By Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark September 16, 2013 – 04:14 PM
In the summer of 2010, a Middle Eastern businessman wanted to transfer a large sum of money from one country in the region to another. He wanted to send at least $50,000 (€37,500), and he had a very clear idea of how it should be done. The transaction could not be conducted via the United States, and the name of his bank would have to be kept secret -- those were his conditions.
Though the transfer was carried out precisely according to his instructions, it did not go unobserved. The transaction is listed in classified documents compiled by the US intelligence agency NSA that SPIEGEL has seen and that deal with the activities of the United States in the international financial sector. The documents show how comprehensively and effectively the intelligence agency can track global flows of money and store the information in a powerful database developed for this purpose.
"Follow the Money" is the name of the NSA branch that handles these matters. The name is reminiscent of the famous catchphrase by former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, the whistleblower known as "Deep Throat" who offered the information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate scandal in 1972.
Financial transfers are the "Achilles' heel" of terrorists, as NSA analysts note in an internal report. Additional fields of activity for their "financial intelligence" include tracking down illegal arms deliveries and keeping tabs on the increasingly lucrative domain of cybercrime. Tracing international flows of money could help reveal political crimes, expose acts of genocide and monitor whether sanctions are being respected.
Data Access vs. International Laws
"Money is the root of all evil," joke the intelligence agents. According to the classified documents, the spies' activities primarily focus on regions like Africa and the Middle East -- and their efforts often focus on targets that fall within their legal intelligence-gathering mandate. However, in the financial sector, just as in other areas, the NSA also relies on maximum data collection -- an approach that apparently leads to conflicts with national laws and international agreements.
Some members of the intelligence community even view spying in the global financial system with a certain amount of concern, as revealed by a document from the NSA's British counterpart -- the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) -- that deals with "financial data" from a legal perspective and examines the organization's own collaboration with the NSA. According to the document, the collection, storage and sharing of "politically sensitive" data is a highly invasive measure since it includes "bulk data -- rich personal information. A lot of it is not about our targets."
Indeed, secret documents reveal that the main NSA financial database Tracfin, which collects the "Follow the Money" surveillance results on bank transfers, credit card transactions and money transfers, already had 180 million datasets by 2011. The corresponding figure in 2008 was merely 20 million. According to these documents, most Tracfin data is stored for five years.
The classified documents show that the intelligence agency has several means of accessing the internal data traffic of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for their international transactions. The NSA specifically targets other institutes on an individual basis. Furthermore, the agency apparently has in-depth knowledge of the internal processes of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard. What's more, even new, alternative currencies, as well as presumably anonymous means of payment like the Internet currency Bitcoin, rank among the targets of the American spies.
The collected information often provides a complete picture of individuals, including their movements, contacts and communication behavior. The success stories mentioned by the intelligence agency include operations that resulted in banks in the Arab world being placed on the US Treasury's blacklist.
In one case, the NSA provided proof that a bank was involved in illegal arms trading -- in another case, a financial institution was providing support to an authoritarian African regime.
The most politically explosive revelations, though, concern the agency's secret access to the SWIFT networks. Following extensive debates, in 2010 the European Union signed the so-called SWIFT agreement with the US. From its headquarters in Belgium, SWIFT handles international transactions for banks and other financial institutions. For many years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US lobbied for access to this international financial data, which SWIFT virtually monopolizes worldwide.
An initial agreement failed in early 2010 after it was vetoed by the European Parliament. A few months later, a slightly watered-down SWIFT agreement was signed with the express approval of the German government.
EU Compromise Violated by US
NSA documents from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden now show that the compromise reached with the EU is apparently being circumvented by the US. A document from the year 2011 clearly designates the SWIFT computer network as a "target." The secret data collection also involves the NSA department for "tailored access operations."
According to the documents, one of the various means of accessing the SWIFT information has existed since 2006. Since then, it has been possible to read the "SWIFT printer traffic from numerous banks."
