Accessibility links

Our World Transcript — April 23-24, 2005


MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... people around the globe mark Earth Day number 35 amid new concerns about the global environment ... and astronomers say they've spotted what could be a belt of rocky asteroids -- around a star 40 light years away!

BEICHMAN: "We're really interested in understanding more about the asteroid belts of mature stars because they tell us more about our own Sun and whether our own planetary system is the norm or exceptional."

Those stories, plus the latest on the uncertain fate of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hi, I'm Rob Sivak, sitting in this week for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine ... "Our World."


Friday, April 22nd was Earth Day in the United States ... and in the more than 140 other countries that mark the occasion. Launched in 1970 by a group of American environmental activists led by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and environmental activist Dennis Hayes, the annual event has grown to become a mainstream way to boost environmental awareness. Earth Day 2005 events -- staged by tens of thousands of activists, community groups, governments, and industries, were designed to focus public attention on the environment and how well, or how poorly, we are caring for it.

President Bush marked Earth Day by traveling to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee, one of the nation's most popular and also most polluted national parks, where the extraordinary mountain vistas are often shrouded by smog. The President used the occasion to promote the importance of conservation and volunteerism in the effort to protect our environment. On Thursday at the White House, Mr. Bush honored a group of young Americans who've been spending a great deal of their time and energies on environmental stewardship. In presenting this year's Environmental Youth Awards to members of the government's Freedom Corps, Mr. Bush praised their volunteer spirit:

BUSH ON VOLUNTEERS (:40) (not transcribed)

President Bush speaking Thursday at the White House.

While Earth Day is about raising ecological awareness and forging shared interests in the protection of the environment, it's also a day that underscores the continued tensions between activists, government leaders and the business community over policies that impact the environment. Here in the United States, new national energy legislation passed this week in the House of Representatives is stirring debate over whether the Bush Administration and the Republican-led Congress are favoring industrial companies -- and putting the environment at risk -- by relaxing some air pollution standards in the Clean Air Act. It's a debate that also plays out in communities across the country. In the Great Lakes state of Wisconsin, this Earth Day highlights a classic environmental stand-off. Environmental activists are concerned that two new coal-fired power plants, due to be built soon on the dune-covered shores of Lake Michigan near Milwaukee, will increase air pollution and destroy the natural beauty of the lakeshore. The power company says it needs to build the plant to meet the region's increasing demands for electricity. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Ann-Elise Henzl has more:

HENZL: Wisconsin Electric power company has more than one million customers in Wisconsin and Michigan's upper peninsula. The company says soon, it won't be able to provide power for all of them with its current plants, and the transmission lines that allow Wisconsin Electric to buy power from other states are over taxed. So the company wants to expand a coal-fired power plant twenty miles south of Milwaukee. That would add two coal-burning units and double the plant's size and output. Paul Shorter is the manager for site coordination.

SHORTER: "From the infrastructure standpoint, if the state wants to grow and attract business, I think that's one reason. The other reason is to meet that growing demand of about two percent a year, which is related to telephones, TV's, VCR's, computers. We're always asking for more, and companies are producing it, and they have to be supported by energy."

HENZL: On a windy spring morning, Shorter is standing on the roof of the existing plant. As waves crash on the Lake Michigan shoreline, Shorter looks north, pointing out the site for the expansion.

SHORTER: "Now this whole area over here is going to be excavated, for placement of the new facilities, there's going to be about five million cubic yards of dirt that we're going to move around on the property. Part of it is to cut down that bluff, to get everything down to the level of this current facility."

HENZL: Shorter sees power and progress. But a nearby resident, Ann Brodek, sees something else.

BRODEK: "As you look at the plant now, as it sits on the shore, to me, it looks kind of like a looming, prehistoric monster on the edge of the shore. It just is dirty and huge and on a shoreline of a beautiful lake. This is not where that should be."

HENZL: Brodek lives just ten miles south of the plant, near the shore of Lake Michigan. She's among area residents and environmentalists who've been fighting the plant. Ever since Wisconsin Electric started trying to get state approval. Bruce Nilles is a senior Midwest representative for the Sierra Club. He says the expansion would destroy a half-mile of shoreline, that's home to birds and wildlife. And he says the Great Lakes region doesn't need more coal-burning plants.

NILLES: "The proposal is using technology that we created, basically, back in the nineteenth century: grinding up the coal and burning it. We know that releases mercury into the environment in very large amounts. All the new studies are showing that we already have far too much mercury in our environment. And once it's in the environment, it doesn't go away. Every lake, river, and stream in the state of Wisconsin has a fish consumption advisory, including Lake Michigan, because there's too much mercury in the fish."

HENZL: Wisconsin Electric defends its plan to build coal-burning units. The company says the units would use new, cleaner technology, and meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. It also says improvements at the existing plant would cut pollution in half. Wisconsin regulators agreed with the company and approved the plan. Opponents sued. They say the state failed to require a complete application for the plant. They also say regulators didn't look at alternatives, like a natural gas-fired plant. Last fall, a circuit judge agreed with the opponents of the plant. The regulators and Wisconsin Electric appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is where the case is now. The court could give the go-ahead for the plant expansion, or it could throw out all or part of the proposal.

