Locusts land on a sand dune in Negev Desert, southern Israel, near the border with Egypt, March 5. A swarm of locusts crossed into Israel from neighboring Egypt Monday, raising fears that Israel could be hit with a biblical plague ahead of the Passover holiday. Israel sent out planes to spray pesticides over agricultural fields to prevent damage by the small swarm of about 2,000 locusts, said Dafna Yurista, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Ministry. The ministry also set up an emergency hotline and asked Israelis to be vigilant in reporting locust sightings.
Scientists can learn a lot about the locusts swarming over Egypt and Israel just by looking at the pictures. Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, is based hundreds of miles away in Rome — but he can tell that these particular bugs may be on their last legs.
"The few good pics I have seen of the locusts show that they are a brick red rather than pinkish," Cressman told NBC News in an email. "Both colors indicate they are immature adults, but the dark color suggests they are old and tired rather than young and hungry. Hence, the infestations arriving in northeast Egypt and Israel will probably come to nothing." That's the good news. The bad news is that other locust swarms could pose a more serious threat to the region's agriculture later this year. To get the details, check out the full story in Cosmic Log.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
A Palestinian farmer displays locusts at a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, March 5. Palestinian officials said locusts had not hit Gaza in several decades and numbers of locusts that reached Gaza on Tuesday were small but the Agriculture Ministry said they have taken all necessary steps to fight it if larger numbers hit the Gaza Strip.
Amir Cohen / Reuters
A swarm of locusts fly near Kmehin in Israel's Negev desert.
Ariel Schalit / AP
A locust on a sand dune in Negev Desert, southern Israel.
Experts estimate that a swarm of 30 million locusts in Egypt will cause severe crop damage. The correlation to the plague of locusts in the Bible has the Internet buzzing.
"Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" puts a fresh spin on the 10-year-old story, turning the tragic loss of Columbia and its crew into an uplifting tale of the human spirit. How does the hourlong TV documentary, premiering Thursday night on PBS stations, pull that off? By focusing on one of the Columbia tragedy's casualties, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon — and his connections to an even bigger tragedy, the Nazi Holocaust.
The tale's crucial pivot point is a miniature Jewish Torah scroll that was treasured by a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany: Ramon brought the scroll with him on the ill-fated mission, as a symbol of endurance. Even though the scroll was lost in the Columbia's catastrophic breakup in the skies over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, its symbolism endures, thanks to "Mission of Hope."
"The film is not about the Columbia accident," director Daniel Cohen told NBC News. "The film is about a journey of hope. When I first started making the film, I thought I was making a documentary about the Holocaust. Then I peeled back the top layers and started to look inside, and I said, 'Wait a minute — there's a lot going on inside the story.'"
Let's start with the sacred scroll: During a death-camp bar mitzvah, the scroll was given to a teenager named Joachim "Yoya" Joseph at Bergen-Belsen by the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, a fellow prisoner at the camp. The rabbi didn't survive, but Joseph did, and the Torah held a place of honor in Joseph's office when he grew up to become an Israeli space scientist.
Ramon, a decorated Israeli combat pilot, also had a Holocaust connection. His mother was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. But his connection with Joseph came in a different context: After Ramon's selection to be Israel's first astronaut, he worked with Joseph on an experiment to analyze the distribution of airborne dust over the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. Ramon noticed the scroll in Joseph's office, and asked if he could take it with him on his spaceflight.
Joseph's experiment flew on Columbia — and so did his scroll. During one of the mission's downlinks, Ramon showed off the palm-sized treasure and told Joseph's story. "This Torah scroll was given by a rabbi to a young, scared, thin, 13-year-old boy in Bergen-Belsen," Ramon said. "It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. It represents their ability to go from black days, from periods of darkness, to reach periods of hope and faith in the future."
West Street Productions / Herzog
A scene from "Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" shows Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon walking to Columbia's launch-pad entryway.
NASA via West Street / Herzog
Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon holds up a miniature Torah scroll during Columbia's final mission in 2003, as fellow astronaut Laurel Clark and mission commander Rick Husband look on.
Unfortunately, Feb. 1, 2003, was a black day. The shuttle broke up into pieces during its descent, killing Ramon and the rest of Columbia's crew: Rick Husband, William McCool, Mike Anderson, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and David Brown. Investigators determined that a piece of foam insulation that flew off Columbia's fuel tank did undetected damage to the leading edge of Columbia's left wing during launch. Sixteen days after liftoff, as the mission was ending, the hot gases of atmospheric re-entry blasted through the breach and destroyed the shuttle from the inside.
