Planet Found Circling Dying Star
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC Science Editor
San Francisco January 10, 2002 (BBC) - Astronomers have made the first discovery of a planet orbiting a giant star. Unlike our Sun, this giant, called iota Draconis, is an old star that has already burned its hydrogen fuel at its core.
Such stars grow much bigger towards the end of their lives and this one has reached a radius 13 times that of the Sun.
What is interesting, however, is that iota Draconis has not devoured the planet during its expansion - a fate that may befall the Earth when our star dies in a few billion years' time.
"Until now, it was not known if planets existed around giant stars," says Sabine Frink of the University of California, US.
"This provides the first evidence that planets at Earth-like distances can survive the evolution of their host star into a giant."
Iota Draconis, also known as Edasich, is located at a distance of 100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Draco. It is currently visible with the unaided eye in the morning sky, just east of the Plough.
Like all of the extrasolar planets that have been discovered orbiting Sun-like stars, the one around iota Draconis was detected using the Doppler technique - where the gravitational pull of the planet causes a wobble in the measured velocity of the parent star.
The planet completes one orbit every 1.5 years and the shape of its orbit is elliptical rather than circular. Its mass is 8.7 times the mass of Jupiter.
Because the Doppler technique determines the minimum mass, the astronomers say, it is possible that the true mass of this companion is a brown dwarf - a "failed star" that lacks enough mass to start nuclear fusion.
However, even if this companion is a brown dwarf, the researchers say its detection around an evolved star represents a first.
Astronomers say it is more difficult to detect the signature of a planet orbiting a giant star because they often pulsate, producing wobbling effects that could give the illusion they had planetary companions.
It is believed that our Sun will eventually undergo a similar fate to iota Draconis. Several billion years from now, when the Sun evolves into a giant star, the Earth's temperature will rise to several hundred degrees Celsius.
"The oceans will evaporate, and the water vapour will escape the Earth's atmosphere because of the high temperature," says Andreas Quirrenbach of the University of California.
"Observing the fate of this companion to a dying star is a reminder of the ultimate fate of our own Earth," says Debra Fischer of the University of San Francisco.
Earth Granted Reprieve
By Helen Briggs
Sussex January 9, 2002 (BBC) - The Earth has been granted a reprieve. Astronomers believe the planet may now escape being swallowed up when the Sun dies in about 7.5 billion years' time.
The new calculations actually extend the length of time the Earth will be habitable by 200 million years. But, in the end, the surface of the planet will simply become too hot for life to survive. Earth-dwellers will have to find alternative homes in space, say astrophysicists in the UK.
Dr Robert Smith, Reader in Astronomy at the University of Sussex, said: "We had better get used to the idea that we shall need to build our own survival capsules - the planets are simply too far apart for planet-hopping to be a viable solution.
"Perhaps this is the ultimate justification for developing an International Space Station."
Solar evolution theory predicts that our star will eventually run out of fuel. As it does so, it will expand to an enormous size, becoming what is known as a red giant. It will then swallow the closest planets, including Mercury and Venus. Until now, astronomers had always thought that the Earth would be engulfed too.
But the Sussex team thinks the figures are wrong. According to new calculations, the orbit of the Earth will increase slightly beyond the outer atmosphere of the red giant, as its gravitational pull weakens. If this is the case, the Earth will escape destruction - although its surface will be charred.
"Previous calculations suggested that the Earth will be vaporized by being swallowed up by the Sun," Dr Smith told BBC News Online. "Our calculations show that the Earth will survive as a body but it will still be lifeless because it will get so hot that nothing will be able to survive on its surface."
The new figures are based on theoretical calculations checked against data from real stars. They predict that it will be 5.7 billion years before the planet becomes too hot to sustain life.
Dr Smith told BBC News Online: "One effect of the calculations is that we may have 200 million years longer than previous people have thought."
Other scientists are less optimistic. Professor James Kasting, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University, US, believes water on Earth will boil away in about one billion years' time, spelling doom for the planet.
He told BBC News Online: "The story for life on Earth is long over by the time the Sun becomes a red giant. The question of what happens 6-7 billion years from now is interesting from an academic point of view but that's not when life will end."
The new calculations raise another concern, albeit more mundane.
"The text books will have to be slightly changed because we no longer think that the Earth will be swallowed up by the Sun but it will be frazzled to a cinder," said Dr Smith.
Our Sun Is Made of Iron!
