A Russian Proton booster rocket blasts off from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (Photo: AP)

A Russian Proton booster rocket blasts off from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (Photo: AP)

The Russian Prosecutor General’s office is pressing for disciplinary measures and fines after finding the state-run Roskosmos space agency to blame for two recent high-profile – and highly embarrassing – incidents.

One was the August crash of the Progress spacecraft, an unmanned cargo ship used to supply the International Space Station, while the second incident involved launching Russia’s biggest satellite, the Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite, into the wrong orbit.

The accidents forced Roskosmos to temporarily ground its Soyuz and Proton-M rockets, threatening the future of the International Space Station (ISS). Following the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, the Russian rockets are the only way to send supplies and ferry crew members back and forth from the space station.  As a result, NASA considered abandoning the space station for the first time in 10 years.

The Russian Prosecutor General’s office singled out the agency’s executive for separate blame for “a lack of proper control on the part of Roskosmos officials over the adoption of corresponding decisions.”

Acknowledging the criticism, Roskosmos said it is severely underfunded and unable to compete with firms from Western countries in recruiting and retaining talented employees.

On a postive note, Roskosmos did manage to successfully test launch a Soyuz model on Oct. 3 and is going forward with plans to send the next crew to the ISS on Nov. 14.

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Progress reported in the development of a malaria vaccine

A promising new malaria vaccine appears to reduce the risk of children contracting the disease by 56 percent.

The first results of the large-scale Phase III trial of the vaccine, RTS,S, were published in the online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The trial is being conducted at 11 sites in seven sub-Saharan Africa countries. So far, it  shows that three doses of RTS,S reduces the risk of children experiencing clinical malaria by 56 percent and severe malaria by 47 percent. These first Phase III results are in line with those from previous Phase II studies.

The World Health Organization has said it could recommend using the RTS,S malaria vaccine in 2015.  The recommendation would pave the way for African nations to implement the vaccine through large-scale basis national immunization programs.

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Climate change appears to cause Earth’s species to shrink

Has the lynx been shrinking in size?  If so, is global climate change to blame? (Photo: dogrando via flickr)

Has the lynx been shrinking in size? If so, is global climate change to blame? (Photo: dogrando via flickr)

Many of Earth’s species appear to be shrinking in size, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

But other experts are already expressing their doubts about that.

The study, which is based on a review of previous studies, found that 38 of 85 animal and plant species have shown a documented reduction in size over decades.

The species that are getting physically smaller, according to the study, include cotton, corn, strawberries, bay scallops, shrimp, crayfish, carp, Atlantic salmon, herring, frogs, toads, iguanas, hooded robins, red-billed gulls, California squirrels, lynx, wood rats and a type of Scottish sheep, which was found to be five percent smaller than in 1985.

Although the study’s authors think the shrinkage is probably due to global warming, other experts say that that conclusion goes too far in blaming climate change for what may be natural changes.

Study co-author Jennifer Sheridan, a biology researcher from the University of Alabama, says, “There is a trend in a number of organisms across the board, from plants to big vertebrates, getting smaller. The theory is, as things get warmer, they don’t need to grow as large.”

But Yoram Yom-Tov – a zoologist at Tel Aviv University who doesn’t think global warming is completely to blame – says there’s no need for alarm. “Changes in body size are a normal phenomenon.”

In the opinion of Terry Root, a biologist at Stanford and an expert in climate change, the study’s conclusions “seem kind of far-fetched.”

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IQ waxes and wanes during teen years

(Photo: Miguel Angel via Flickr)

(Photo: Miguel Angel via Flickr)

In last week’s Science Scanner, we shared how lack of sleep during adolescence could have a lasting impact on how the brain is wired. Now we get word of a study that shows a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ) can significantly rise or fall during the teenage years.

It’s the first time research has shown that our IQ is not constant.

The study was conducted by the University College of London and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience.

Thirty-three healthy adolescents, between 12 and 16 years old, were tested by the research team in 2004. The teens were tested again four years later, when they were between 15 and 20 years old. Both times, researchers took structural brain scans of their subjects using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

They found significant changes in the IQ scores from 2004 and 2008. Some of the test subjects improved their performance by as much as 20 points on the standardized IQ scale. In other cases, however, performance fell by a similar amount.  The researchers analyzed the test subjects’ MRI scans to see if there were any correlating changes in the structure of their brains.

They did find some. They discovered that an increase in a subject’s verbal IQ score also resulted in an increase in the density of the nerve cells where processing takes place, an area of the left motor cortex of the brain which is activated when we talk.

An increase in the non-verbal IQ score showed a hike in the density of gray matter in the anterior cerebellum, which is associated with hand movement. However,  an increase in verbal IQ didn’t necessarily translate into an increase in non-verbal IQ, too.

According to the study’s authors, this indicates that an adolescent’s intelligence is still developing and that poor IQ test scores at an early stage of this development could be somewhat deceptive, since IQ could change significantly in the next few years.

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