In the wake of revelations that the NSA bugged the EU embassies in New York and Washington, the attack on SWIFT could be the next major stress test for relations between the US government and the European Union. The NSA failed to comment on the latest allegations before SPIEGEL's printing deadline on Friday.
Late last week, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said that the Americans should "immediately and precisely tell us what has happened, and put all the cards on the table." If it's true "that they share information with other agencies for purposes other than those outlined in the agreement … we will have to consider ending the agreement," the Swede said after Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo first reported on the attack on SWIFT on Sept. 8.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party representative in the European Parliament, spoke of an "open breach of law." Four out of seven factions in the European Parliament have joined the growing number of calls to suspend the agreement.
The conflict is also particularly sensitive because the documents reveal the close involvement of the US Treasury in selecting the program's spying targets. Indeed, according to the documents, there is an exchange of personnel in which NSA analysts are transferred for a number of months to the relevant department in the US Treasury.
The revelations of spying on credit card transactions are also incendiary. Under the codename "Dishfire," the intelligence agency collects information on credit card transactions from some 70 banks worldwide, most of them in crisis-ridden countries, including banks in Italy, Spain and Greece. The Americans also take advantage of the fact that many banks use text messages to inform their customers of transactions. The Dishfire program has been running since spring 2009.
The documents also show that the intelligence agency targets large credit card companies, such as the US company Visa. At an internal conference in 2010, for instance, NSA analysts provided an extensive and detailed description of how they searched for possible points of access in the complex network that Visa uses to process its transactions -- and were allegedly successful in penetrating the company's network.
During the presentation, the analysts said that the target was the transactions of Visa customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, adding that the idea was to "collect, parse and ingest transactional data for priority credit card associations." One slide depicts in detail how the authorization process for each transaction works, starting with a credit card reader in a store, continuing via the bank and a data processor, and finally reaching the credit card company itself. A subsequent chart points to possible "collection access points."
When contacted by SPIEGEL, a spokeswoman for Visa responded, "Visa Inc. does not have a processing facility in the Middle East or the UK." In addition, she stated, "We are not aware of any unauthorized access into our network. Visa takes data security seriously and, in response to any attemption intrusion, we would pursue all available remedies to the fullest extent of the law. Further, it's Visa's policy to only provide transaction information in response to a subpoena or other valid legal process."
Nevertheless, Visa data from the Middle East apparently ends up in the NSA database. The XKeyscore spying program is used to skim regional data from the Visa network, according to a document.
A Wide Range of Credit Card Companies
The agency's snooping efforts now focus on more than one provider. According to another document, transaction data from a wide range of credit card companies flows into the NSA financial database Tracfin. This allegedly includes data from payment authorization processes by Visa and MasterCard. All in all, "credit card data" and related text messages made up 84 percent of the datasets within Tracfin in September 2011.
MasterCard did not comment by SPIEGEL's printing deadline.
Supreme Court Weighs When Online Speech Becomes an Illegal Threat
By David Kravets 09.17.13 6:30 AM
The Supreme Court is being asked to decide when an online threat becomes worthy of prosecution, in what could be the first internet speech case to reach the high court’s docket for the 2013-2104 term beginning next month.
The justices are weighing whether to review the prosecution of an Iraq war veteran handed 18 months (.pdf) in prison for singing in a 2010 YouTube video that he would kill a local Tennessee judge if the judge did not grant him visitation rights to his young daughter.
“We think its potentially quite a significant case. People say things in the online world that they don’t mean seriously,” said the veteran’s attorney, Chris Rothfeld. “Second, it’s difficult to tell in the online world how a statement is intended. People say things and write things and they are read in an entirely different context.”
The case comes at a time when it has become routine for adults and juveniles to be prosecuted in federal and state court for their threatening online speech.