Washington January 10, 2002 (UofM) - For years, scientists have assumed that the sun is an enormous mass of hydrogen. But in a paper to be presented today at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Oliver Manuel says iron, not hydrogen, is the sun's most abundant element. Milky Way's Bright Lights Big City
Manuel, a professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of Missouri- Rolla, claims that hydrogen fusion creates some of the sun's heat, as hydrogen -- the lightest of all elements -- moves to the sun's surface. But most of the heat comes from the core of an exploded supernova that continues to generate energy within the iron-rich interior of the sun, Manuel says.
"We think that the solar system came from a single star, and the sun formed on a collapsed supernova core," Manuel says. "The inner planets are made mostly of matter produced in the inner part of that star, and the outer planets of material form the outer layers of that star."
Manuel will present his the evidence for his assertion in his paper, "The Origin of the Solar System with an Iron-rich Sun," at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, at the AAS' 199th annual meeting at the Hilton Washington and Towers in Washington, D.C. In addition, Cynthia Bolon, a UMR graduate student in chemistry who has studied with Manuel, will present related research in her paper, "Repulsion and Attraction between Nucleons: Sources of Energy for an Iron-rich Sun and for First Generation Stars," following Manuel's presentation.
Manuel says the solar system was born catastrophically out of a supernova -- a theory that goes against the widely-held belief among astrophysicists that the sun and planets were formed 4.5 billion years ago in a relatively ambiguous cloud of interstellar dust.
Iron and the heavy element known as xenon are at the center of Manuel's efforts to change the way people think about the solar system's origins.
Manuel believes a supernova rocked our area of the Milky Way galaxy some five billion years ago, giving birth to all the heavenly bodies that populate the solar system. Analyses of meteorites reveal that all primordial helium is accompanied by "strange xenon," he says, adding that both helium and strange xenon came from the outer layer of the supernova that created the solar system. Helium and strange xenon are also seen together in Jupiter.
Manuel has spent the better part of his 40-year scientific career trying to convince others of his hypothesis. Back in 1975, Manuel and another UMR researcher, Dr. Dwarka Das Sabu, first proposed that the solar system formed from the debris of a spinning star that exploded as a supernova. They based their claim on studies of meteorites and moon samples which showed traces of strange xenon.
Data from NASA's Galileo probe of Jupiter's helium-rich atmosphere in 1996 reveals traces of strange xenon gases -- solid evidence against the conventional model of the solar system's creation, Manuel says.
Manuel first began to develop the iron-rich sun theory in 1972. That year, Manual and his colleagues reported in the British journal Nature that the xenon found in primitive meteorites was a mixture of strange and normal xenon (Nature 240, 99-101).
The strange xenon is enriched in isotopes that are made when a supernova explodes, the researchers reported, and could not be produced within meteorites.
Three years later, Manuel and Sabu found that all of the primordial helium in meteorites is trapped in the same sites that trapped strange xenon. Based on these findings, they concluded that the solar system formed directly from the debris of a single supernova, and the sun formed on the supernova's collapsed core. Giant planets like Jupiter grew from material in the outer part of the supernova, while Earth and the inner planets formed out of material form the supernova's interior.
This is why the outer planets consist mostly of hydrogen, helium and other light elements, and the inner planets are made of heavier elements like iron, sulfur and silicon, Manuel says.
Strange xenon came from the helium-rich outer layers of the supernova, while normal xenon came from its interior. There was no helium in the interior because nuclear fusion reactions there changed the helium into the heavier elements, Manuel says.
NASA January 9, 2002 - NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has made a stunning, high-energy panorama of the central regions of our Milky Way galaxy. The findings are an important step toward understanding the most active area of the Milky Way as well as other galaxies throughout the universe. Immense Asteroid Buzzes Earth!
Like a sprawling megalopolis, the new Chandra images show hundreds of white dwarf stars, neutron stars and black holes bathed in an incandescent fog of multimillion-degree gas around a supermassive black hole.
"The center of the galaxy is where the action is," said Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "With these images, we get a new perspective of the interplay between stars, gas and dust, as well as the magnetic fields and gravity in the region. We can see how such forces affect the immediate vicinity and may influence other aspects of the galaxy."
Wang presented the montage of 30 separate Chandra images today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, and in a paper published in the Jan. 10, 2002, issue of the journal Nature. The images, made with the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) July 16-21, 2001, covered a 400- by 900-light-year swath of the center of the galaxy.
