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Science & Technology - December 2021

Understanding a recent study done by researchers on the Eurasian common lizard which exhibits both egg-laying and live-bearing modes within the same species

Recknagel, H., Carruthers, M., Yurchenko, A.A. et al. “The functional genetic architecture of egg-laying and live-bearing reproduction in common lizards.” Nat Ecol Evol 5, 1546–1556 (2021).

Convergent evolution is a phenomenon where different species evolve similar characteristics though they come from very different lineages. For example, birds, bats and insects have all evolved the power of flight through very different evolutionary pathways. In this context, it is an impressive statistic that live-bearing behaviour or viviparity (as opposed to laying eggs to beget young ones or oviparity) has evolved independently in vertebrates at least 150 times. In reptiles alone, it has evolved independently some 121 times, and to specify further, in squamates (a group including lizards, snakes and worm lizards or amphisbaenians) it has evolved independently 115 times. It is perhaps not surprising then, considering the many routes taken by evolution in forging this difference, that within this group there should be seen this rare incidence of both behaviours (oviparity and viviparity) within the same species: the Eurasian common lizard (Zootoca vivipara).


  • In the Eurasian common lizard, one finds the rare incidence of both behaviours — oviparity and viviparity.
  • Researchers have done a comparative study within the same species to understand this phenomenon. They studied mainly the genetic basis for gestation period and eggshell traits and found that more genetic variants were involved in gestation time than with eggshell traits. This indicates that the genetic basis of the retention of the embryo is more complex than that of eggshell traits.
  • The study helps in understanding the genetic basis of the evolution of pregnancy.

The subject of study

In the paper entitled, “The functional genetic architecture of egg-laying and live-bearing reproduction in common lizards,” published in Nature Evolution and Ecology, Hans Recknagel et al study a rare development: different geographically separated populations of the same species Z. vivipara, the Eurasian common lizard, show on the one hand egg-laying behaviour and on the other, live-bearing behaviour. The two populations have diverged as recently as nearly 4 million years ago, and so this may even be seen as a transition stage in moving from one parity to another. The researchers, who are from Universities of Glasgow and Bristol, U.K.; Ljubljana, Slovenia and Paris Saclay, France, have studied the genomic comparison between the two populations in an attempt to characterise the genetic basis of viviparity and oviparity and to better understand how the evolution took place. In the process, they have also seen hybrid members, in areas where the two populations overlap.

Viviparity versus oviparity

The significance of this study is attributed to the following aspect: Usually, comparative studies of viviparity and oviparity are done between different species – one of which is egg-laying and the other is live-bearing. The problem with conducting a comparative study like this is the complexity of the differences between the species which can obscure understanding. Therefore, seeing the two kinds of behaviour within the same species is a powerful tool. The researchers have analysed both the gene expression and the genomics data of the two groups to identify the genes that play out in the reproductive mode. It is also very useful that hybridisation between the two parities occurs both naturally and in the lab, perhaps because the two populations diverged only about 4 million years ago.

The development of viviparity is accompanied by changes in the mother and the development of the embryo. For instance, active physiological exchange of water, gas and calcium from mother to embryo and an adjusted immune response for maternal-foetal communication.

In advanced stages of viviparity, more complex placentation is seen with enhanced nutrition transfer from mother to baby. Also, the mother’s immune response may be modified to prevent abortion and support foetal development. In the Eurasian common lizard, viviparity is at a relatively early stage.

In order to characterise the two types of behaviour, the researchers compared the eggshell thickness, gestational time and developmental stage of the young one at birth. Offspring of oviparous females were seen to be covered in a thick shell with calcium crystals. On the other hand, neonates of females in viviparous clutches were born surrounded by a thin uncalcified membrane. This characterisation helped them understand and mark out hybrid individuals. The researchers sampled a contact zone where two groups overlapped and found that 14% of adults inherited at least 10% of their genes from the alternative parity mode, and at least 6.1% of adults were first generation hybrids. First-generation hybrid females showed intermediate properties with respect to eggshell thickness, gestation time and developmental stage at the time of expulsion of the egg from the oviduct to the environment.

