A radar experiment aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar spacecraft has identified thick deposits of water-ice near the Moon's north pole.

The US space agency's (Nasa) Mini-Sar experiment found more than 40 small craters containing water-ice.

But other compounds - such as hydrocarbons - are mixed up in lunar ice, according to new results from another Moon mission called LCROSS.

The findings were presented at a major planetary science conference in Texas.

The craters with ice range from 2km to 15km (one to nine miles) in diameter; how much there is depends on its thickness in each crater. But Nasa says the ice must be at least a couple of metres thick to give the signature seen by Chandrayaan-1.

Dr Paul Spudis, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, estimated there was at least 600 million metric tonnes of water-ice held within these impact craters.

The equivalent amount, expressed as rocket fuel, would be enough to launch one space shuttle per day for 2,200 years, he told journalists at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

What all these craters have in common are large areas of their interiors that never see sunlight.

Extreme cold

Temperatures in some of these permanently darkened craters can drop as low as 25 Kelvin (-248C; -415F) - colder than the surface of Pluto - allowing water-ice to remain stable.

"It is mostly pure water-ice," said Dr Spudis. "It could be under a few tens of centimetres of dry regolith (lunar soil)."

This protective layer of soil could prevent blocks of pure ice from vaporising even in some areas which are exposed to sunlight, he explained.

Artist's impression of LCROSS (Northrop Grumman)
Ice thrown up by the LCROSS impact was in a crystalline form

In February, President Barack Obama cancelled the programme designed to return Americans to the Moon by 2020.

However, Dr Spudis said: "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible. It's possible using the resources we find there.

"The results from these missions, that we have seen in the last few months, are totally revolutionising our view of the Moon."

Chandrayaan-1 was India's contribution to the armada of unmanned spacecraft to have been launched to the Moon in recent years. Japan, Europe, China and the US have all sent missions packed with instruments to explore Earth's satellite in unprecedented detail.

In Nasa's LCROSS mission, a rocket and a probe were smashed into a large crater at the lunar south pole, kicking up water-ice and water vapour.

Spectral measurements of material thrown up by the LCROSS impact indicate some of the water-ice was in a crystalline form, rather than the "amorphous" form in which the water molecules are randomly arranged.

Water source

"There's not one flavour of water on the Moon; there's a range of everything from relatively pure ice all the way to adsorbed water," said the mission's chief scientist Anthony Colaprete, from Nasa's Ames Research Center.

"And here is an instance inside Cabeus crater where it appears we threw up a range of fine-grained particulates of near pure crystalline water-ice."

Overall, results from recent missions suggest there could be several sources for lunar ice.

One important way for water to form is through an interaction with the solar wind, the fast-moving stream of particles that constantly billows away from the Sun.

Space radiation triggers a chemical reaction in which oxygen atoms already in the soil acquire hydrogen nuclei to make water molecules and the simpler hydrogen-oxygen (OH) molecule. This "adsorbed" water may be present as fine films coating particles of lunar soil.

In a cold sink effect, water from elsewhere on the lunar surface may migrate to the slightly cooler poles, where it is retained in permanently shadowed craters.

Scientists have also reported the presence of hydrocarbons, such as ethylene, in the LCROSS impact plume. Dr Colaprete said any hydrocarbons were likely to have been delivered to the lunar surface by comets and asteroids - another vital source of lunar water.

However, he added, some of these chemical species could arise through "cold chemistry" on interstellar dust grains accumulated on the Moon.

In addition to water, researchers have seen a range of other "volatiles" (compounds with low boiling points) in the impact plume, including sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

The results from the Mini-Sar instrument are due to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The team is currently analysing results for craters at the Moon's south pole.

Monkeys 'display self-doubt' like humans

Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Monday, 21 February 2011
Monkeys 'display self-doubt' like humans
By Victoria Gill
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Macaques 'self-doubt like humans'

Monkeys trained to play computer games have helped to show that it is not just humans that feel self-doubt and uncertainty, a study says.

US-based scientists found that macaques will "pass" rather than risk choosing the wrong answer in a brainteaser task.

Awareness of our own thinking was believed to be a uniquely human trait.

But the study, presented at the AAAS meeting in Washington DC, suggests that our more primitive primate relatives are capable of such self-awareness.

Professor John David Smith, from State University of New York at Buffalo and Michael Beran, from Georgia State University, carried out the study.

Macaque monkey
These results could help explain why self-awareness is such an important part of our cognitive makeup and from whence it came
John David Smith
Lead researcher

They trained the macaques, which are Old World monkeys, to use a joystick-based computer game.

The animals were trained to judge the density of a pixel box that appeared at the top of the screen as either sparse or dense. To give their answer, the monkeys simply moved a cursor towards a letter S or a letter D.