Rothfeld maintains that the federal threats law — which dates to a 1932 statute making extortion illegal and applies to the offline world as well — is unconstitutional. A felony conviction, he said, is based on whether a “reasonable person” would believe the threatening statement was made with the intent to inflict bodily injury and was uttered to achieve some goal through intimidation.
Rothfeld argues that what should matter is whether the person making the threat was serious, not whether a “reasonable person” would conclude he or she was.
“Whose state of mind do you look at? We say you must look at the state of the mind of the speaker,” he said.
In his eight-minute YouTube video, defendant Franklin Jeffries strummed a guitar while singing a song of revenge.
“And when I come to court this better be the last time. I’m not kidding at all, I’m making this video public. ‘Cause if I have to kill a judge or a lawyer or a woman I don’t care,” Jeffries chants on the video.
“Take my child and I’ll take your life,” the song continues.
Rofthfeld said his client was an Iraq war veteran suffering post traumatic stress disorder and never intended to carry out his words.
“He was encouraged by psychologists to vent in song,” he said.
Of eight circuit courts of appeal to decide the issue, only the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has chosen to view the law the in line with Rothfeld’s interpretation. When there is a split in circuits, that’s usually when the high court intervenes to assure conformity across the country.
“Although some disagreement exists among the courts of appeals on the question whether proof of a true threat requires proof of a subjective intent to threaten, review of that question is not warranted because the circuit split is shallow and may resolve itself without this Court’s intervention and because any error was harmless,” the government wrote the justices while urging them to reject the case.
The justices are to meet in private September 30 to discuss whether they will review the case.
The Obama administration argued in a brief to the justices that the law is designed to protect individuals from fearing violence, regardless of whether the person who made the threat actually meant it.
The Solicitor General’s office wrote, “requiring proof of a subjective intent to threaten would undermine one of the central purposes of prohibiting threats.”
By Dennis Wagner The Republic Mon Sep 16, 2013 10:15 PM
Mexican police in Sinaloa reportedly have arrested a third suspect wanted by the FBI in the 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Ivan Soto-Barraza was among five bandits involved in a shootout with elite BORTAC agents who were patrolling an area near Nogales, Ariz., in search of drug ripoff crews on Dec. 14, 2010, according to a federal grand-jury indictment. Prosecutors allege the gunmen entered the country illegally in a conspiracy to ambush marijuana smugglers and steal their loads under cover of darkness, but ran into the Border Patrol agents instead.
The incident sparked a national controversy when whistle-blowers disclosed that two assault-type rifles discovered at the scene were part of a Phoenix-based gun-running investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The probe, known as Operation Fast and Furious, allowed weapons to be acquired by straw buyers, purportedly so that agents could trace the smuggling to crime bosses in Mexico.
Instead, hundreds of guns wound up going south, into the hands of criminals, with virtually no tracking.
The ensuing scandal led to a condemnation of Fast and Furious by President Barack Obama and the resignation of Dennis Burke, former U.S. attorney for Arizona. Bill Newell, then Arizona’s ATF special agent in charge, was reassigned, and others involved were disciplined as Republican congressional investigators sought to hold Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder accountable.
Meanwhile, the FBI issued a reward of $1 million for information leading to the arrests of five suspects, all of them Mexican nationals, on charges of murder, assault, attempted robbery and weapons violations.
A Mexican newspaper, El Economista, reported that Soto-Barraza was captured Wednesday near the city of El Fuerte in an operation that involved Interpol and the FBI, as well as Mexican state and federal police.
Manuel Johnson, an FBI spokesman in Phoenix, declined comment. David Gonzales, U.S. marshal for Arizona, said Mexican citizens wanted on criminal charges in the United States typically resist extradition proceedings.
“It could be a while before he’s on U.S. soil,” Gonzales said.
Two suspects, Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga and Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes, remain at large, while two others were previously taken into custody:
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, brother of Heraclio, was wounded during the shootout and captured at the scene. He pleaded guilty to murder under an agreement that eliminates the death penalty, and is scheduled for federal court sentencing in December.
Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza — also known as Lionel Portillo-Meza — was arrested in September 2012 in Rocky Point. Extradition is pending.
Sep. 16, 2013 — Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over where human imagination comes from. In other words, what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?
Eleven areas of the brain are showing differential activity levels in a Dartmouth study using functional MRI to measure how humans manipulate mental imagery. (Credit: Alex Schlegel)
The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network -- the brain's "mental workspace" -- that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.
Their findings, titled "Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace," appear the week of Sept. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively," says lead author Alex Schlegel , a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."
Scholars theorize that human imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain, but evidence for such a "mental workspace" has been difficult to produce with techniques that mainly study brain activity in isolation. Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? For instance, imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull, a seemingly effortless task but one that requires the brain to construct a totally new image and make it appear in our mind's eye.
In the study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants' brain activity with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. The network closely resembles the "mental workspace" that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved.
Skinwalker Ranch Paranormal Thriller Abducts Your Attention With First Clip And Poster
Date: Sep 17, 2013 Author: Nick Venable Category: Sci-Fi
Move over, Area 51! Now that the obviousness of your existence has been acknowledged by the U.S. government, you’re old hat. Your conspiracy-laden little brother, Skinwalker Ranch, is on the up-and-up, and now it’s getting its first truly in-depth documentary. Well, actually, Skinwalker Ranch is a found-footage paranormal thriller, but isn’t that all documentaries are these days? No? You mean Blackfish was real? (Scream!) Anyway, we’re bringing you the Skinwalker Ranch theatrical poster, seen above, as well as the first clip that’s been released, seen below. A lot of people are going to whinge about yet another low-budget, found-footage thriller rearing its paranormal head, but I’m always partial to this sub-genre. I’m a cheap thrills sorta guy.
Utah-based production company Deep Studios picked up the rights to Skinwalker Ranch, the directorial debut from actor Devin McGinn a few weeks ago, and it’ll be coming to both theaters and VOD just in time for Halloween on October 30, with a DVD release soon to follow. It makes that skin-walker costume you sewed yourself seem that much more relevant now. Though you might want to hide those bodies. I’m really into the look of this poster, which seems to show a giant spaceship hovering over a small boy standing in a field. Maybe it’s just a weather balloon.
For those unfamiliar, the “real” Skinwalker Ranch (which has nothing to do with George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, unfortunately) is an area near Ballard, Utah where many reports of cattle mutilation, UFOs, and other strange phenomena have been reported for years. It’s located next to the Ute Indian Reservation, and skin-walkers have long been the talk of Native American legend, so you can see how the connections are made. Or not really. The land was acquired by the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDSci), who spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to prove anecdotal evidence to be true.
McGinn’s film will follow the events surrounding the disappearance of Cody Miller, who vanished into thin air on November 11, 2010. A year later, experts from the Modern Defense Enterprises (MDE) take over, documenting and investigating the area, where the mysterious events get more frequent and more violent. The team of experts are then faced with the decision of whether to continue trying to get to the source of the phenomena, or to pack up and leave. If they still can…
I’m always more intrigued by found-footage films that actually use found footage, rather than just having someone hold a camera to document everything 24/7. I assume that’s what the rest of this movie will be, but the home video approach shown here is a nice touch. After watching the absolute crap that was Area 407, my hopes for this film are skyrocketed in comparison.
While we can’t speak for McGinn’s directorial skills just yet, he was the screenwriter for Henry Saine’s 2009 horror comedy The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, for which the story was quite good, even if the acting and direction were rather shoddy. But Skinwalker Ranch was written by first-timer Adam Ohler, so Last Lovecraft isn’t even a relevant example of McGinn’s work.