Varying genes

The study was able to pinpoint the genes that differed between the two groups. It studied mainly the genetic basis for gestation period and eggshell traits and found that more genetic variants were involved in gestation time than with eggshell traits, indicating that the genetic basis of the retention of the embryo is more complex than that of eggshell traits. They found 210 single nucleotide polymorphisms and 439 genes associated with the gestation period and only 17 single nucleotide polymorphisms and 38 genes associated with eggshell trait variation. (Single nucleotide polymorphisms, abbreviated as SNPs and pronounced ‘snips’, are variations in the gene produced by the change of a single nucleotide, for example, when cytosine is replaced by thymine in a particular stretch of DNA.)

The study helps in understanding the genetic basis of the evolution of pregnancy, and the fact of seeing both parities in the same species makes this study unique and insightful.

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Edward. O. Wilson, the trailblazing U.S. scientist, professor and author whose study of insects and clarion call to protect Earth earned him the nickname “Darwin’s natural heir”, has died at age 92.

Wilson, whose death was announced on Monday by his foundation, was an award-winning biologist and longtime Harvard University research professor, considered the world’s leading authority on ants and their behavior.

While an entomologist early in his career, he broadened his scope immensely, studying not just insects but the social interactions of birds, mammals and humans, and he effectively — and controversially — established a new field of science known as sociobiology.

He was the author of hundreds of scientific papers and more than 30 books, two of which won him Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction: 1978’s On Human Nature, and The Ants in 1990.

“Ed’s holy grail was the sheer delight of the pursuit of knowledge,” said Paula Ehrlich, president of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and co-founder of the Half-Earth Project.

“A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet.

“His greatest hope was that students everywhere share his passion for discovery as the ultimate scientific foundation for future stewardship of our planet.”

Wilson, who died on Sunday in Massachusetts, had become renowned for his advances in global conservation, and advised preeminent scientific and conservation organisations.

But his trailblazing work was not without controversy. In much of his 1975 book Sociobiology, he laid out his theory of animal behavior, which earned high praise from fellow scientists. In the final chapter, though, Wilson caused an uproar by proposing that human behavior is largely genetically based, and that humans acquire a predisposition to such matters as the division of labour between genders, tribalism, male dominance and parental-child bonding.

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Deep thinking and concern for the future is what past generations have demonstrated in how they have constructed urban spaces

For three years, the congregation of All Saints’ Church has been struggling to change Namma Metro’s decision to build a concrete station box within its verdant sacred grove, a stunningly beautiful and serene garden in the middle of heavily concretised Bengaluru. Trees in this garden are gorgeously old, older than the 150-year-old charming and fragile church they embrace, a church with distinctive architecture designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, one of the pioneers of the so-called Indo-Saracenic style.

To the European Investment Bank (EIB), which lent €500 million to Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (BMRCL), Governments of India and Karnataka promised Namma Metro would be built to European Union’s Environmental and Social standards, which require protecting cultural and religious heritage and biodiversity rich spaces. The guidelines require projects financed by EIB not to destroy carbon sinks, especially in heavily built metropolises.

BMRCL argues that the price paid by the loss of this verdant sacred grove is the balance demanded by weighing environmental considerations with developmental priorities. It is also a popular sentiment, quite often employed to justify just about any mega project. Almost always, the judiciary agrees with this sentiment.

But when a similar situation arose when for the Phase I of the Metro massive strips of the Jayanagar boulevard was to be clear felled, or when 416 roads were to be widened to accommodate more space for traffic – risking permanent loss of urban greenery and pedestrian and street vending spaces – Karnataka High Court had directed BMRCL, and also Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and all infrastructure development agencies to plan with people’s views and aspirations considered through democratic processes.

