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The End of the Line for NASA's Mars Rover

26 January 2010 (All day)
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Here's a rundown of some of the stories we've been tracking on Science's policy blog, ScienceInsider:

It's been quite a run for NASA's golf-cart-sized, solar-powered rover originally designed for a 90-day jaunt on the martian surface. Earlier this month, Spirit passed its sixth year exploring the red planet, contributing thousands of images of the region called Gusev Crater and, along with its sister rover, Opportunity, sending back convincing data that Mars once harbored flowing water. But at a news conference today, wistful mission controllers announced what many had suspected: With two of its six wheels malfunctioning, Spirit is intractably stuck in loose soil in an area of Mars named Troy. There the rover will stay until its batteries die or its systems experience a catastrophic failure.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has been supporting a wide array of research on geoengineering since 2007, ScienceInsider has learned. The world's richest man has provided at least $4.5 million of his own money over 3 years for the study of methods that could alter the stratosphere to reflect solar energy, filter carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, and brighten ocean clouds.

Has Russian science hit the skids? Russia's research output has continued to slide since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago and produced only 127,000 papers, 2.6% of the world's total, over a recent 5-year period, according to a report published by Thomson Reuters. Once a science and technology powerhouse, Russia now ranks behind countries such as China (8.4% of the world total), Canada (4.7%), Australia (3.0%), India (2.9%), and only slightly ahead of the Netherlands (2.5%). The report blames chronic underfunding by the Russian government, an aging scientific workforce, lack of public respect for science, and a devastating brain drain in the early 1990s that saw more than 80,000 researchers leave the country in search of greener pastures, mostly in Western Europe.

A committee of the U.S. National Research Council released a sobering report last week on the prospects for defending the home planet against near-Earth objects (NEOs), the asteroids and comets that can cross Earth's orbit and hit us . The prospects aren't good. Although Congress has mandated a goal of finding 90% of the city-killers--NEOs 140 meters in diameter or larger--by 2020, it hasn't funded such a search. And at the current rate of funding, the NEO threat wouldn't be sized up for decades.

The battlefield for scientists fighting over how to best estimate war-related deaths has moved from Iraq to the Congo. A new report looking at the overall picture of wartime mortality offers new estimates of the number of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have died due to the fighting there since 1998. The numbers are dramatically lower than the widely quoted 5.4 million figure issued by the International Rescue Committee. IRC vigorously defends its work, however, and the dispute has clearly revived a battle among academics who previously tussled over counting war-related deaths in Iraq.

For more breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy, check out ScienceInsider.

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