A Mad Scientist Designing Organs That Could Give You Superpowers
By Joseph Flaherty 09.18.13 6:30 AM
Acquiring a superpower usually requires a bite from a radioactive insect, an uncomfortable dose of cosmic radiation, or the discovery of extraterrestrial parentage, but scientist Michael McAlpine hopes to make the process as simple as purchasing aspirin at the pharmacy. So far, he’s invented a “tattoo” for teeth that can detect cavities—not exactly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters—although his latest project, a 3-D printed bionic ear that enables superhuman hearing, could be.
McAlpine earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard and now is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, where he leads a nine-person research group. “I was corrupted to being more of an engineer than a scientist,” says McAlpine. “I like to do stuff that’s a little more applied.”
His first papers in 2003 focused on putting silicon nanowires on flexible substrates. It was an astonishing technical achievement for his time, but unfortunately it came at a point when iPods could only be controlled through a click wheel and Mark Zuckerberg was getting ready for his senior prom. Despite its scientific importance, the market wasn’t ready and McAlpine started looking for other research topics, when he asked, “Instead of trying to put nanowires on plastic substrates, why not put them on the body?”
His latest project, a synthetic ear made with a 3-D bioprinter, is a realization of that vision. The complex biomechanical structure was fabricated by depositing live cells and conductive silver in layers. It started as an exploration of material properties, but commercial applications started to appear rapidly. He discovered that cochlear implants, a leading treatment for those with some hearing impairment, are made by hand in a slow and laborious process with costs to match.
But McAlpine’s vision is much bigger than simply automating a manual process—he wants to create superhumans. “Repairing lost hearing is an incredibly noble goal,” says McAlpine, “but what we made was a coil it receives electromagnetic signals and formed a direct connection with your brain.” A phone-brain interface sounds uncanny, but according to McAlpine it’s just optimizing the existing process. Tiny hairs in our ears interpret audio signals and transform them into electrical signals that can be decoded by the brain. McAlpine’s innovation cuts out the acoustical middle man and pumps the electronic signal right into your medula and brings us one step closer to a world where we can learn kung fu by plugging into a computer.
“We evolved in a world where we needed to hear lions,” he says. “But today it makes sense for one of our senses to talk directly to our brain, electrically.” It would also give us the ability to hear outside of our normal 20-20,000hz spectrum, giving us the ability to hear what bats or dolphins hear.
Why the ear? “The ear was a great proof of concept for combining biological and electrical,” says McAlpine. “It’s one of the simpler organs with no vasculature, it’s pure cartilage.” McAlpine sees this successful experiment as the first of many upgradeable body parts. “What I’m most excited about is using these 3-D printers, interwoven with advances in material science, and adding biology to them—not just taking the ear to the next level.”
Despite his desire to create more superheros than Stan Lee, McAlpine isn’t inspired by sci-fi, citing origami and music as bigger influences. “I have to be honest, I was never ever one of those people that watched Star Trek or Star Wars,” he says. “I was a musician, I went to the same high school as John Mayer and we’d play at the same venue. He was much better.” John Mayer might have sung about your body being a wonderland, but McAlpine is making it a reality.
A decade ago, McAlpine was developing electronics that could function on flexible substrates, but no one saw a commercial application. Today, rumors of smart watches featuring advanced circuits won’t stop. Now, he’s betting the next big wave of consumer electronics will bring us even closer to our smartphones and tablets. “It will just be considered normal that you have electronics embedded in your body,” he says. “You won’t think its weird that a door will just open up as you walk towards it. We will become cyborgs and it will be seen as just a normal thing.”
Fears of stirring up stock market killed water plan early in crisis
JIJI, Kyodo 18 September 2013
Tokyo Electric Power Co. initially put off a plan to create frozen-soil groundwater shields at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant after being cowed by the cost, a former senior government official revealed Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the government vowed to spend ¥32 billion on building underground walls by freezing soil around the reactor buildings to prevent groundwater from seeping into the basement levels.