Deep thinking and concern for the future is what past generations have demonstrated in how they have constructed urban spaces. Which is why we have such astonishingly biodiverse and beautiful gardens, as in All Saints Church, or Lalbagh, or Krishna Rao Park, Cubbon Park, Coles Park, the lovely boulevards and private gardens across the old Bengaluru. They are holders of fond memories, as they are of nesting landscapes with architectural flourishes, accommodating biodiversity, and reflective of compassionate decision making. All of which gets erased if a didactic approach becomes the dogma justified by claiming that is what sustainable development constitutes.

Such systemic reasoning will not weigh the value of a lake, garden, stream, boulevard, wetlands and forests in utilitarian terms, but will appreciate their centrality to the struggle we are now engaged in globally to mitigate carbon emissions and stop runaway climate change. It is such compassion that is essential to ensure we do everything necessary to sink excess carbon in the air, and make not only our cities, but the entire world more liveable.

The Make Bengaluru Climate Friendly – A Blueprint for Integrated, Participatory and Inclusive Urban Governance was evolved by the Environment Support Group, with deeply engaged participation from key representatives of multiple sectors: from the governments, academia, media, civil society, trade unions, vulnerable communities, etc. Through nine online discussions, a plan of action was built to make the metropolis sensitive to climate change’s harsh impacts and respond by integrating natural intelligence endemic to the place in formal decision-making.

The process focused on discovering resilient solutions to various complex challenges: urban flooding during monsoons and water scarcity in summer; massive investment in public transportation, yet traffic congestion and no space to walk and cycle almost everywhere; enhanced attention to personal and public health, yet health care is increasingly out of reach; massive increase of public investment in pollution control technologies, yet air and noise pollution is omnipresent and intensifying; the middle classes are getting wealthier, yet susceptible of lifestyle disorders as healthy food becomes beyond reach for most, while poor and working classes can barely afford nutritious food.

Of a metropolis as a cosmopolitan space respecting aspirations and concerns of diverse communities, while majoritarian politics threatens community cohesion, policies encouraging ‘smart’ living, when tackling climate change require nuanced ground up planning and governance based on deeply democratic decision-making.

The actions proposed were grounded in imagining what it would take to work with the frameworks proposed in Article 243 ZD/E of the Indian Constitution (introduced in 1992), which require representative planning and development decisions taking account of environmental limits to growth. In that sense they acknowledge how deeply futuristic our Constitution is, with Article 14 and 39 constituting the foundations of what was to become later as the basis on which the Rio Declaration is grounded, and of course the Common but Differentiated Responsibility paradigm. Inclusive, reasoned, intelligent, non-didactic decision making was found necessary and central to such imagining of transformations essential to secure interests of present and future generations, and sustainably.

As the city struggles out of a November filled with unprecedented rains, which has broken the city’s infrastructure and forced thousands of families into a struggle to recover from the flooding of their homes, and as massive commercial and IT complexes built to make Bengaluru a ‘global city’ turned into fishing zones, the question looming large is if we are willing to acknowledge calamitous climate change induced impacts is already bearing down on our metropolis, or if we prefer to have our heads buried in sand.

The broad message is that to sustain this metropolis into the future, we intelligently step away from past hubristic and undemocratic methods of governance, and engage in a politics which accommodates our diversities, and employs it’s enterprising nature as a vibrant engine that will groove us into extraordinary possibilities. Exploring which we can get into the journey of making Bengaluru an inclusive and climate friendly metropolis, and a model for the world.

(Leo F. Saldanha is part of Environment Support Group, an interdisciplinary policy analysis, advocacy and campaign initiative advancing environmental and socio-economic justice)

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A Japanese professor has developed a prototype lickable TV screen that can imitate food flavours, another step towards creating a multi-sensory viewing experience.

The device, called Taste the TV (TTTV), uses a carousel of 10 flavour canisters that spray in combination to create thet aste of a particular food. The flavour sample then rolls on hygienic film over a flat TV screen for the viewer to try.

In the COVID-19 era, this kind of technology can enhance the way people connect and interact with the outside world, said Meiji University professor Homei Miyashita.

"The goal is to make it possible for people to have the experience of something like eating at a restaurant on the other side of the world, even while staying at home," he said.