One immediate result was that the team could separate out the individual X-ray sources from the diffuse glow produced by hot gas. "We can now see that the sources are responsible for most of the X-rays from highly ionized iron previously attributed to the diffuse glow," said Eric Gotthelf, of Columbia University in New York, a co-author. "So we must now revise our notion of the hot gas, which appears to be about 10 times cooler than previously thought. It's only a relatively mild 10 million degrees!"
The diffuse X-ray emission seems to be related to the turmoil and density of matter in the inner Milky Way. Stars are forming there at a much more rapid rate than in the galactic "suburbs." Many of the most massive stars in the galaxy are located in the galactic center and are furiously boiling off their outer layers in searing stellar winds. Supernova explosions are far more common in the region and send shock waves booming through the inner galaxy.
And then there is the three-million-solar-mass black hole at the epicenter. Although Chandra recently observed a small flare from the vicinity of the central supermassive black hole, the power output near the black hole remains relatively low.
However, an unexplained fluorescence of iron atoms, observed by the team to be associated with molecular clouds a few hundred light-years away, may indicate that the supermassive black hole was hundreds of times brighter in the past. Alternatively, the fluorescence could be due to high-energy particles called cosmic rays produced by supernovae or bygone eruptions from the supermassive black hole.
"The galactic center is dominated by very high pressures due to the hot gas component and the strong magnetic fields," said Cordelia Lang, also of the University of Massachusetts, and a co-author. "It's a nice place to visit with a telescope but I wouldn't want to live there.
"The Chandra map shows that the high-pressure and high-temperature gas is apparently escaping from the center into the halo of the galaxy. "A galaxy is a sort of ecosystem, and the activity in the center can seriously affect the evolution of the galaxy as a whole," said Wang. "Astronomically, the center of the Milky Way is really in our backyard, and, therefore, provides an excellent laboratory to learn about the cores of other galaxies."
The ACIS instrument was developed for NASA by Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.
More information on Chandra and full-sized images [Too big to show here! - ed.] associated with this release are available on the World Wide Web at: http://chandra.harvard.edu and http://chandra.nasa.gov
LOS ANGELES January 8, 2002 (AP) - An asteroid large enough to demolish France hurtled past the Earth at a distance of a half-million miles just days after scientists spotted it. New Halo for Milky Way
The asteroid, dubbed 2001 YB5, came within 520,000 miles of Earth on Monday, approximately twice the distance to the moon.
Dozens of asteroids pass close by the Earth each year, though 2001 YB5 was closer than most. On Friday, for instance, an asteroid known as 2001 UU92 will pass with 11 million miles of Earth.
Asteroid 2001 YB5, estimated to be 1,000 feet across, was traveling about 68,000 mph relative to the Earth when it zipped past.
"It's a fairly substantial rock. If it had hit us at that sort of speed, you would be taking out a medium-size country, France, I suppose, or Texas, or something of that order," said Jay Tate, director of the Spaceguard Centre in Wales.
Astronomers with the NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program discovered 2001 YB5 on Dec. 26. Soon after, astronomers calculated the asteroid's orbit and determined there was no danger it would strike Earth.
As astronomers discover more and more near-Earth asteroids, they seek a standardized way of alerting the public to the hazard they might pose. Among programs already in place is the Spaceguard Centre's Comet and Asteroid Information Network, which began work Jan. 1.
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON January 08, 2002 (Reuters) - A newly discovered hot halo, a cosmic fountain and ghostly bubbles produced by an ancient explosion could change the way scientists look at galaxies, including our own Milky Way, astronomers reported on Tuesday.
All three findings pointed to dynamic movement in galaxies and in monstrous galactic clusters, the largest stable structures in the universe. The discovery should enable astronomers to better identify phenomena as they look at new galaxies or take a new look at already known ones.
In the case of the Milky Way, astronomers detected a huge, hot gas halo, or corona, that could be as much as 100,000 light-years across, much bigger than earlier scientists theorized. A light-year is about 6 trillion miles, the distance light travels in a year.
This halo could extend all the way to the Milky Way's nearest neighboring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, scientists said.
Astronomers found the halo using NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) satellite to peer beyond the edges of our home galaxy. Above and below the galactic plain, in which Earth and our solar system reside, they detected an extremely thin, hot gas corona, or halo.
Invisible to optical devices, the halo can be seen by FUSE as a blue, football-shaped envelope around the galaxy. Its edges were detected by astronomers who watched hydrogen clouds falling into it from outside the halo.
