Phoenix to check Martian soil

LOS ANGELES - The Phoenix lander is getting ready to check the Martian soil for signs of life-friendly elements after scooping up dirt near the planet's north pole, researchers said yesterday.

New photos sent back by the spacecraft show its 8-foot-long robotic arm hovering over a miniature oven, ready to dump seven tablespoons inside. There, the soil sample will be heated and its chemistry will be analyzed.

Scientists hope to measure the amount of water and type of minerals in the soil to determine whether the environment could support primitive life. "We're very curious whether the ice that we think is just under the surface here has been melted and modified the soil," said the mission's chief scientist, Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tuscon.

- AP

Roberts and Alito cut stock holdings

WASHINGTON - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose investments forced them to sit out cases before the Supreme Court, have sharply reduced their stock holdings, their latest financial disclosures show.

Roberts sold all his shares in four companies last year - Becton Dickinson & Co., Cisco Systems Inc., Citigroup Inc. and Merck & Co. Inc. - worth $117,000 to $265,000. Alito sold all his stock in Intel Corp., worth $15,000 to $50,000, and reduced his holdings in three other companies - Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and McDonald's Corp.

The information was contained in the justices' annual report on their finances, released yesterday. The issue of investments arose most recently last month when the court could not muster enough justices to consider whether to intervene in a case.

- AP

New sentencing in al-Qaeda case

McLEAN, Va. - A federal appeals court yesterday upheld the conviction of a Virginia man for joining al-Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush and said he must be resentenced.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected a 30-year prison term and ordered a new sentencing hearing for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali. Prosecutors had argued that the trial judge improperly deviated from federal sentencing guidelines that called for life in prison. The ruling is a major victory for prosecutors in one of their most high-profile terrorism cases.

Born in Houston, Abu Ali, 27, grew up in the Washington suburb of Falls Church. He joined al-Qaeda while in Saudi Arabia in 2002 to attend college. He said a videotaped confession he had made to the Saudis was obtained through torture.

- AP

Elsewhere:

Plans for a levitating train

from Las Vegas to Disneyland can move forward under a transportation bill signed by President Bush yesterday that frees up $45 million for the futuristic project.

A senior New York

buildings official took bribes in exchange for falsely reporting that cranes had been inspected and that crane operators had been certified, but his actions did not appear to be connected to two recent crane collapses that killed nine people, authorities said yesterday.