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Next Best Thing To A Stairway To The Stars

Spurred by the X Prize Foundation's $10 million purse for the first private space plane, two dozen teams invested at least $100 million trying to win the kitty. Now, NASA hopes to unleash a similar 10-to-1 spending spree for the ultimate method of getting off the Earth: a space elevator.

Long familiar to science fiction fans, the elevator would ferry astronauts and their craft beyond the earth's gravity by climbing a cable made of strong and light carbon nanotubes at least 22,000 miles up to geosynchronous orbit. Electricity for the motors would be beamed up by laser or microwaves, since a copper cable would weigh too much.

For this year's NASA Centennial Challenges, the strongest nanotube ribbon will be rewarded with $50,000. The same sum will go to whichever model of an energy-beam-powered robot can carry the heaviest load while climbing a 50-meter cable. Next year, NASA will boost the prizes to $100,000. Building the real thing would probably cost $10 billion over 15 years.

March went out with a roar of warnings, with three separate studies painting a bleak environmental picture. The weightiest was the U.N.'s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report. The result of four years of work by 1,300 experts in 95 countries, it warns that without radical policy changes by business and government, the world will see fishing grounds turn into "dead zones" and abrupt regional-climate changes. The Climate Monitoring & Diagnostics Laboratory on Mauna Loa on Hawaii notes that levels of carbon dioxide rose last year for the 47th consecutive year. And new computer modeling by Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts the atmosphere will keep warming for decades.

So far, some 130 stars are known to have giant, Neptune-size planets -- and computer models indicate that perhaps half of them might also have Earth-like planets capable of supporting life. While no existing telescope can see them, an "eye" with a 100-meter-diameter mirror could. That's 10 times the size of today's biggest telescopes.

One concept for such a monster telescope, shown below, was unveiled at the early-April meeting of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society by Isobel Hook, an Oxford University astronomer and co-leader of Opticon, Europe's effort to develop an extremely large telescope (ELT).

Since just its mirror would be bigger than a football field, the entire ELT would dwarf a sports stadium. So would its price: $1.28 billion is the rough estimate, says Hook. Assuming funding can be found -- and the European Commission has kicked in $10.3 million to start the engineering design -- Hook figures building the ELT would take at least a decade.

-- British scientists have taken a step toward creating a vaccine against avian flu by making the virus safe enough to handle. John Wood of Britain's National Institute for Biological Standards & Control says that his team used "reverse genetics" to remove the deadliest segments from the genome of the H5N1 virus, which is rampant in Asia's bird populations and threatens to cross over to humans. He has distributed his defanged virus to vaccine makers who hope to avoid a global pandemic.

-- So much for modern technology: According to a report at an April microbiology meeting in Edinburgh, drinking water in rural India and elsewhere is safer if it's kept in traditional brass containers like the one above rather than in modern ones. Scientists from Northumbria University in Britain and Panjab University in India found that bacteria in contaminated water were completely wiped out after two days of storage in brass containers, but not in ceramic or plastic. They said minute traces of copper from the brass, too small to be toxic to humans, dissolved into the water and acted as a disinfectant.

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