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The week in science: 29 April–5 May 2016


New Mars missions shape up; Nobel laureate passes away; and a marten stops the world’s biggest science experiment.

Policy | Research | Events | People | Funding | Environment | Trend watch | Coming up


Animals challenge The European Commission has opened formal proceedings against Italy over how it has adopted the European Union directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes into its national law. Italian politicians had added a series of restrictions to prohibit the use of animals in research areas including addiction, and to forbid the use of non-human primates, dogs and cats in basic research. The law will come into effect in January 2017. The Italian government has two months to respond to the commission.

Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Parker (Southwest Res. Inst.)


New moon rises over Makemake Astronomers have discovered a minute moon around a distant world on the outskirts of the Solar System. Makemake, a 1,400-kilometre-wide dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, is the second-brightest object, after Pluto, orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Its lunar companion, at roughly 175 kilometres across, was nearly hidden in Makemake’s glare, but NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted it about 21,000 kilometres away from the dwarf planet, astronomers announced on 26 April. The research team, led by Alex Parker of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, observed the dark moon on only one day in April 2015, so its orbit remains to be established. Dubbed MK 2 for now, the moon will eventually receive a formal name from the International Astronomical Union.


Mission Mars SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, plans to send an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, the company announced on 27 April. It is the first time that SpaceX has attached a timeline to its long-standing goal of exploring the red planet. The mission would use a version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft — currently used to resupply the International Space Station — but modified with a new propulsion system to descend to the Martian surface. NASA plans to offer technical advice in exchange for data from this ‘Red Dragon’ mission.

Native bones The disputed skeletal remains of a prehistoric person known as Kennewick Man are Native American, the US government decided on 27 April. The US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision comes after researchers last year obtained a genome from the 8,500-year-old skeleton and concluded that it was more closely related to present-day Native Americans than to any other population (see Nature 522, 404–405; 2015). The decision paves the way for tribes in Washington state, where the bones were discovered in 1996 near the Columbia River, to seek the reburial of the remains. Until they do, Kennewick Man will remain in storage at a museum in Seattle. See page 7 for more.

Spaceport debut A Soyuz rocket blasted off on 28 April to become the first to launch from Russia’s newest spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. Vostochny is intended to reduce the country’s reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which Russia has leased from the Kazakh government since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The launch, attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin, carried three satellites into space. Among them was a research mission named Lomonosov, which will study space radiation, including cosmic rays, γ-ray bursts and ionizing events in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Mars delay The European Space Agency and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos will shift the launch of their planned ExoMars rover from 2018 to 2020, the organizations announced on 2 May. They blamed the move on delays in European and Russian industrial activities, as well as late deliveries of scientific payloads. The rover will look for signs of life on Mars, including by drilling as much as 2 metres below the Martian surface.

Marten shuts LHC The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has had its fair share of incidents, but an unlikely one occurred on 29 April, when a beech marten (Martes foina) managed to temporarily halt the world’s largest particle collider at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva in Switzerland. The animal jumped onto a transformer, creating a short circuit and cutting power to part of the collider. The LHC, unlike the marten, is predicted to recover from the incident.

Credit: Michael Scates/AP/Press Association Images


Harry Kroto dies British chemist Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, died on 30 April, aged 76. Fullerenes, elaborate spherical structures of carbon, were discovered in 1985 by Kroto (pictured) and colleagues including Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. The researchers named the football-shaped structures after the architect Buckminster Fuller, who designed a dome structure of the same shape. Buckyballs, as the molecules came to be known, are among chemistry’s most iconic structures, and are thought to populate interstellar space. Kroto was born Harold Walter Krotoschiner in Wisbech, UK, in 1939 to German parents who had fled the Nazis.

Airy discord A prominent French lung specialist could be facing prosecution for having allegedly misled the French Senate about his relationship with the oil industry. Michel Aubier, former head of pneumonology and allergology at the Bichat Hospital in Paris, has been a long-time medical adviser to the French oil company Total. In 2015, he testified on behalf of Paris public hospitals to a Senate commission of enquiry about the economic costs of air pollution. His declaration under oath that he had no ties with “economic actors” could appear misleading, the Senate said in a statement on 28 April. The Senate bureau has asked upper-house president Gérard Larcher to consider filing criminal charges with the public prosecutor against Aubier. Aubier declined to comment.


Cold comfort Plans unveiled in Australia last week to build a climate research centre in Tasmania offer little solace to many Australian climate scientists who are facing job losses. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) announced on 26 April that it will launch a centre for climate modelling and adaptation in Hobart. The institute, which will have guaranteed funding for a decade, is to employ 40 full-time researchers. But the agency said that it would still be ditching 275 jobs — down from 350 job cuts rumoured earlier this year — in its existing climate, ocean and atmosphere research divisions. See for more.


Fungal attack Asia’s first outbreak of a devastating wheat disease is caused by a pathogen that may have arrived from Brazil, a genome analysis released on 26 April suggests. Since February, farmers in Bangladesh have been battling wheat blast, which is caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae and has previously been seen only in the Americas (see Nature 532, 421–422; 2016). A team led by Daniel Croll, a microbial population geneticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, found that the Bangladeshi wheat-blast strain is closely related to those circulating in Brazil. Other Asian countries that import wheat from Brazil should watch out for the disease, the team says.

Iodine provision Growing concerns over the safety of Belgium’s nuclear reactors have prompted the country’s government to start supplying iodine pills to its entire population. Health minister Maggie De Block said on 28 April that current precautionary measures, which require pills to be given to residents within 20 kilometres of reactor sites, will be expanded to 100 kilometres, covering all of Belgium. Iodine pills help to prevent the thyroid gland taking up radioactive material during nuclear accidents. Belgium operates seven commercial nuclear reactors; authorities refused to shut down two of them after an independent German reactor-safety commission reported defects in their pressure vessels earlier in the month.

Credit: Source: US Natl Snow & Ice Data Center


The 2016 Nenana Ice Classic — a lottery to guess when ice in Alaska’s Tanana River will break up — ended at 3:39 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on 23 April, after an official tripod lodged in the ice floated 30 metres downstream. In 1917, railroad engineers started betting on when the ice would break up. Records suggest that the spring breakup happens roughly a week earlier than in 1917 owing to climate warming, says an analysis by Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.


6 May During a close fly-by of the night side of Saturn’s moon Titan, NASA’s Cassini probe has its only chance to measure the moon’s atmosphere while it is receiving minimum external energy.

9–13 May The European Space Agency hosts the Living Planet Symposium on Earth observation in Prague.

10–13 May The fourth international climate-change adaptation conference takes place in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

10–14 May At the 29th Biology of Genomes meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, scientists will discuss the role of DNA sequence variation in molecular evolution, population genetics and complex diseases.

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The week in science: 29 April–5 May 2016. Nature 533, 12–13 (2016).

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