Miyashita works with a team of about 30 students that has produced a variety of flavour-related devices, including a fork that makes food taste richer. He said he built the TTTV prototype himself over the past year and that a commercial version would cost about 100,000 yen ($875) to make.

Potential applications include distance learning for sommeliers and cooks, and tasting games and quizzes, he said.

Miyashita has also been in talks with companies about using his spray technology for applications like a device that can apply a pizza or chocolate taste to a slice of toasted bread.

Meiji student Yuki Hou, 22, demonstrated TTTV for reporters, telling the screen she wanted to taste sweet chocolate. After a few tries, an automated voice repeated the order and flavour jets spritzed a sample onto a plastic sheet.

“It's kind of like milk chocolate,” she said. “It's sweet like a chocolate sauce.”

($1 = 114.1900 yen)(Reporting by Rikako Murayama and Rocky Swift; Editing by TomHogue)

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On December 26, 1898, French engineer Henri Becquerel informed the French Academy of Sciences of the discovery of a new element. The element in question, radium, was discovered a few days earlier by the Curies, Marie and Pierre. A.S.Ganesh takes a look at the discovery of radium…

Marie Curie is a name that needs no introduction. A name synonymous with advances in sciences, she was particularly involved in the branch of radioactivity. Marie, in fact, is the only woman so far to have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice. After becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903, she won a second in 1911.

Marie shared her 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, the French physicist Pierre Curie, and their colleague, the French engineer Henri Becquerel. While Becquerel was given half the prize, the other half was shared by the Curies. The Curies won this award “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”.

An intellectual affinity

Marie and Pierre met in the spring of 1894 and what started as an intellectual affinity soon blossomed into something more, as they married each other in 1895. What brought them together, kept them together, as the husband-wife duo teamed up professionally to deliver astounding results.

Becquerel paved the way for the Curies’ groundbreaking research by discovering radioactivity (a term later coined by Marie) in 1896. While most of the scientific community was fascinated by German engineer Wilhelm Roentgen’s recent discovery of X-rays, Becquerel’s discovery hadn’t aroused much attention. Marie, however, was drawn towards the idea and decided to make a systematic investigation.

It didn’t take her long to realise that thorium gave off rays just like uranium. She drew the conclusion that the ability to radiate must be linked to the interior of the atom itself and didn’t depend on the arrangement of atoms in a molecule.

A productive year

Even though Pierre had been working with crystals and magnetism since the early 1880s, Marie’s interest in radioactivity, and the results that she was getting, dragged him away from his crystals. Marie’s next idea was to study natural ores that contain uranium and thorium and she posited that a new element must be present in small quantities in the ore she studied on finding that it was far more active than the same amount of uranium.

By the end of June 1898, the Curies had discovered polonium, a substance about 300 times more active than uranium. The word “radioactivity” was used for the first time when they published about this work in July. By the end of the same year, they had grounds for having come upon another very active substance that they named radium. It was their colleague Becquerel who relayed the news about the discovery of radium to the French Academy of Sciences on December 26.

“Happiest years of their lives”

What followed was the arduous task of showing that they had indeed discovered new elements by producing demonstrable amounts of them, determining their atomic weights and even isolating them, if possible. Working out of a large unoccupied shed, the Curies laboriously isolated one-tenth of a gram of radium from one tonne of pitchblende. Even though the conditions in which they worked proved detrimental to their health, Marie later reminisced that “it was in that shed that they spent the best and happiest years of their lives”.

The Curies’ high of winning the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was tempered by the sudden death of Pierre in an accident in 1906. Marie, however, continued their work, and having devised a technique to separate radium from its residues, made it possible for it to be studied for its therapeutic properties.

Marie also took over her husband’s position as professor of general physics, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne University. After winning a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for chemistry, she went on to spend the rest of her life on their scientific work, including promoting the healing nature of radium.


Murray’s mistake

Radium was one among thousands of words that wasn’t included in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and only made its way through a supplement that was produced in 1933.