Ramon's remains were recovered and returned to Israel. Searchers even recovered the diary that he kept during the flight. But Joseph's little Torah scroll was never found. Cohen, a self-avowed space nut, said he followed the Columbia coverage closely — and took notice of a news item "buried in the back of the newspaper about this little Torah scroll that Ilan carried with him."
"I thought, wow, what a powerful new way to tell a Holocaust story to a new generation," Cohen said. He got in touch with Joseph, and over the course of several years, the filmmaker pieced together the story.
Joseph appears in the movie, although he passed away during post-production and never saw the finished product. "Mission of Hope" also draws upon interviews with Ramon's widow, Rona, as well as with Israeli investigators and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Candid footage of the Columbia crew's training, shot by Brown, adds a personal touch to the work.
"The overriding message of the Columbia crew ... is what they brought to each other because of their diverse background," Cohen said. "They brought the magic of diversity to each other, yet woven through that is this story of the Holocaust and this terrible tragedy."
As he gathered the footage and the interviews, Cohen struggled with a problem: He wanted to focus on the message of hope, but it seemed as if the final chapter of the story was filled with loss and despair. "The dilemma was, how do you end this film?" he said.
Then he heard that another miniature Torah scroll had surfaced, in the possession of Henry Fenichel, another survivor of the Bergen-Belsen death camp who became a physics professor in Cincinnati. Fenichel was willing to have the scroll flown aboard another space shuttle flight, at the request of Rona Ramon and under the care of Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean.
"I thought, you just ended my film for me," Cohen said.
The "Atlantis Torah" flew aboard the shuttle Atlantis in 2006, on the first space station assembly mission planned in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. "It goes from the depths of despair to the heights of hope," MacLean told reporters.
More than six decades earlier, when Joseph received his "Columbia Torah," the rabbi who gave it to him asked the boy to promise he'd tell the story of the scroll if he survived.
"Now our documentary continues the promise," Cohen said. "Woven into that is our mission to tell the story of Columbia's crew and their missions. On the 10th anniversary, we will all pause and remember the horror of the moment, a searing moment in history. But at the same time, we'll remember who these people were, and what they brought to us."
Archaeologists have uncovered a 2,750-year-old temple near Jerusalem, along with pottery and clay figurines that suggest the site was the home base for a ritual cult, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.
The discovery was made during excavations at the Tel Motza archaeological site, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) west of Jerusalem, during preparations for work on a new section of Israeli's Highway 1, the agency said in a statement.
"The ritual building at Tel Motza is an unusual and striking find, in light of the fact that there are hardly any remains of ritual buildings of the period in Judaea at the time of the First Temple," excavation directors Anna Eirikh, Hamoudi Khalaily and Shua Kisilevitz were quoted as saying in the statement.
The Bible says the First Temple was built in Jerusalem by Solomon, son of King David, and archaeologists estimate that construction was undertaken in the 10th century B.C. The excavation's directors say the Tel Motza temple must have been active in an era "prior to the religious reforms throughout the kingdom at the end of the monarchic period (at the time of Hezekiah and Isaiah), which abolished all ritual sites, concentrating ritual practices solely at the Temple in Jerusalem."
Tel Motza was thought to be associated with the ancient settlement called "Mozah" in the Book of Joshua. During previous work, archaeologists uncovered a large structure with storehouses and a number of silos. They said that structure might have served as a storage facility for Jerusalem's grain supplies.
Baz Ratner / Reuters
Archaeologist Anna Eirikh displays a horse figurine at Tel Motza archaeological site on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Skyview / IAA
An overhead view shows the Tel Motza archaeological site.
The newly discovered structure has massive walls and a wide, east-facing entrance, conforming to the tradition of temple construction at the time, the site directors said. "The rays of the sun rising in the east would have illuminated the object placed inside the temple first, symbolizing the divine presence within," they said.
Inside the temple, archaeologists found what appeared to be a square altar, with a cache of ritual items nearby. Those items included fragments of pottery chalices, decorated ritual pedestals and two types of pottery figurines. Some of the figurines represented animals — mainly horses in harnesses— while others were humanlike heads with curling hair and flat headdresses. Such figurines hint at the influence of Philistine coastal culture.
