Close calls and Chinese Walls…

Hi there folks, here are two interesting tid bits of knowledge for you to chew on.

  • In an odd decision, the 2011 bill that dictates U.S. spending will cut off federal funds that support  scientific exchanges between China and the United States. Virginia congressman Frank Wolf (R), Chairman on the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, inserted two sentences into the legislation that prohibits the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA from coordinating any joint scientific activities with China. On the other hand though, President Obama’s administration has simultaneously said that the spending bill’s ban does not apply to any scientific coordination between China and the US conducted as part of foreign policy. So what scientific coordination are we doing that isn’t a part of foreign policy? Isn’t any connection with the Chinese (or any other government) some branch of foreign policy? In my opinion this is an awful idea. The politicians are basically telling scientists that they are going to be the ones deciding what projects can/cannot be worked on with the Chinese. The scientific community is supposed to be an open, accepting forum where any and all with the right credentials can work together, but instead the government seems to want to handcuff American scientists in a similar way (and of course on a much smaller scale) to the Soviet scientists of the Cold War era. As Ni Feng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, rightly noted, “China and the US, the world’s two largest economies, are set to conduct more cooperation in an increasing number of fields in the future. Biased clauses such as the one Wolf inserted will gradually narrow down the possibility of new cooperation.” So why was this clause even allowed into the bill? Politics. The White House faced resistance from the Republicans when first pushed for the passing of the 2011 US spending bill, so this little diddy was allowed as a concession. Hopefully American won’t concede too much, but I can only see American science suffering from this decision.
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory out in Pasadena has made a very cool, but slightly alarming discovery. According to Don Yeomans, manager of JPL’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, “On November 8, asteroid 2005 YU55 will fly past Earth and at its closest approach point will be about 325,000 kilometers away.” To give you an idea of how close that is to Earth, the moon’s average orbital distance is roughly 385,000 kilometers. So yeah, that’s a close call in astronomical terms. Hopefully this news won’t cause any 2012 Apocalypsers to go crazy because as Yeoman assures, “YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over, at the very least, the next 100 years.” YU55 (pictured below) is about 400 miles in diameter and is one of the largest space rocks we’ve discovered that will come this close to Earth. Of course, Earth has had close encounters before, but as JPL scientist Barbara Wilson notes “we did not have the foreknowledge and technology to take advantage of [those previous opportunities].” She and many other scientists are extremely excited about the flyby because “it should be a great opportunity for science instruments on the ground to get a good look.” The asteroid should also be a nice sight for amateur star gazers to grab a look at.

The near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55 — on the list of potentially dangerous asteroids — was observed with the Arecibo Telescope’s planetary radar on April 19, 2010, when it was about 1.5 million miles from Earth. Credit: Arecibo Observatory/Michael Nolan

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