It is believed that the lexicographers at Oxford were working on the fascicle ‘R’ to ‘Reactive’ at the time when the Curies coined the term “radium” for the element that they had newly discovered.

Even though this seems like a perfect moment to include the word in the dictionary, James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer and the first editor of what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary, erred on the side of being cautious and decided against including it as he believed that the word might not last.

Murray, of course, was proven wrong as the Curies went on to win the Nobel Prize for their work, which included the discovery of radium.

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Smell factor

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have found that negative smells associated with unpleasantness or unease are processed earlier than positive smells and trigger a physical avoidance response. The cognitive process is not only unconscious but is also extremely rapid, this goes against the conventional wisdom that unpleasant smells associated with danger is a conscious cognitive process.

The olfactory organ takes up about 5% of the human brain and enables us to distinguish between many million different smells. A large proportion of these smells are associated with a threat to our health and survival, such as that of chemicals and rotten food. In humans, the olfactory sense seems particularly important for detecting and reacting to potentially harmful stimuli.

Until recently, it was not known which neural mechanisms are involved in the conversion of an unpleasant smell into avoidance behaviour in humans. The reason: lack of non-invasive methods of measuring signals from the olfactory bulb, the first part of the rhinencephalon with direct connections to the important central parts of the nervous system that helps us detect and remember threatening and dangerous situations and substances, says a Karolinska Institutet press release.

The researchers have for the first time made it possible to measure signals from the human olfactory bulb, which processes smells and in turn can transmits signals to parts of the brain that control movement and avoidance behaviour (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Three experiments were carried out in which participants were asked to rate their experience of six different smells, some positive, some negative, while the electrophysiological activity of the olfactory bulb when responding to each of the smells was measured. And they found that the bulb reacts specifically and rapidly to negative smells and sends a direct signal to the motor cortex within about 300 milliseconds, the release says.

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There is evidence to suggest that immunity, when it wanes after the second dose, can be boosted with a third dose

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 clearly appears to be taking over as the dominant strain of the virus, reflecting its increased transmissibility, and ability to escape the immunity conferred by the standard vaccination schedule or past infection. There is evidence to suggest that such immunity, which wanes with time elapsed from the second dose, can be boosted with a third dose of the vaccine.

There are several arguments which are being made against boosters, which seem to be oversimplifying the discourse.

The first of these arguments is that two doses protect against severe disease, irrespective of the waning protection against infection with the passage of time. We now know this is not true. A study analysing data from medical databases in Brazil and Scotland (with close to 2 million adults from Scotland, and 42 million from Brazil) found protection from the vaccine against hospitalisations and death beginning to wane within three months after the second dose. This study analysed data before the Omicron variant was reported. A more transmissible variant would mean a potentially larger denominator of those infected, and even if a small proportion of these individuals need hospitalisation, we could potentially overwhelm the healthcare system. A shorter doubling time which is being reported for Omicron would also mean that infections are likely to be clustered in time, making “flattening the curve” more challenging.

Is it just like a flu?

Second comes the statement, “Omicron could be just like the flu.” We need to remind ourselves that influenza kills 12,000–52,000 individuals in the U.S. every year (as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and possibly a significantly higher number in India, where we do not routinely test for the virus. We also need to remind ourselves that respiratory infections increase risk of heart attacks and strokes upto sixfold, and it would be in our best interests to prevent them, especially in the elderly and immunocompromised. Even if Omicron intrinsically causes a milder illness than the existing variants, its impact on vulnerable groups could be profound, and cannot be trivialised. Post-COVID sequelae and long-COVID do not often get captured in statistics since they may not be associated with hospitalisation, but are very real reasons for us to do our best to prevent infection. But focusing exclusively on the fact that Omicron may not cause disease as severe as the Delta variant, we ignore all the collateral damage that it might cause which may not get labelled as severe COVID disease.