"The find of the sacred structure, together with the accompanying cache of sacred vessels, and especially the significant coastal influence evident in the anthropomorphic figurines, still require extensive research," the directors said.
A photograph snapped from the International Space Station on Feb. 22 shows the lights of Israel, the West Bank and Jordan at night. The bright knot of city lights at left is Tel Aviv, leading eastward toward Jerusalem (center) and Amman (at right).
Tonight marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights — which calls to mind this glittering picture of the Middle East, captured by the International Space Station as it flew more than 200 miles above in February.
Hanukkah, which tends to come around the same time of year as Christmas, is an eight-day holiday that commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem during the revolt of the Maccabees in the second century B.C. Jewish tradition holds that there was only enough oil to light the ceremonies for one night, and yet the lamps burned for eight days — giving Jerusalem's residents enough time to prepare a fresh supply of oil.
As a remembrance of that ancient miracle, Jews will kindle lights on their menorahs for the next eight nights.
The picture from the space station shows Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv to the west and the Jordanian capital of Amman to the east aglow with city lights. The roads connecting the cities are also lit up — suggesting the connections of trade and heritage that tie the region together. During this holiday season, let's hope that peace will shine forth in the Middle East, and that we'll turn our attention to what connects us rather than what divides us.
Today's Hanukkah greetings serve as the latest entry in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from space every day until Christmas. Catch up on these previous images from the calendar:
Israeli archaeologists say two animal-shaped figurines discovered at the site of an Israeli highway construction project go back more than 9,000 years, and reflect the religious practices that were common in the region several millennia before Moses.
"It is known that hunting was the major activity in this period," Hamoud Khalaily, one of the directors of the Tel Mosa dig, said in a statement issued Wednesday by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. "Presumably, the figurines served as good-luck statues for ensuring the success of the hunt and might have been the focus of a traditional ceremony the hunters performed before going out into the field to pursue their prey."
One of the figurines, sculpted from limestone and measuring about 6 inches (15 centimeters) in length, looks like a horned ram. The other, smoothed and shaped from dolomite, seems to depict a buffalo, ox or other type of bovine animal, archaeologists said.
The Stone Age figurines turned up during an excavation that's being conducted a few miles north of Jerusalem to clear the way for widening Highway 1 to Tel Aviv. The project's directors said they were found last week, near a large round building that had a foundation built from fieldstones, and an upper wall section apparently made of mud brick.
Khalaily and excavation co-director Anna Eirikh said the finds date back 9,000 to 9,500 years. That's thousands of years before the time of Moses, who was thought to have lived in the time frame of 1400 to 1500 B.C. But the period when the figurines were created, known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, may have been as much of a turning point for the region's social and religious practices as Moses' time was.
Yael Yolovitch / IAA via AP
This 9,000-year-old figurine was sculpted from dolomite, excavation directors Anna Eirikh and Hamoudi Khalaily said in a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority. They said it "seems to depict a large animal with prominent horns that separate the elongated body from the head. The horns emerge from the middle of the head sideward and resemble those of a wild bovine or buffalo."
"The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period ... is considered one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of mankind; many changes took place in it that shaped human society for thousands of years to come," Khalaily said. "During this period, the transition began from nomadism, based on hunting and gathering, to sedentary life, based on farming and grazing."
This was the age when animals were being domesticated, agriculture was on the rise, and urban settlements (including one of the earlier incarnations of the biblical city of Jericho) were being built up. Religion, too, was being codified. At Turkey's Göbekli Tepe archaeological site, for example, researchers have found the world's oldest-known temple, a place of worship that was first built up as far back as 12,000 years ago and was still apparently in use when the Tel Mosa figurines were sculpted hundreds of miles away.
Khalaily suspects that the figurines were used as good-luck charms for hunting, but Eirikh has an alternate theory: Perhaps the figurines were associated with efforts to domesticate wild oxen or goats. Either way, these statuettes served as stand-ins for the creatures that Stone Age societies were beginning to bring under their control.
A swirling spiral of light seen in the skies over Israel, Syria and other Middle East countries on Thursday night has been linked to a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Hundreds of Israelis jammed police hotlines with reports of the unidentified flying object, according to Ynetnews. Sighting reports came from Lebanon and even Armenia and Turkey. Versions of the video, captioned in Arabic, began appearing on YouTube.