Meanwhile, opponents like resident Ann Brodek are glad their argument is still alive.

BRODEK: "I would think that every bordering state, including Canada, would be speaking out against this thing. This is going to affect everybody, and we're not going to give up and there'll be suits. There'll be lawsuits. We'll do everything we can."

HENZL: The state Supreme Court is expected to annouce its decision by this summer. Wisconsin Electric hopes an answer comes by then. It wants to have the new coal-fired units operating by the summer of 2009, and it'll take about four years to build them.

For the GLRC, I'm Ann-Elise Henzl.

One way societies have tried to protect the earth's unspoiled places, and the diversity of wild plants and animals within them, is by creating wilderness parks and wildlife preserves. We have presumed that sanctuaries backed up by fences and other barriers might keep these natural treasures pristine, forever. But in this era of global warming, how effective can physical barriers be against climate change?

That is a question very much on the mind of Doctor Richard Leakey, the renowned paleo-anthropologist and conservation leader who ran Kenya's National Museum and later its National Wildlife Service, and who is now a Visiting professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. On May 6, Doctor Leakey will convene a three-day international conference at the University, attended by some of the world's leading environmental experts, to discuss what he says could be "the greatest conservation crisis of our day" brought on by climate change. Doctor Leakey joined me by phone this week from New York to discuss the aims of the conference:

LEAKEY-SIVAK INTERVIEW 4:15 (not transcribed)

Doctor Richard Leakey is a well-known paleo-anthropologist and Kenyan conservationist, and is now a Visiting professor at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He'll preside over the University's first World Environmental Forum, running May 6 through 8.


In honor of Earth Day, this week's Website of the Week segment shines a light on the very busy site run by the folks who first came up with the idea of an Earth Day celebration, 35 years ago. It's a group based here in Washington called the EarthDay Network, and their homepage on the World Wide Web -- at earthday-dot-net -- reflects just how broadly-based and international the environmental movement has become in three decades. Mary Minette is the group's vice president. She oversees day-to-day operations and has been closely involved with the EarthDay Network website.

MINETTE: "One of the things we really use our website for and that the web has just been incredibly helpful for is keeping in touch with our network, because it is very large, we have something like 12 thousand organizations globally, who in some way participate in our network, either as users of our materials, or in actual day-to-day partnerships. And it is great for information sharing. We put all of our materials up there and people can download them, for instance, we have an EarthDay organizer's guide that provides all kinds of information on how to put on an Earth Day event."

HOST: The site also allows visitors from anywhere in the world to check out whether there is an Earth Day network affiliated group in their particular country and community. Visitors to the website can also take the Ecological Footprint Quiz, created by a group called Redefining Progress, in which you enter your home country and your approximate levels of daily resource consumption, and see how your appetites for food, fuel, energy and land affect the size of your ecological "footprint" and how it compares with the global average. North Americans, be forewarned: the numbers don't look good.

Mary Minette says the EarthDay network website is also an important way for people to support the group's efforts and help ensure future Earth Day observances... either by making a donation or by shopping in the Earth Day Network's online store for cool Earth Day t-shirts, posters and stuff. That's our Website of the Week -- www dot earthday-dot-net.

MUSIC BRIDGE

You're listening to Our World on VOA NewsNow. I'm Rob Sivak.

An orbiting U.S. telescope has spotted what could be the dusty remnants of asteroids colliding near a star very much like our Sun. Asteroids are the leftover building blocks of rocky planets like Earth. If the finding is what astronomers believe it is, they say it may be a significant step toward learning if and where other Earths form. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.

McALARY: The U.S. space agency's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected a thick disk of warm dust around a star similar in size and age to our sun 40 light years away. Astronomers think it could be from a massive asteroid belt 25 times bigger than the one in our solar system.

Spitzer did not see actual asteroids near the star, but the scientists who made the observation suggest that frequent asteroid collisions are the most-likely source of the dust Spitzer did see. They believe such collisions occur about every one thousand years, far more often than in our solar neighborhood.

Co-discoverer Charles Beichman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California says this is the first asteroid belt ever seen around a mature star like the Sun.

BEICHMAN: "We're interested in asteroid belts in these systems because they may mark either the construction sites that accompany the formation of rocky planets, the junkyards that remain after the formation of such planets, or simply mark places for one reason or another material just couldn't assemble to form planets at all. But in particular, we're really interested in understanding more about the asteroid belts of mature stars because they tell us more about our own Sun and whether our own planetary system is the norm or exceptional."

McALARY: The scientists say if there were a habitable Earth-like planet around the star, the dense layers of dust created by the frequent asteroid collisions would light up its night sky as a brilliant band.

