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At NASA, a quiet quest to send a humanoid robot to the moon

For $150 billion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could have sent astronauts back to the moon. The Obama administration judged that too expensive, and in September, Congress agreed to cancel the program.

For a fraction of that — less than $200 million, along with about $250 million for a rocket — NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston say they can safely send a humanoid robot to the moon. And they say they could accomplish that in a thousand days.

The idea, known as Project M, is almost a guerrilla effort within NASA, cooked up a year ago by Stephen J. Altemus, the chief engineer at Johnson. He tapped into discretionary money, pulled in engineers to work on it part time, and horse-traded with companies and other NASA units to undertake preliminary planning and tests. “We’re doing impossible things with really very little, if any, money whatsoever,” Altemus said.

A humanoid dextrous robot — at least the top half — already exists: Robonaut 2, developed by NASA and General Motors, is packed on the shuttle Discovery, scheduled for liftoff on Wednesday.

Bound for the International Space Station, it will be the first humanoid robot in space. It is to help with housekeeping chores at the space station as NASA learns how astronauts and robots can work together. Eventually, an upgraded Robonaut is to take part in spacewalks.

The quandary over Project M encapsulates many of the continuing debates over the future of the space agency: What should NASA be told to do when there is not enough money to do everything? What is the best way to spur advances in space technologies? And given the costs and dangers, how important is it to send people into space at all?

New volcanic eruption drives more Indonesians to shelters

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Mount Merapi unleashed another violent explosion Monday, driving thousands more people from their homes as the Indonesian authorities admitted to shortcomings in handling two other natural disasters — a volcano and a tsunami — that have killed nearly 500 people in the past week.

The eruption Monday morning sent residents, who had returned to tend to livestock and fields abandoned after last week’s volcano, back down the slopes in panic. The nearby city of Yogyakarta was brought to a standstill as motorists and workers stopped to gape at a gray plume of ash and superheated gas that shot into the sky and tumbled down the mountain’s slopes.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the latest eruption, but it did send thousands more people into crowded evacuation camps that now have more than 70,000 people, said Neulis Zuliasri, a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Agency. The volcano has killed 38 people since Tuesday, she said.

“This was smaller than some of the other eruptions,” said Subandriyo, the head of the Yogyakarta Volcanic Investigation and Development enter, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

U.S. Appeals court weighs Arizona law on immigrants

SAN FRANCISCO – Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona and her team of lawyers defended the state’s strict new immigration law in a federal appeals court on Monday, facing a panel of three judges who sharply questioned the way the law would be carried out. Lawyers from the Justice Department argued that central parts of the state law were unconstitutional and would interfere with federal law enforcement.

In July, just one day before the law was to take effect, a lower court suspended parts of it, ruling that the state could not require local law enforcement officials to check on the immigration status of people they stop and detain them if they were suspected of entering the country illegally.

Brewer is appealing that decision. Whatever the outcome from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit here, it, too, is expected to be appealed, and Brewer has said she will take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The judges focused on the central question of whether a state could take it upon itself to enforce federal laws.

The panel also grappled with whether police officers were free to question the people they stop about crimes beyond the grounds for the stop. The judges pointedly asked lawyers for the Justice Department whether the practice should never be allowed. The Obama administration has said that requiring police officers to question immigration status is unconstitutional and could damage relationships with other countries, making American citizens abroad more vulnerable to unfair treatment.

Nokia sees cell phone growth among the world’s poorest

On Saturday at dawn, hundreds of farmers near Jhansi, an agricultural center in central India, received a succinct but potent text message on their cell phones: The current average wholesale price for 100 kilograms of tomatoes was 600 rupees ($13.26).

In a country where just 7 percent of the population has access to the Internet, such real-time market data is so valuable that the farmers are willing to pay $1.35 a month for the information.

What is unusual about the service is the company selling it: Nokia, the Finnish cell phone maker, which unlike its rivals — Samsung, LG, Apple, Research In Motion and Sony Ericsson — is focusing on some of the world’s poorest consumers.

Since 2009, 6.3 million people have signed up to pay Nokia for commodity data in India, China and Indonesia. On Tuesday, Nokia plans to announce that it is expanding the program, called Life Tools, part of its Ovi mobile services business, to Nigeria.