Tepco was initially scheduled to announce the water shielding plan on June 14, 2011, about three months after the nuclear crisis started, Sumio Mabuchi, a senior member of the Democratic Party of Japan, said at a party meeting.
As an aide to Naoto Kan, prime minister during the early stages of the unprecedented emergency, Mabuchi was put in charge of the water shielding plan at the time.
Tepco asked then industry minister Banri Kaieda, currently leader of the DPJ, to postpone the announcement as the utility was concerned about how the stocks market would react to the ¥100 billion or so in funds it would require, Mabuchi said.
The government agreed to put off the announcement to avoid disrupting the market, Mabuchi explained.
Mabuchi said he obtained then-Tepco Executive Vice President Sakae Muto’s confirmation that the utility would proceed with the water shielding plan without delay.
At the DPJ meeting Wednesday, however, Junichi Matsumoto, a senior Tepco official, denied there was confirmation by Muto.
At the end of May, a government panel adopted the project as the best way to reduce radioactive groundwater at the plant. Industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi told Tepco to go ahead with the project, which involves building a 1.4-km barrier of frozen soil by sinking cooling pipes around reactor buildings 1 to 4.
It will be the first state funds injection aimed at helping Tepco prevent the groundwater from mixing with radioactive water leaking from the reactor buildings.
BY AMY LAVALLEY Post-Tribune correspondent September 17, 2013 4:04PM
“A significant number of incidents have occurred recently in Indiana. The Mutual UFO Network has been investigating these for decades,” according to the organization’s website, www.indianamufon.com.
The Mutual UFO Network of Indiana will hold its state meeting at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Valparaiso Public Library, 103 Jefferson St.
Featured speakers include state director Stewart Hill and section directors David Henninger and Patrick Harbron. Their presentation includes information on Indiana cases and interesting investigations; science and UFOs; UFOs and MUFON history; and a question and answer session.
According to a database page on the site, Porter County has had one reported UFO sighting so far this year, in Chesterton, and had eight last year throughout the county.
NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration
By Dave Mosher 09.19.13
In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left Earth on a four-year mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Thirty-six years later, the car-size probe is still exploring, still sending its findings home. It has now put more than 19 billion kilometers between itself and the sun. Last week NASA announced that Voyager 1 had become the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.
The distance this craft has covered is almost incomprehensible. It’s so far away that it takes more than 17 hours for its signals to reach Earth. Along the way, Voyager 1 gave scientists their first close-up looks at Saturn, took the first images of Jupiter’s rings, discovered many of the moons circling those planets and revealed that Jupiter’s moon Io has active volcanoes. Now the spacecraft is discovering what the edge of the solar system is like, piercing the heliosheath where the last vestiges of the sun’s influence are felt and traversing the heliopause where cosmic currents overcome the solar wind. Voyager 1 is expected to keep working until 2025 when it will finally run out of power.
None of this would be possible without the spacecraft’s three batteries filled with plutonium-238. In fact, Most of what humanity knows about the outer planets came back to Earth on plutonium power. Cassini’s ongoing exploration of Saturn, Galileo’s trip to Jupiter, Curiosity’s exploration of the surface of Mars, and the 2015 flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft are all fueled by the stuff. The characteristics of this metal’s radioactive decay make it a super-fuel. More importantly, there is no other viable option. Solar power is too weak, chemical batteries don’t last, nuclear fission systems are too heavy. So, we depend on plutonium-238, a fuel largely acquired as by-product of making nuclear weapons.
But there’s a problem: We’ve almost run out.
“We’ve got enough to last to the end of this decade. That’s it,” said Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory. And it’s not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet’s stores are nearly depleted.