Effective strategy

Thirdly, the view that boosters are a luxury when India has vaccine shortages: An important question is whether it is hesitancy or shortages that have prevented the entire eligible population from being vaccinated? In addition, when last checked, a majority of the doses presently being administered are second doses to those in the relatively low-risk 18–44 age group category, followed by first doses to individuals in the same category (close to 3.6 million and 0.9 million doses, respectively, of the 6.2 million total doses administered on December 22). Suspending vaccinations temporarily for those under 40 years of age without comorbidities (who, even when unvaccinated, suffer mild illness, the data from South Africa confirming this for Omicron) to offer booster doses to vulnerable groups might be a more effective strategy rather than waiting for a later date after Omicron has spread through the community and caused irreparable damage.

Lastly, a booster with the same vaccine does not work: The COV-BOOST study analysed seven different vaccines as boosters and found all of them effective to varying degrees after two doses of Covishield, including Covishield as a booster. A heterologous prime-boost strategy (booster with a different vaccine) definitely performs better, but whether a third dose of what is available today is better than an ideal third dose that’s available a month later needs to be modelled. Mixing the available vaccines (Covishield followed by Covaxin and vice-versa) is being tested, and if the results are promising, this might be an efficient strategy.

Healthcare workers

Other considerations that must be weighed in the decision to roll out a booster immediately is that we do not want hordes of individuals gathering to receive their third dose in the middle of an Omicron surge, turning vaccination centre gatherings into superspreader events. This is very likely to have happened with the Delta variant during the second surge, and we must not make the mistake of repeating this with Omicron. Rapid, widespread transmission would also mean the possible selection of newer variants, the attributes of which are impossible to predict. We also do not want healthcare workers falling ill at the same time, thereby paralysing healthcare services (it has been close to a year since when frontline workers have been vaccinated).

Our vaccination programme, combined with the high background seroprevalence from past infection, has likely protected us for the last few months. However, it was always known that if there was a new variant which caused vaccine breakthrough infections and reinfections, we could face another big wave. In addition to strictly preventing crowds and superspreader events, we need to act fast, using the available scientific evidence, to prevent such a wave with the Omicron variant. Rolling out booster doses to the immunocompromised, elderly, and frontline workers immediately could be invaluable.

(Lancelot Pinto, MD, is a consultant respirologist with P.D.Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre, Mumbai, India.)

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Brain scans indicated long-known music activates various brain areas

Dementia is a group of symptoms that affect memory and thinking and interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s Disease is the main and major cause of dementia. Treatments to reduce the symptoms and progression of dementia can be clinical, or methods such as practising yoga, breathing exercises, brisk walking and listening to tuneful music. It is an age-related disease, affecting over 55 million people across the world. The National Health Portal of India says that as per the Census 2011, dementia affects 2.7% of the 65 million Indian Senior Citizens over 65 years of age.

Combating dementia

The California-based site “Bayview Senior Assisted Living,” in an article suggests 13 ways in which dementia can be handled/reduced. These are: (1) breathing in and out- thinking of nothing but the breath coming out, (2) thinking about a favourite, peaceful place – even your noise-free living room, (3) nurturing a pet, (4) massage – once or twice a week relieves stress, (5) yoga – the breathing has a calming effect, (6) singing, or playing music – whatever you enjoyed during your prime, (7) doing arts and crafts – knitting, painting, and such, (8) cleaning your place daily; it keeps your brain working and offers a sense of accomplishment, (9) tending a garden – even if it is only flower pots, (10) reading newspapers and books, not just listening to TV news channels (and also trying to answer questions asked on Kaun Banega Karorpathi), (11) attempting puzzles, crosswords, sudoku and the like, and learning a new language, (12) doing simple cooking, of course with someone’s help, and (13) organising – bringing order to drawers or shelves – getting rid of unwanted old files and letters will be an accomplishment!

What are other factors of value in reducing depression and postponing Alzheimer’s? Will bilingualism (ability to handle two languages with ease) or multilingualism be of greater advantage in reducing dementia than just familiarity with a single language? Dr. Subhash Kaul and Dr. Suvarna Alladi of Hyderabad looked into this aspect.In their study, bilingual dementia patients developed the disorder over four years later than monolingual subjects.

