Distant neutron star produces huge flare
A massive burst of energy exploded from a far-off neutron star in December, the brightest flash of light ever detected from beyond the solar system that packed more energy than the sun emits every 150,000 years, scientists said Friday.
The Dec. 27 flare was by far the largest of three such giant outbursts of gamma rays detected in the last 35 years from neutron stars, the densely packed and supercharged remnants of a collapsed star.
The energy burst was not visible to humans and the gamma rays were blocked by the Earth's atmosphere as they rushed by. Scientists said some operators of low-frequency transmitters were able to detect it.
NASA's new observatory -- named Swift for its speedy pivoting and pointing -- is among the instruments that detected the flare. It was launched in November to probe the workings of black holes.
The satellite, controlled by scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, is designed to detect gamma ray outbursts and quickly pivot to record them. It also recorded the blast's afterglow.
EPA sets exposure limit for rocket fuel pollutant
The government Friday issued its first safety standard for perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel and explosives and blamed for widespread contamination of drinking water near military sites.
The Environmental Protection Agency's new limit for what it considers a safe exposure level will be used in guiding Superfund cleanups and determining whether the agency should go a step further and regulate perchlorate as a drinking water contaminant.
The limit, which translates to 24.5 parts per billion in drinking water, is the same level recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in January but higher than what EPA proposed two years ago.
Perchlorate is a chemical found in nature, but the academy said its presence in the environment is mainly from its use in rocket fuels, fireworks and explosives. It has been linked to thyroid ailments, and is considered particularly dangerous to children.
Abu Ghraib soldier now faces reduced charges
Prosecutors have filed a new and reduced set of charges against Army Pfc. Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, cutting by more than half the sentence she could face if convicted of mistreating Iraqi detainees.
The 22-year-old Army reservist who was photographed grinning in pictures of Iraqis in sexually humiliating positions was initially charged with 19 counts of abuse and indecent acts. Those charges could have put her behind bars for 38 years.
But prosecutors at Fort Hood, Texas, where England's case has been sent for trial, submitted nine counts to the military court last week that together carry up to 16 1/2 years in prison, her legal team said Friday.
Prosecutors would not explain why so many counts were dropped.
The next step in her case at Fort Hood is a yet-to-be-scheduled Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand jury proceeding.
Judge wins $2.1 million in newspaper libel case
A jury Friday ordered the Boston Herald to pay $2.1 million for libeling a Superior Court judge, saying it misquoted him as telling lawyers that a 14-year-old rape victim should "get over it."
A jury deliberated for more than 20 hours over five days before finding that the newspaper and reporter David Wedge libeled Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy in articles that portrayed him as lenient toward defendants.
Murphy claimed Wedge misquoted him as telling lawyers involved in the case about the teenage rape victim: "Tell her to get over it."
The quote was included in a February 2002 series of Herald articles that said Murphy had been criticized by prosecutors for lenient sentences, including eight years' probation for a 17-year-old convicted of two rapes and an armed robbery.
Murphy, 61, sued the Herald and its writers, claiming his comments about the 14-year-old, made in a closed-door meeting with lawyers, were misquoted and taken out of context.
The newspaper continued to stand by its reporting, saying it will appeal.
E-mail scams prey on U.S. soldiers' families
Federal authorities are investigating two e-mail scams, including one targeting families of soldiers killed in Iraq, that claim to be connected to the Homeland Security Department.
The scams "are among the worst we have ever encountered," Michael J. Garcia, director of the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, said Friday.
Both of the online pleas for help -- and money -- link themselves to the bureau.
In one scheme, e-mail sent to families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq include a link to the bureau's Web site. The e-mail seeks to recover money from a friend of the slain soldier.
In the other, the e-mail identifies itself as being sent by a federal agent trying to track down funds looted from the Iraqi Central Bank by Saddam Hussein's son. The e-mail also links to the bureau Web site and asks for confirmation of the recipient's address by urging, "There is a very important and confidential matter which I want us both to discuss."
Garcia called both e-mail campaigns "bogus" and urged people to ignore and delete them.
Police seek suspect in series of rapes
Police searched Friday for a convicted rapist suspected in the recent sexual assaults on five women and girls, saying he apparently slipped through the hands of suburban officers in November after confessing to an attack on a boy.
Brent J. Brents, 35, is suspected in the knifepoint attacks that happened earlier this month, including attacks on two 11-year-old sisters and their 67-year-old grandmother. Women aged 29 and 44 also were attacked in separate incidents, according to an arrest warrant filed Friday in federal court.
Police Chief Gerry Whitman said Brents was linked by DNA evidence to the string of rapes in Denver. He is also a suspect in an October sexual assault. In addition, police learned he was wanted by authorities in neighboring Aurora on charges of inappropriately touching a former girlfriend's 8-year-old son.
GOP launches effort for Social Security plan
Republican leaders in Congress, faced with the stark political reality that there is little grassroots momentum behind President Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security, are planning to spread across the country next week to try to build a constituency for change -- and to take a watchful measure of voters' response.
GOP leaders are encouraging rank-and-file members to hold town hall meetings in their home states and districts during next week's congressional recess.
The president wants to allow workers under age 55 to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. Bush has cast the accounts as part of a broader, and still-emerging, plan to shore up the shaky finances of Social Security.
It is a problem that is getting worse, not better, according to a recent national survey. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that the share of people who support private accounts has dropped from 46 percent to 40 percent in the weeks since Bush started barnstorming the country to promote the idea.