The country’s scientific stockpile has dwindled to around 36 pounds. To put that in perspective, the battery that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently studying the surface of Mars, contains roughly 10 pounds of plutonium, and what’s left has already been spoken for and then some. The implications for space exploration are dire: No more plutonium-238 means not exploring perhaps 99 percent of the solar system. In effect, much of NASA’s $1.5 billion-a-year (and shrinking) planetary science program is running out of time. The nuclear crisis is so bad that affected researchers know it simply as “The Problem.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The required materials, reactors, and infrastructure are all in place to create plutonium-238. In fact, the U.S. government recently approved spending about $10 million a year to reconstitute production capabilities the nation shuttered almost two decades ago. In March, the DOE even produced a tiny amount of fresh plutonium inside a nuclear reactor in Tennessee.
It’s a good start, but the crisis is far from solved. Political ignorance and shortsighted squabbling, along with false promises from Russia, and penny-wise management of NASA’s ever-thinning budget still stand in the way of a robust plutonium-238 production system. The result: Meaningful exploration of the solar system has been pushed to a cliff’s edge. One ambitious space mission could deplete remaining plutonium stockpiles, and any hiccup in a future supply chain could undermine future missions.
The only natural supplies of plutonium-238 vanished eons before the Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Exploding stars forge the silvery metal, but its half-life, or time required for 50 percent to disappear through decay, is just under 88 years.
Fortunately, we figured out how to produce it ourselves — and to harness it to create a remarkably persistent source of energy. Like other radioactive materials, plutonium-238 decays because its atomic structure is unstable. When an atom’s nucleus spontaneously ejects an electron, it leaves behind a uranium atom while firing off a helium core at high speed. These helium bullets, called alpha radiation, collide en masse with nearby atoms within a lump of plutonium — a material twice as dense as lead. The energy can cook a puck of plutonium-238 to nearly 1,260 degrees Celsius. To turn that into usable power, you wrap the puck with thermoelectrics that convert heat to electricity. Voila: You’ve got a battery that can power a spacecraft for decades.
“It’s like a magic isotope. It’s just right,” said Jim Adams, NASA’s deputy chief technologist and former deputy director of the space agency’s planetary science division.
U.S. production came primarily from two nuclear laboratories that created plutonium-238 as a byproduct of making bomb-grade plutonium-239. The Hanford Site in Washington state left the plutonium-238 mixed into a cocktail of nuclear wastes. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina, however, extracted and refined more than 360 pounds during the Cold War to power espionage tools, spy satellites, and dozens of NASA’s pluckiest spacecraft.
By 1988, with the Iron Curtain full of holes, the U.S. and Russia began to dismantle wartime nuclear facilities. Hanford and Savannah River no longer produced any plutonium-238. But Russia continued to harvest the material by processing nuclear reactor fuel at a nuclear industrial complex called Mayak. The Russians sold their first batch, weighing 36 pounds, to the U.S. in 1993 for more than $45,000 per ounce. Russia had become the planet’s sole supplier, but it soon fell behind on orders. In 2009, it reneged on a deal to sell 22 pounds to the U.S.
Whether or not Russia has any material left or can still create some is uncertain. “What we do know is that they’re not willing to sell it anymore,” said Alan Newhouse, a retired nuclear space consultant who spearheaded the first purchase of Russian plutonium-238. “One story I’ve heard … is that they don’t have anything left to sell.”
By 2005, according a Department of Energy report (.pdf), the U.S. government owned 87 pounds, of which roughly two-thirds was designated for national security projects, likely to power deep-sea espionage hardware. The DOE would not disclose to WIRED what is left today, but scientists close to the issue say just 36 pounds remain earmarked for NASA.
That’s enough for the space agency to launch a few small deep-space missions before 2020. A twin of the Curiosity rover is planned to lift off for Mars in 2020 and will require nearly a third of the stockpile. After that, NASA’s interstellar exploration program is left staring into a void — especially for high-profile, plutonium-hungry missions, like the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter. To seek signs of life around Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, such a spacecraft could require more than 47 pounds of plutonium.
“The supply situation is already impacting mission planning,” said Alice Caponiti, a nuclear engineer who leads the DOE’s efforts to restart plutonium-238 production. “If you’re planning a mission that’s going to take eight years to plan, the first thing you’re going to want to know is if you have power.”