As it turns out, people in many parts of India are indeed bilingual (speak at least two languages, even if they cannot read in them). Indeed, most people who work in cities are good in speaking two languages; their jobs- housemaids, shopkeepers and the like – require bilingualism. Prof. Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath of the Centre for Brain Research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, has initiated work to study this aspect using functional magnetic resonance imaging, along with a survey of people around Bengaluru. Of course, it will be helpful for senior citizens who are monolingual to start learning a second language.

Role of music

Another important factor is music. Even listening to music can be therapeutic. Indeed, the paper by Celia Moreno-Morales et al., titled ‘Music Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’, in Frontiers in Medicine (Lausanne) (doi:10.3389/fmed.2020.00160) analysed the outcomes of eight earlier studies and concluded that music could be a powerful treatment strategy, by itself or in combination with pharmacological therapy, depending on the nature of the dementia.

Musical memory

In a similar vein is the paper by M. H. Thaut et al., titled: ‘Neural Basis of Long-term Musical Memory in Cognitively Impaired Older Persons’, which has appeared in the journal Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders ( doi: 10.1097/WAD.

0000000000000382). Using fMRI to scan the brain areas of 17 subjects with mild cognitive impairment, who were listening to short clips of personally selected music from the patient’s past, as well as newly composed music, the scientists concluded that long-known music activates various areas of the brain, and also identified why long-term memory is preserved among cognitively impaired older persons. In other words, they recognise and enjoy it!

Such experiments have been done right here in India by Prof. Nandini Chatterjee Singh’s group of the National Centre for Brain Research, Manesar, Haryana. She assembled a group of classical Hindustani musicians and as they performed, she monitored the players and listeners. You may access it in the podcasts section of the website or by searching for “Emotions in Hindustani Music-Part 2. Podcast.”

Rhythm and beat

It is not just the tune, but also the rhythm, timing and the movement. Those of us who listen to old movie songs can immediately capture errors in musical scale and rhythm. Professor Jessica Grahn of London, Ontario, Canada says that moving to music is an instinctive, often involuntary activity, experienced by those in all cultures. As humans move to music, the brain’s movement centres light up in response to music and rhythm, even when we aren’t moving a muscle. Do individuals who have trouble moving to the beat sill feel compelled to do so? Here then is an exciting potential held by musical interventions for those with degenerative neurological disorders such as dementia. So let the music play on!

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The short-lived flare recorded by the ISS instruments spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years

An international group of researchers has succeeded in measuring for the first time the characteristics of a flare on a distant magnetar. A magnetar is a rare compact type of neutron star teeming with energy and magnetism. The magnetar they have studied is about 13 million light years away, in the direction of the NGC 253, a prominent galaxy in the Sculptor group of galaxies.

The flare, which spewed within a few tenths of a second as much energy as the Sun would shed in 100,000 years, was captured accidentally on April 15, 2020, by the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor instrument (ASIM) of the International Space Station.

Rare and exotic

This data was then analysed by the researchers over the period of a year to throw light into the structure of the flare, and thereby, into the nature of such magnetars. This is the first study to characterise such a flare from so distant a magnetar. The research was published in the journal, Nature.

Magnetars are relatively rare objects, with only about thirty having been spotted within the Milky Way so far. The present magnetar is only the second one to be studied which is located outside the galaxy and is also the furthest, at 13 million light years distance.

How magnetars form

During the course of their evolution, massive stars – with masses around 10-25 times the mass of the Sun – eventually collapse and shrink to form very compact objects called neutron stars. A subset of these neutron stars are the so-called magnetars which possess intense magnetic fields. These are highly dense and have breathtakingly high rotation speeds – they have rotational periods that can be just 0.3 to 12.0 seconds. “We believe that size of the object was around 20 km in diameter with mass around 1.4 times the mass of the Sun,” says Shashi Bhushan Pandey of the Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences, Nainital, who is one of the authors of the paper.