When the animals chose the correct letter, they were rewarded with an edible treat. There was no punishment for choosing the wrong answer, but the game briefly paused, taking away - for a few seconds - the opportunity for the animals to win another treat.

But the monkeys had a third option - choosing a question mark - which skipped the trial and moved on to the next one. This meant no treat, but it also meant no pause in the game.

The scientists saw that the macaques used this option in exactly the same way as human participants who reported that they found a trial too tricky to answer; they chose to "pass" and move on.

Dr Smith presented footage of the animals playing the game at a session that was organised by the European Science Foundation.

"Monkeys apparently appreciate when they are likely to make an error," he told BBC News. "They seem to know when they don't know."

In the same trial, capuchins, which belong to the group known as New World monkeys, failed to take this third option.

Dr Smith explained: "There is a big theoretical question at stake here: Did [this type of cognition] develop only once in one line of the primates - emerging only in the line of Old World primates leading to apes and humans?"

He said that the capacity to think in this way was "one of the most important facets of humans' reflective mind, central to every aspect of our comprehension and learning".

"These results... could help explain why self-awareness is such an important part of our cognitive makeup and from whence it came," he added.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The stigma of Japan's 'suicide apartments'

10 February 2011 Last updated at 00:20 GMT

The stigma of Japan's 'suicide apartments'

Framed photograph of the Sendai man's late daughter The daughter's photograph is not alongside those of ancestors on the family altar

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and on average nearly 100 people take their own lives every day.

But where those deaths take place has a big impact on families left behind.

In a stuffy apartment in Sendai, the air blue with smoke from cigarettes, a father kneels in prayer.

Lighting incense sticks and ringing a bell before the family altar, an ornate wooden cupboard.

His daughter's photograph is not inside alongside the other ancestors, it is still on the bookshelf.

Putting it there would be a final acceptance that she has gone, that two years ago he found her body in her rented Tokyo flat.

She was only 22 and her father cannot face that yet.

"When I realised she was dead I just could not move and I could not think at all," he says.

"I could not take in what happened. I thought there is really no God in this world at all. That is what I remember from that day."

Bereaved father in Sendai This father is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too

Only the father, and his former wife, the young woman's mother, know their daughter took an overdose.

Other relatives and friends have never been told it was suicide, so he does not want his name to be used.

It was not long after the death that he got another shock - this time a letter from his daughter's landlord.

"We held her funeral at the end of March," he remembers.

"The bill for renovating the flat came in April, then a demand for compensation for lost rent in May. So it was one after another.

"The only thing I could think about was my lost daughter. So when I was getting those bills, I had no will or strength to negotiate or resist."

In all he paid more than £18,650 ($30,000).

Purification rituals

Japan has a historic tradition of ritual suicide as an honourable way out. But as the number of people killing themselves has risen, public unease has grown.

Start Quote

We feel the house is not pure and it will bring unhappiness”

End Quote Yoshihiro Kanuma Estate agent

Few would choose to rent an apartment where a previous occupant had taken their own life. So a death is frequently followed by a demand for money.

"There are a lot of them," says Sachiko Tanaka who set up a support group for the families of suicides after her own son died.

"Mostly it's compensation for loss of rent for flats. The biggest was 120m yen (£900,000). The claim was that the entire apartment building was worthless because one person committed suicide there. So they have to pay to rebuild it."

Many families are also required to pay for expensive purification rituals.

The support group is dealing with around 200 complaints of excessive demands from landlords and she is calling for a change in the law.

Already some estate agents are keen to help the bereaved.

Yoshihiro Kanuma has what he calls a difficult house on his books. He was motivated to take it on by his devout Buddhism.

A house on the books of estate agent Yoshihiro Kanuma Nine out of 10 people don't want anything to do with the house, says estate agent Yoshihiro Kanuma

It is an ordinary-looking place, a few years old - what the trade in Japan calls a 3LDK; three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, in a commuter town outside Tokyo.

The tour takes in the master bedroom, with a view over a paddy field, but then he has to tell potential buyers that the last owner hanged himself on the stairs.

"Nine out of 10 people say I don't want anything to do with the house," he says.

"The Japanese may think the house is stained. I guess some may say it's heroic to take your own life but in terms of a house it's not viewed that way. We feel the house is not pure and it will bring unhappiness. I personally think the house itself has no responsibility but lots of Japanese feel that way."

Mr Kanuma has managed to persuade one family to put in an offer which has been accepted - half the price of other houses in the area.

Back in Sendai the bereaved father sits silently in his chair, and lights up another cigarette.

He admits he has turned into a recluse, and says he would like to die himself.

Compared to the loss of his daughter the money is nothing, but like many Japanese he is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Japan custody heartache for foreign fathers

6 February 2011 Last updated at 01:40 GMT

Japan custody heartache for foreign fathers

Thousands of Japanese people marry foreigners every year. Many are happy - but if the marriage breaks down the foreign spouse may end up cut out of the children's lives.