When these clouds fell in, their edges -- composed of ionized oxygen -- lit up, much as meteors streak across the sky when they enter Earth's atmosphere, said Kenneth Sembach of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
The halo is thin -- perhaps 10 billion times less dense than air -- and hot, possibly 1 million degrees Fahrenheit, Sembach told reporters at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington.
"We believe we've found evidence for a very hot halo of extended gas around the Milky Way galaxy," Sembach said. "It's going to help astronomers understand better how galaxies are assembled and hopefully how they evolved over time."
Because astronomers are still detecting the in-falling clouds, they believe the Milky Way is still pulling in material, even though it is billions of years old.
Other findings presented at the astronomy meeting make galaxies sound more like pleasure gardens than giant astronomical features.
Astronomer Edward Murphy of the University of Virginia also used FUSE to discover a possible galactic fountain in a nearby galaxy, formally named NGC 4631 but also known as the Whale because that is what it looks like when viewed from Earth with an optical telescope.
However, when Murphy and his colleges examined the Whale with FUSE, they found an area of furious star formation, where extremely hot young stars lived fast and died young in the same clusters where they were born.
So many of these hot stars exploded as supernovas that the remnants of these blasts overlapped with each other, creating hot bubbles that rose up out of the galactic plain and eventually burst, releasing hot gas into the Whale's galactic halo, Murphy said.
The Chandra X-Ray Observatory, also a project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, managed to spy ghostly relics of an ancient explosion in a massive cluster of galaxies.
Chandra detected vast regions in the galaxy cluster Abell 2597 that had almost no X-ray or radio emission, and scientists Brian McNamara of Ohio University called these "ghost cavities." First Stars Were A Blaze of Glory
"They appear to be remnants of an old explosion where the radio emission has faded away over millions of years," McNamara said.
Stony Brook NY January 9, 2002 (NASA) - The deepest views of the cosmos from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope yield clues that the very first stars may have burst into the universe as brilliantly and spectacularly as a fireworks finale. In this case though the finale came first, long before Earth, the Sun and the Milky Way Galaxy formed.
If this interpretation is correct, it offers a tantalizing possibility that astronomers may behold this stellar blaze of glory when they use NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope and other future space telescopes to probe even farther into the very early universe.
Studies of Hubble's deepest views of the heavens by Kenneth M. Lanzetta of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and colleagues lead to the preliminary conclusion that the universe made a significant portion of its stars in a torrential firestorm of star birth, which abruptly lit up the pitch-dark heavens just a few hundred million years after the big bang. Though stars continue to be born today in galaxies, the star birthrate could be a trickle compared to the predicted gusher of stars in those opulent early years.
This new idea of a continually escalating rate of star birth the farther Hubble looks back in time offers a dramatic revision of previous Hubble Deep Field studies that proposed that the star birthrate in the early universe ramped up to a "baby boom" about halfway back to the beginning of the universe.
"If this can be verified it will dramatically change our understanding of the universe," said Dr. Anne Kinney, director of the Astronomy and Physics division at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "Because stars are the building blocks of galaxies and the birthplace of solar systems, proving that countless numbers of stars began forming so early after the birth of the universe could cause us to rethink a lot of our theories." Texas-Sized Space Rock!
Lanzetta bases his conclusion on a new analysis of galaxies in the Hubble deep fields taken near the north and south celestial poles (in 1995 and 1998 respectively). He reports in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal that the farthest objects in the deep fields are only the "tip of the iceberg" of an effervescent period of star birth that is unlike anything the universe will ever see again. Lanzetta concludes that 90 percent of the light from the early universe is missing in the Hubble deep fields. "The previous census of the deep fields missed most of the ultraviolet light in the universe; most of it is invisible," he says.
Based on an analysis of galaxy colors, Lanzetta concludes that the farthest objects in the deep fields must be extremely intense, unexpectedly bright knots of blue-white, hot newborn stars embedded in primordial galaxies that are too faint to be seen even by Hubble's far vision. It's like seeing only the lights on a distant Christmas tree and inferring the presence of the whole tree.
Likewise, Lanzetta deduced the total population of stars in the early universe based on observing only the brightest stars with the Hubble telescope. Because such far extrapolations are built on certain assumptions, this conclusion will require further analysis and observation.
Lanzetta next plans to use Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, to be installed in early 2002, to look even deeper into the universe to try to directly verify some portion of the missing light. He will also look for very distant supernovae as an alternate measure of star formation. "Because they are point sources of light, supernovae are not subject to the same cosmological brightness-dimming effects like galaxies (which are extended sources of light)," says Lanzetta.
