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Science news digest – 25th April 2014

In the science news this week, the Jet experiment could be breaking records this decade, GM mosquitoes are approved for release in Brazil, astronauts complete spacewalk to fix faulty ISS computer, and finally… the mystery of the ocean quack is finally solved.

Fusion record could be broken by the end of the decade

The director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Professor Steve Cowley, has said that the scientists working on the Jet experiment at the centre are aiming to set a new world record in nuclear fusion by the end of the decade, reported the BBC.

"We're hoping to repeat our world record shots and extend them," Prof Cowley told BBC News.

"Our world record was from 1997, we think we can improve on it quite considerably and get some really spectacular results. We're winding up to that and by the end of the decade we'll be doing it."

The Jet (Joint European Torus) experiment was opened in 1984 to help scientists understand fusion – the process that powers the Sun, and other stars.

If given the go-ahead, the experiment could be allowed to run at maximum power by the end of the decade. This could bring Jet up to the coveted goal of the breakeven point – where fusion yields as much energy as it consumes.

This will hopefully pave the way for the next fusion experiment, Iter, which is being built in the south of France and will come online in the 2020s. Iter will aim to demonstrate the scientific feasibility of fusion as a power source on a scale that is useful and sustainable.


Genetically modified mosquitoes to be released in Brazil

Brazil has become the first country to approve the release into the wild of genetically modified mosquitoes in order to combat the spread of dengue fever, reported New Scientist.

The disease, which can be deadly, affects more than 50 million people worldwide every year. The biotech firm, Oxitec, in Oxford, UK, have genetically engineered males of the species Aedes aegypti so that their offspring die before reaching maturity. The idea is that if enough of the GM males mate successfully with females in the wild, the mosquito population would crash.

Field trials have already taken place in the Brazilian city of Jacobina, where Oxitec recorded a 79 per cent drop in the mosquito population between June and December last year.

The GM mosquitoes are also in the process of potentially being approved in the US by the Food and Drug Administration.


Computer malfunction on International Space Station is fixed

Two US astronauts based at the International Space Station (ISS) have completed a spacewalk at the station in order to replace a faulty computer, reported the Guardian.

Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson, both flight engineers at the ISS, replaced the computer on the central section of the station’s exterior power truss.

The computer failed on 11 April and was one of two devices that controlled several critical systems outside the station, including the rotation of the solar panel wings to track the Sun and the positioning of the robotic crane.

The replacement of the computer is “pretty straightforward”, explained Chris Cassidy, an astronaut and former ISS crewmember.

"We anticipate it to go quickly, but as with anything in space operations … you never know what's going to be thrown at you," Cassidy said.


And finally…

Mystery of the ocean quack is solved

For several decades, scientists have puzzled over what was producing a bizarre quacking sound that could be heard in the Southern Ocean during winter and spring.

And now scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe they have found the source.

It appears that the “bio-duck” noise is actually just the underwater chatter of the Antarctic Minke whale, reported the BBC.

Lead researcher Denise Risch, form the NOAA, said: "It was hard to find the source of the signal. Over the years there have been several suggestions... but no-one was able to really show this species was producing the sound until now."

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