Alex Kahney Alex Kahney often visits the places he used to take his children

Alex Kahney, who works for a medical publisher, still lives in what was once the family home, now nearly bare of furniture but full of memories.

There are photographs of his daughters on the walls of the small four-storey town house in one of the nicer Tokyo neighbourhoods.

Their favourite stuffed toys, a dog and a mouse, are on the back of the sofa - reminders of the little girls, aged nine and seven, who he has not seen for months.

His Japanese wife took them with her, along with much of the contents of the house, when their marriage broke down, and is refusing to let him see them.

Mr Kahney first tried the police.

But when he told them that his wife had abducted their children, they laughed at him.

What makes it more painful is that their new home is just down the road.

Pressure for change

"They're on a second-floor apartment," he says. "I can hear them talking inside. I go and stand underneath the balcony listening to them. It's tough.

"For the first few months I cried, I howled. For half an hour sometimes. I hardly sleep. I'm usually awake most of the night. And I have dreams, I dream about my children every night."

Lef-Behind Parents demonstrating Many Japanese parents are also campaigning for change

In Japan, the courts normally give custody to one parent after a marriage breakdown and it is up to that parent if they let the other parent have any access.

Many separating couples come to amicable agreements, but it is not unusual for one parent to be cut out of their children's lives forever.

When the former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi divorced, he got custody of his two eldest sons, who have not seen their mother since.

She was six months pregnant at the time, and Mr Koizumi has never met his youngest son.

But now there is pressure for a change in the law.

Every few weeks Alex Kahney joins a demonstration organised by a group called Left-Behind Parents, Japan.

They have lobbied members of the Diet, and on a recent Sunday they marched, more than 100 strong, through the centre of Tokyo.

Among the demonstrators were many Japanese parents.

Courts defied

There are a quarter of a million divorces in Japan every year, which is relatively low by international standards, but a dramatic increase from earlier generations.

Number of cases

Twelve countries have been urging Japan to sign up to the Hague Convention:

  • US: 131
  • Canada: 38
  • UK: 38
  • France: 30
  • Germany 2
  • Australia, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Spain - no figures available
  • Belgium and Colombia - 0 cases

It is the cases involving foreigners, though, that are drawing the most attention.

Japan's customs around divorce have become a diplomatic issue because the country has yet to sign up to the 1980 Hague Convention on child abduction. As a result, Japanese parents who bring their children home after a divorce abroad can defy joint custody orders made by foreign courts.

The British embassy is dealing with 38 cases involving children, other embassies many more.

"There are 12 embassies involved in this," says David Warren, the British ambassador in Tokyo.

"We have been making frequent representations to the Japanese government. We've been saying to them that Japan cannot any longer go on without becoming part of the international legal framework for resolving these cases."

Abusive relationships

Japan is considering ratifying the Hague Convention.

A newspaper report earlier this month said an announcement could come as soon as the spring.

'Women look after the children'

Osamu, who doesn't want to use his full name, got divorced five years ago and his daughters are now 17 and 14. He sees the younger girl once every two months, the older girl about twice a year.

"I thought about their best interests," he says. "So I gave in and let their mother have custody."

Osamu says that at the time of the divorce he thought of splitting up his daughters, with the parents having custody of one each. But he decided it would not be good for them.

"In Japan traditionally men go out to work and women look after children. We tend to think women will be better off taking care of them, especially when they are small.

"Of course, there are exceptions. Maybe the father's family has a business and needs the next generation to take over."

Osamu added that men tend to think they can go on, get married again and start a new family more easily than women. From his experience it's usual for fathers not to see children at all.

But implementation is likely to be a long process.

It would mean a change from the expectation that families should largely work things out for themselves, to the state enforcing agreements on access and child-support payments.

Some people are also worried that the convention could hinder Japanese trying to flee abusive relationships abroad.

Akiko Oshima is a marriage counsellor who has worked as a mediator in the family court.

"These women who come back, do not do it because they want to," she says.

"They feel this is the only way out. They want their child to be brought up in Japan, and not in the host country where the father is abusive and she has no control over her children's education, and so forth. Not even, say, getting a job to support herself. This is the problem."

Alex Kahney spends a lot of time visiting places he went with his children, like the playground near his home.

He says he was a good parent and his daughters were daddy's girls.

If he is to see them again he must only hope their mother takes pity on him.

Japanese marrying a foreigner 1970-2005
  • The number of Japanese men marrying foreign women is higher than the number of Japanese women marrying foreign men. It is rare for a Japanese man to marry a Western woman, but Japanese women frequently marry Western men.
  • A Japanese man marrying a foreigner is most likely to marry a woman from China, the Philippines or Korea, in that order. A Japanese woman marrying a foreigner is most likely to marry a man from Korea, the US or China.