The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. operates the Space Telescope Science Institute for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international co-operation between NASA and the European Space Agency.
Pasadena January 7, 2002 (JPL) - For two centuries it was the largest known rock in the solar system. The Texas-sized asteroid Ceres, about 930 kilometers (580 miles) across, was the first asteroid ever detected. The space rock was identified in 1801 by astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a monk in Sicily and the founding director of the Palermo Astronomical Observatory. He noted over a few nights a shifting point in the sky that wasn't one of the planets, their moons or a star. Thus, he discovered the rock.
After discovering the asteroid, Piazzi was invited to join the Celestial Police, a group of 24 international astronomers looking for what they called "guest planets" between Mars and Jupiter. The Celestial Police noted that the spacing between planets was fairly regular, but that there was a large gap between Mars and Jupiter.
Soon other small bodies were discovered in that region (Pallas in 1802, Juno in 1804 and Vesta in 1807), so the Celestial Police concluded that not just one, but many minor planets had to exist in a main asteroid belt. The asteroid belt probably represents primitive pieces of the solar system that never managed to accumulate into a genuine planet.
German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss calculated from Piazzi's few observations that Ceres circled around the Sun once every 4.6 years or about 4 years, 220 days.
The asteroid has a very primitive surface, say scientists on NASA's Dawn mission, which will launch in 2006 and examine Ceres in 2014. The asteroid, like a young planet, contains water-bearing minerals, and possibly a very weak atmosphere and frost. Infrared observations show that the surface is warm.
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope observed last year that Ceres' surface has a large spot, which could be a crater formed when another asteroid struck Ceres. A second explanation may be that the spot is a darker substance in the asteroid's soil.
Recently, Ceres lost its claim to the title of biggest rock in the solar system. In July 2001, a larger object was found in the vast Kuiper belt of asteroids, stretching from 30 to 100 AU (2.8 to 9.3 billion miles away from the Sun.) This brightest and therefore biggest non-planet space rock, 2001 KX76, could be anywhere from 960 to 1270 kilometers (600 to 790 miles) across.
Right now, Ceres is less than three degrees away from the Sun, making it hard to see. In October, the asteroid will be bright enough to see with a little help from binoculars.
Witchblade Starts Up
Toronto January 9, 2002 (Sci-Fi) - Production starts up this month on the second season of TNT's supernatural series Witchblade, which is shot in Toronto, the Comics2Film Web site reported. Spike Seldin, president of production at Top Cow, which makes the series, told the site, "The entire cast is back. It all looks good. TNT is behind it with all its support. We think it's going to be bigger this year than it was last year."
The series, starring Yancy Butler as New York cop Sara Pezzini, is based on a Top Cow comic series. Will the show gradually change to reflect the at-times lurid look of the comics?
"I think you'll see gradual adjustments or change as the series grows, but it will stay organic to the story plot as that develops as well," Seldin said. TNT will begin rerunning first-season episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. and Tuesdays at 11 p.m., starting Jan. 28.
The two-hour pilot movie will air Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. The second season will begin in the summer.
Angel To Try Thursdays
Hollywood January 8, 2001 (Sci-Fi) - The WB will test its vampire series Angel on Thursdays by airing repeats from last season at 8 p.m. ET/PT, starting Jan. 10 and continuing through February, the network announced.
Original episodes will continue to air on the frog network on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The first episodes to air on Thursdays will be the four-episode arc that concluded the series' second season, in which Angel (David Boreanaz) and his crew travel to the demon dimension of Pylea, The WB announced.
Aykroyd To Explore Paranormal
Hollywood January 7, 2002 (Sci-Fi) - Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) will take an entertaining look at the paranormal as host of Dan Aykroyd's Out There, The SCI FI Channel's upcoming late-night interactive talk show.
Aykroyd, a self-described "believer" and lifelong paranormal enthusiast, will host the half-hour five-day-a-week series that just began production in New York City. Out There is scheduled to launch during the second quarter of 2002.
The Channel described the show as a cross between CNN's Larry King and PBS' Charlie Rose. It will act as a companion series to SCI FI's popular Crossing Over With John Edward.
Guests will include Aykroyd's celebrity friends, professionals and members of the public who will discuss unexplainable phenomena.