Some of the reports that popped up on Twitter suggested that the lights in the sky were seen as a good omen for Syria's revolution. Others worried that it was a bad omen for Syria, potentially signaling the use of chemical weapons.
The actual explanation is almost certainly more mundane: The Voice of Russia reported that the country's Strategic Missile Forces conducted a test of the Topol ICBM from the Kapustin Yar firing range near Astrakhan in southern Russia on Thursday. Such a launch could theoretically be seen from areas of the Middle East and the Caucasus.
Citing a report from RIA Novosti, the radio service said the missile "accurately hit its target" in a Kazakh firing range. However, Ynetnews quoted Yigal Pat-El, chairman of the Israel Astronomical Association, as saying the missile "most likely spun out of control, and its remnants and the fuel was what people saw."
The video was reminiscent of other "space spirals" that occur when rocket stages release burning fuel as they spin. One such spiral was sighted over Norway in 2009, and turned out to be caused by a failed ballistic missile test. In that case, the missile that went awry was a Bulava ICBM, launched from a submarine in the White Sea.
Another spiral was sighted in Russia the following night and captured on video. That one was caused by a Topol missile test, but the test was reported as a success. At the time, NBC News space analyst James Oberg said he had indications that the Topol's "third-stage spin is a 'feature,' not a malfunction, and may be associated with guidance, or decoy deploy, or enhancing hardness against U.S. boost-phase antimissile weapons."
Update for 3 p.m. ET June 8: In an email, Oberg says the video appears to show the normal ascent of a Russian ICBM. Here's his explanation:
"The 'spiral' does not look to me to be a sign of a 'failed missile test' — it has been a common visual feature of Russian missile launches for more than 30 years and seems associated with a roll maneuver to 'dump' unwanted surplus thrust for short-range test flights. Since you can't shut down a solid fuel rocket early, you need to find a way to dump thrust so you don't overshoot a target.
"One way is to open portals on the sides of the rocket as it burns — sending much of the thrust out to the sides. Two opposite facing portals are usually installed, to counterbalance the thrust and not knock it off course.
"A careful analysis of the infamous 'Norway spiral' several years ago shows twin plumes emerging from the central object, in opposite directions. An alternate method is just to pitch the rocket off 'straight ahead' and then corkscrew, so as to spray some of the thrust off to the sides and keep your speed down to what you really need. Otherwise you'll overshoot your intended target.
"This launch was from the Volga River Kapustin Yar test range, active since 1947, but ICBM tests are infrequent. Direction was east, headed for the Sary Shagan impact zone in Kazakhstan, normally used only for testing anti-missile radars and interceptor missiles. That's hardly more than 2,000 kilometers away, so the test clearly wasn't of the missile itself but of its warhead's 'penaids' — penetration aids to frustrate tracking and targeting by U.S. anti-missile systems. This would result in a very unusual trajectory to get up to full ICBM speed without overshooting the target zone — probably lofted a lot higher than normal and then headed back down towards the target zone while still thrusting.
"The range from Kazakhstan to Israel isn't that great — the missile got 'above the horizon' from Israel pretty quickly, even with Earth's curvature.
"Another contributing factor: It's June — near the time of the 'midnight sun' in northern latitudes. That means sunlight is streaming over the pole, throughout the night. Something in the northern sky above the atmosphere over Kazakhstan would be backlit by that sunlight.
"These 'accidental' factors combined to make this show possible. And the widespread availability of pocket camcorders made recording it much more common than in the past."
Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shows off an ark, or stone shrine model, that was found during excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, an ancient settlement southwest of Jerusalem.
An archaeological dig near Goliath's biblical hometown has yielded evidence of Judean religious practices 3,000 years ago, pointing up fresh historical connections to the stories of King David and King Solomon.
"We have a city with a population relating to the Kingdom of Judah," Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me today. "This is totally different from Philistine, Canaanite or the cult in the Kingdom of Israel."
The site, known today as Khirbet Qeiyafa, is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem, on top of a hill overlooking the Valley of Elah. For the past five years, Garfinkel and his colleagues have been excavating the ruins of a fortified city there, situated across from what was once the Philistine city of Gath. In the Bible, the giant Goliath came out from Gath to face the Israelites, and was smitten by a rock hurled from David's sling.