Many of the eight deep-space robotic missions that NASA had envisioned over the next 15 years have already been delayed or canceled. Even more missions — some not yet even formally proposed — are silent casualties of NASA’s plutonium poverty. Since 1994, scientists have pleaded with lawmakers for the money to restart production. The DOE believes a relatively modest $10 to 20 million in funding each year through 2020 could yield an operation capable of making between 3.3 and 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually — plenty to keep a steady stream of spacecraft in business.
Earth Expected to Be Habitable for Another 1.75 Billion Years
Sep. 18, 2013 — Habitable conditions on Earth will be possible for at least another 1.75 billion years - according to astrobiologists at the University of East Anglia.
Findings published today in the journal Astrobiology reveal the habitable lifetime of planet Earth - based on our distance from the sun and temperatures at which it is possible for the planet to have liquid water.
The research team looked to the stars for inspiration. Using recently discovered planets outside our solar system (exoplanets) as examples, they investigated the potential for these planets to host life.
The research was led by Andrew Rushby, from UEA's school of Environmental Sciences. He said: "We used the 'habitable zone' concept to make these estimates - this is the distance from a planet's star at which temperatures are conducive to having liquid water on the surface."
"We used stellar evolution models to estimate the end of a planet's habitable lifetime by determining when it will no longer be in the habitable zone. We estimate that Earth will cease to be habitable somewhere between 1.75 and 3.25 billion years from now. After this point, Earth will be in the 'hot zone' of the sun, with temperatures so high that the seas would evaporate. We would see a catastrophic and terminal extinction event for all life.
"Of course conditions for humans and other complex life will become impossible much sooner - and this is being accelerated by anthropogenic climate change. Humans would be in trouble with even a small increase in temperature, and near the end only microbes in niche environments would be able to endure the heat.
"Looking back a similar amount of time, we know that there was cellular life on earth. We had insects 400 million years ago, dinosaurs 300 million years ago and flowering plants 130 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans have only been around for the last 200,000 years - so you can see it takes a really long time for intelligent life to develop.
"The amount of habitable time on a planet is very important because it tells us about the potential for the evolution of complex life - which is likely to require a longer period of habitable conditions.
"Looking at habitability metrics is useful because it allows us to investigate the potential for other planets to host life, and understand the stage that life may be at elsewhere in the galaxy.
"Of course, much of evolution is down to luck, so this isn't concrete, but we know that complex, intelligent species like humans could not emerge after only a few million years because it took us 75 per cent of the entire habitable lifetime of this planet to evolve. We think it will probably be a similar story elsewhere."
Almost 1,000 planets outside our solar system have been identified by astronomers. The research team looked at some of these as examples, and studied the evolving nature of planetary habitability over astronomical and geological time.
"Interestingly, not many other predictions based on the habitable zone alone were available, which is why we decided to work on a method for this. Other scientists have used complex models to make estimates for the Earth alone, but these are not suitable for applying to other planets.
"We compared Earth to eight planets which are currently in their habitable phase, including Mars. We found that planets orbiting smaller mass stars tend to have longer habitable zone lifetimes.
"One of the planets that we applied our model to is Kepler 22b, which has a habitable lifetime of 4.3 to 6.1 billion years. Even more surprising is Gliese 581d which has a massive habitable lifetime of between 42.4 to 54.7 billion years. This planet may be warm and pleasant for 10 times the entire time that our solar system has existed!
"To date, no true Earth analogue planet has been detected. But it is possible that there will be a habitable, Earth-like planet within 10 light-years, which is very close in astronomical terms. However reaching it would take hundreds of thousands of years with our current technology.
"If we ever needed to move to another planet, Mars is probably our best bet. It's very close and will remain in the habitable zone until the end of the Sun's lifetime -- six billion years from now."