On the horizon

Shuttle moves closer to flight

NASA passed a significant milestone in its two-year quest to return the shuttle fleet to space when shuttle Discovery left its processing hangar early Tuesday and made a quarter-mile journey to the assembly building.

The move was the first tangible sign that NASA is beyond focusing on vehicle improvements after the 2003 Columbia space-shuttle disaster and has turned its attention to something it has done 113 times already: prepare a shuttle for launch.

"The big step is getting out of the [hangar] because now what is in front of us is relatively standard processing," said Jessica Rye, spokeswoman for Kennedy Space Center.

Workers inside the assembly building plan to attach a harness around the 100-ton spaceship, then use an overhead crane to hoist it into a vertical position. At that point, a newly designed external fuel tank and twin solid-rocket motors will be attached.

Completing the dozens of mechanical and electrical connections will take another day, then several days of testing and certification are planned. NASA is scheduled to move Discovery to the launch pad next Monday.

The agency has said it plans to return the shuttles to service in May or June.

Finding more fingerprints

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are using a new technique to see fingerprints on surfaces that typically make them invisible. The method involves focusing a tight beam of X-rays on surfaces with fingerprints. A computer picture is then created from those scans. The technology can detect chemical elements in fingerprints and could be a great way to bring out prints that can't be seen any other way, the scientists say.

"If you have prints on a dark surface, for example, they really don't develop well using normal techniques. If you have prints from an adolescent or child, the chemicals in the fingertips are different and don't stick around long enough for traditional methods," says Vahid Majidi, a scientist on the project.

The researchers say the method might also be able to tell if the person who left fingerprints handled certain types of bombmaking materials. The equipment costs about $175,000. The lab hopes to work with New Mexico police agencies to do more tests on the method.

Panda threat: Blooming bamboo

Giant pandas in western China could be at risk of starvation because the bamboo plants that they eat are beginning to die off in a cycle that happens about every 60 years, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Workers at the Baishuijiang State Nature Preserve in the northwestern province of Gansu plan to monitor the 102 pandas in the preserve for signs of hunger, according to Xinhua. Threatened pandas will be moved to areas that still have bamboo, with special attention given to older, feeble animals, it said.

Pandas derive most of their nutrition from arrow bamboo and can starve once the plant enters its dying-off stage. The stage begins when the bamboo forms flowers, after which the pandas refuse to eat it.

Blooming happens about once every 60 years, with a new crop taking 10 years to mature. Bamboo flowering across China in the early 1980s led to the deaths of about 250 of the notoriously finicky bears, it said.

Xinhua said some bamboo also has started blooming in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, home to the rest of China's estimated 1,590 wild pandas.

A talent that's elephantastic

Elephants possess a secret talent: They can imitate sounds of other animals and even machines, researchers say. An international team of scientists studied unusual sounds being made by two African elephants - one living in Tsavo, Kenya, and the other at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland.

Detailed acoustic analysis showed that the first elephant, a 10-year-old female named Mlaika, was mimicking trucks she could hear rumbling down a highway about two miles from her stockade. The second animal, a 23-year-old male named Calimero, was emulating the chirplike calls of the two female Asian elephants he lived with.

Other animals are known to have the ability to mimic sounds, but African elephants are the first example of a non-primate land mammal that can do this.

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