Garfinkel can't vouch for the story of Goliath, but he says the weapons, the cult items and even the animal bones found around Khirbet Qeiyafa support his view that the settlement was a key military outpost for the historical House of David, riven by conflict. "There was something here quite military and quite aggressive," he said. "It was not a peaceful village."
Based on radiocarbon dating of burned olive pits found at the site, archaeologists believe the ancient city lasted for only 40 years, from 1020 to 980 B.C., before it was destroyed. Some skeptics have suggested that Khirbet Qeiyafa was just another Canaanite settlement, and that David was at best a minor chieftain, or perhaps a folkloric figure like Robin Hood. But Garfinkel said the items found at the site strengthen the connection to King David and the religious practices specified in the Bible.
"Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs," he said in a news release from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggest that the population on Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans — on pork and on graven images — and thus practiced a different cult from that of the Canaanites or the Philistines."
Garfinkel told me that the absence of human imagery was peculiar to the Judeans. "In the northern Kingdom of Israel, you find human representations," he said.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
One of the cultic standing stones can be seen in this picture of the Khirbet Qeiyafa site.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
This basalt altar was found during excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A decorated clay shrine model was found at the Khirbet Qeiyafa site.
The cult objects included five standing stones, two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. Garfinkel said the shrines reflected a Mesopotamian architectural style that went back centuries before the era of King David, and probably inspired the look of the palace built by Solomon, David's son. "It seems that Solomon didn't want to be Canaanite and took a different model from Mesopotamia," Garfinkel told me.
The shrines are boxlike containers made of stone or clay. "I think they were called in Hebrew 'Aron,'" Garfinkel wrote in an email. "This had been translated into English as 'ark' and became a mystic artifact. I think that the Hebrew name was just a simple technical term: a box for keeping god symbols."
The clay shrine has an intricate facade, featuring two guardian lions, pillars and birds standing on the roof. The stone shrine was painted red, and its facade is decorated with characteristic triglyph symbols as well as a triple-recessed doorway in front. Garfinkel said the Bible may have referred to those architectural features in its description of Solomon's palace. The technical term usually translated as referring to pillars ("Slaot") may actually be talking about triglyphs, while another term that was thought to refer to windows ("Sequfim") might instead refer to the doorways.
"Now you can see by the model that you have triglyphs at the roof, and you have recessed doorways," Garfinkel said. Such features are also mentioned in biblicalreferences to King Solomon's temple, which was built decades after the age that gave rise to the shrines found at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Will these finds settle the debate over the historical David? Garfinkel would like to think so. "Various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong," he said in today's news release.
Maeir said the distinctions between the various peoples mentioned in the Bible — including David's Israelites and Goliath's Philistines — were "fuzzier than the way they are often described."
"There's no question that this is a very important site, but what exactly it was — there is still disagreement about that," Maeir said. In a blog posting, Maeir said "what is clearly missing is a close interface with mainstream biblical and [Ancient Near East] textual scholars."
What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your vote in the poll above, or add your comments below.
A Roman statue stands on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the southern city of Ashkelon on Dec. 14. The statue, which had been buried for centuries, was unearthed by the winter gales that have raked Israel's coast. The marble figure was found in the remains of a cliff that crumbled under the force of winds, waves and rain, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.
This week's storm in the Middle East wreaked havoc with scores of archaeological sites along Israel's coast — but it also uncovered a treasure: a headless, armless statue of a woman in a toga and sandals, made of white marble.
The figure was found half-buried in the sand by a resident walking near the shore in the southern city of Ashkelon. In addition to the statue, experts identified pieces of a mosaic floor from what's thought to have been a Roman bathhouse. The artifacts are part of a cliffside archaeological site that collapsed when high winds and waves hit the shore.
"The sea gave us this amazing statue," Yigal Israel, an archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, told Reuters. The statue stands about 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and weighs about 440 pounds (200 kilograms). It's thought to date back to the Roman occupation of what was western Judea, between 1,700 and 2,000 years ago. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Israel as saying the statue "was apparently imported from Italy, Greece or Asia Minor, and may have represented the goddess Aphrodite."
The statue, which is to be placed on museum display, brought little joy to Israeli archaeologists. They say the storm washed away other artifacts from the site, and did serious damage to the ruins of coastal Caesarea. "We don't see this discovery as such good news," one of Israel's colleagues at the antiquities authority told Reuters. "Better than relics remain hidden and protected than that they be exposed and damaged."
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