The series will also invite viewers to weigh in on the show's topics through SCIFI.COM, via e-mail and by phone.
Robert K. Weiss (Sliders), Aykroyd and his brother, Peter Aykroyd, will executive produce the series.
Gellar and Prinze Voice N'Ever
Hollywood January 1, 2002 (Sci-Fi) - Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sigourney Weaver will voice the animated comedy movie Happily N'Ever After for Vanguard Films' John H. Williams (Shrek) and Berlin-based Greenlight Media, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The movie is being shopped to studios for a summer 2003 release.
N'Ever is inspired by classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales and is based on Greenlight's European animated television series SimsalaGrimm. Set in the fairy-tale land of Simsala, the project explores what happens when the balance of good and evil is out of whack, the trade paper reported.
Gellar will voice the character of Ella, who is part of a love triangle that includes a prince and her unknown true love, the palace dishwasher (Prinze). Weaver plays the evil stepmother Frida.
Gerhard Hahn will direct from a script by Rob Moreland. Gellar, best known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is engaged in real life to Prinze; the two recently completed a live-action version of Scooby-Doo.
By JIM SUHR
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. January 2, 2002 (AP) - By the government's account, the four tigers brought to Missouri's 5-H Ranch exotic animal preserve were shot before they ever had a chance to enjoy the rolling countryside.
The big cats were trucked in from Arkansas and shot the next day without ever being freed from their trailer, authorities said. While other exotic animals roamed the open-to-the-public preserve, the tigers were gutted and their carcasses shipped off to a black market, more valuable dead than alive.
Late last year, federal authorities secured indictments against a local couple and an Arkansas man in the tigers' deaths, part of an investigation that is more than four years old and also has snared people from Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma. More charges are expected next month.
Hides, meat, skulls and teeth of tigers, leopards and other big cats can fetch $5,000 to $20,000 from collectors, wildlife officials say.
Tiger bones, worth up to $250 a pound, primarily go to people who practice traditional Chinese medicine, both overseas and in major U.S. cities with large Asian populations, said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Fund's wildlife trade-monitoring arm. Some Asians hold that tiger bone is good for arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments. There is also demand for tiger penises, which are used to make a soup that some believe is an aphrodisiac.
"Any time you're talking about endangered species, you've got a certain value attached to that. It's simply a matter of profit and greed," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Scott Flaherty said.
Over the past century, the world's tiger population has plunged from about 100,000 to as few as 5,000 today, monitors say. A quarter of the world's wild tigers have been killed over roughly the past decade for the trade in tiger products, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Because big cats breed well in captivity but are expensive to keep - and because many zoos and sanctuaries are short of space - the animals are often unloaded on brokers. Owning live big cats violates no federal law, but selling them or their hides, parts or meat in interstate commerce is barred under the federal Lacey Act. And when zoos transfer a big cat to another institution, it must be done as a donation rather than a sale.
No one knows for sure the extent of illegal dealing in wild animals, but the World Wildlife Fund ranks it globally behind only drug and arms trafficking.
In the Missouri case, authorities say, Todd Lantz drove to Gentry, Ark., in 1998 and bought the four adult tigers from Freddy Wilmoth, 44, operator of Wild Wilderness Safari. Lantz, 39, hauled the tigers to the 5-H Ranch - owned by his father-in-law - "with the knowledge the tigers were to be killed," the indictment alleges. The father-in-law has not been charged.
The indictment says Vicki Lantz, 40, accepted $4,000 for the domestically bred tigers, then prepared a federal form falsely indicating the animals were being donated. Prosecutors and the defendants declined to comment. The Lantzes and Wilmoth are free on $25,000 bail, awaiting trial in February. Each could get up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
They were among five people charged in November. Other indictments accused the operator of Power House Wildlife Sanctuary in Fort Gibson, Okla., and the owner of Animals in Motion in Citra, Fla. In Michigan, three men have been charged with buying tiger and leopard hides.
Last January, the Michigan owner of a sportsmen's club pleaded guilty to brokering the sale of three tiger skins and was given six months of home detention, fined $2,000 and ordered to pay $28,000 to an education fund. The charges all stem from a federal investigation launched by what Flaherty called a simple tip in the Midwest.
"It was a case of following a rabbit down a hole," he said. "As you followed the trail, other individuals popped up."
While cheering the crackdown as a first step, Hoover said: "I can only conclude that there are enough people out there still willing to make a buck." He added: "Whenever that's the case, law enforcement folks need to be vigilant."