But they say that whether such a habitable planet exists depends on how wide the presumed asteroid belt is. If the belt is narrow and does not extend out to the habitable zone where mild temperatures allow water to be liquid and life to flourish, a planet in this region could sustain life. However, the high density of the asteroid belt would lead to frequent collisions with the planet and cause mass extinctions.

If the asteroid belt is wider and extends beyond the habitable zone, its very density would be a sign that no planets formed within it.

Co-researcher Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona says that if a planet were beyond the asteroid belt and out of the habitable zone, it might be too cold to harbor life as we know it.

LUNINE: "So knowing exactly where the outer edge of that belt is will be crucial in understanding whether there is a habitable planet located in that system."

McALARY: The astronomers concede that what Spitzer observed might not be the dusty remains of asteroid collisions after all, but a giant comet, releasing dust from its ice as the ice boils away in its orbit around the star. This thought occurred to them when they discovered that the dust around the star consists of small silicate crystals like those seen in the comet Hale-Bopp.

Charles Beichman says future observations might provide the answer.

BEICHMAN: "We have a number of observations planned in the coming year where we will try to look at the spectrum in slightly greater detail. There is also some ground-based telescope work that we're investigating that might let us look for the gas and the water that might be associated with a comet if that were the source of this dust. Those observations will help us rule in or out the comet hypothesis."

McALARY: If an asteroid belt around this star is confirmed, the scientists say more powerful U.S. orbiting telescopes now being planned could hunt for planets in the system. One mission is the Terrestrial Planet Finder to be launched at the end of the next decade to search specifically for Earth-like planets around other stars. I'm David McAlary, on VOA's Our World.

While the Spitzer earth-orbiting telescope was providing those astonishing new views of distant solar systems, questions continued to swirl about the fate of the greatest orbiting observatory of them all -- the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble is considered one of astronomy's most important instruments. But as Hubble marks its 15th anniversary in orbit, its future hangs in the balance.

NASA COMMUNICATOR: "We are go for main engine start."

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. space agency, NASA, launched a new era in astronomy.

NASA COMMUNICATOR: "And liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery, with the Hubble space telescope our window on the universe."

After overcoming a few early problems, the Hubble Space Telescope has changed the way man views the universe.

LECKRONE: "It's very hard to pick up an astronomy textbook today that isn't just permeated by both Hubble imagery and the discoveries that have come from Hubble."

David Leckrone is the telescope's Chief Scientist, and has been with the program since its beginning. He says many of the greatest discoveries made by the telescope were complete surprises.

LECKRONE: "It answers questions we didn't even know how to ask prior to Hubble being launched."

Over the years Hubble's steady flow of scientific breakthroughs and spectacular images was made possible by regular visits by shuttle astronauts, to make repairs and upgrade its instruments. Without another servicing mission, the telescope's mechanical components are expected to wear out in 2007.

After the 2003 loss of the space shuttle Columbia, however, a final visit to extend the life of Hubble was cancelled. Astronomers, the public and Congress argued vehemently that Hubble was worth saving. At the request of Congress, the National Research Council of the National Academies conducted an independent review of two servicing options: reinstating the shuttle flight or developing a robotic servicing mission.

GRAHAM: "The committee concluded - with regret - that the robotic servicing option was probably not feasible within the remaining, limited life span of Hubble prior to servicing."

Sandra Graham was the Study Director. Her committee, consisting of engineers, astronomers and many former NASA officials, concluded that a shuttle mission was the best option. Among the factors they considered was the danger associated with flying astronauts to Hubble. The panel concluded that the primary risk of catastrophic damage to the space shuttle was not in servicing Hubble, but during the launch and reentry .

GRAHAM: "So the amount of risk - or the difference in risk between going to the Hubble space telescope and the International space station even given the possibilities that the international space station provides for safe haven, the difference in the risk is still very small."

Supporters of a Hubble servicing mission were given renewed hope with the arrival of new NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who promises to reconsider his predecessor's decision to cancel the manned servicing mission once the shuttles resume flying.

GRIFFIN: "Immediately after the first is launched, we are going to undertake an internal review to weigh the pros and cons of reinstituting SM4 Hubble - Shuttle servicing mission 4."

NARRATOR: Mr. Griffin has ruled out a robotic servicing mission as being unfeasible. And even if a decision is made not to send a shuttle to Hubble, Sandra Graham says there will be at least one more mission, a robotic flight to safely deorbit Hubble into a pre-selected patch of ocean.

GRAHAM: "It will land somewhere and it will land hard. And if we want to guarantee that it lands in the ocean rather than on Paris or New York City, a deorbit mission is required."

No matter the fate of Hubble, Chief Scientist David Leckrone believes the telescope's place in history is assured, and a century from now people will still be talking about what Hubble achieved.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always happy to hear from you. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Oksana Dragan. Our technical director this week is Eva Nenicka. And this is Rob Sivak, filling in for Art Chimes, who'll be back next week. Meanwhile, I invite you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

XS
SM
MD
LG