High luminosity

Magnetars have high magnetic fields in the range of 1015 gauss and they emit energy in the range given by luminosities of 1037 – 1040 joules per second. Compare this to the luminosity of the sun which is in the order of 1026 joules per second – a factor of at least 1011 lower.

Further, these magnetars emit violent flares. “The observations revealed multiple pulses, with a first pulse appearing only for about tens of microseconds, much faster than other extreme astrophysical transients,” said Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, from the Andalusian Institute for Astrophysics (IAA-CSIC), Spain, and lead author of the paper, in a release circulated by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

The observed giant flare lasted approximately 160 milliseconds and during this time 1039 joules of energy was released. The flare spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years, according to the paper.

Eruptions in magnetars are believed to be due to instabilities in their magnetosphere, or “starquakes” produced in their crust - a rigid, elastic layer about one kilometre thick. This causes waves in the magnetosphere, and interaction between these waves causes dissipation of energy.

Magnetars are very difficult to observe when they are silent. It is only during a flare that they can be observed, and these flares are so short-lived that it presents a formidable problem. “They are mostly observed or seen in active transient phases which are very short in duration and are very faint in general for any available instruments or telescopes,” says Dr Pandey.

Serendipitous finding

It was also a serendipitous find because, as Dr Pandey explains: “ASIM is mainly designed with its large effective area to observe terrestrial gamma ray flashes. It was a great coincidence that this bright transient flash was observed by ASIM instrument.”

According to Dr Pandey, studying these flares will not only help us understand the physics of magnetars, it will also help in understanding fast radio bursts, which are among the most enigmatic phenomena in astronomy.


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Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centres of distant galaxies.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, built to give the world a glimpse of the universe as it existed when the first galaxies formed, was launched by rocket early on December 25 from South America’s northeastern coast, opening a new era of astronomy.

The revolutionary $9-billion infrared telescope, hailed by NASA as the premier space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane5 rocket that blasted off atabout 7.20 a.m. EST (5.50 p.m. IST) from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana.

The flawless Christmas Day launch, with a countdown conducted in French, was carried live on a joint NASA-ESA webcast.

After a 27-minute ride into space, the 14,000-pound instrument was released from the upper stage of the French-built rocket, and should gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward on its own.

Live video captured by a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed the Webb moving gently away high above the Earth as it was jettisoned. Flight controllers confirmed moments later that Webb’s power supply was operational.

In this image released by NASA, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard, lifts off Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, at Europe's Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. | Photo Credit: AP

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit about 1.6 million km from Earth — about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with the Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.

By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from about 550 km away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.

Named after the man who oversaw NASA through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to gaze through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Cosmological history lesson

The new telescope’s primary mirror —consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal — also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

That, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen — dating to just 100 million year safter the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

Also read | NASA’s new space telescope to hunt for signs of alien life

Hubble’s view reached back to roughly 400 million years following the Big Bang, a period just after the very first galaxies — sprawling clusters of stars, gases and other interstellar matter — are believed to have taken shape.

Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centres of distant galaxies.

Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets — celestial bodies orbiting distant stars — and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor. The Arianespace launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.

Webb was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational expenses projected to bring its total price tag to about $9.66 billion, far higher than planned when NASA was previously aiming for a 2011 launch.

Astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the summer of 2022, following about six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments.

It is then that NASA expects to release the initial batch of images captured by Webb. Webb is designed to last up to 10 years.

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Findings have not yet been reviewed by other experts

Two new British studies provide some early hints that the omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the delta version.

Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.

Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests omicron may not be as harmful as the delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.

“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.

An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20% less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the delta variant, and 40% less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.

That analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of omicron and 269,000 cases of delta.

A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with omicron than delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults ages 20-39. Younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.

“This national investigation is one of the first to show that Omicron is less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalization than Delta,” researchers wrote. While the findings are early observations, “they are encouraging,” the authors wrote.

The findings have not yet been reviewed by other experts, the gold standard in scientific research.

Ascano noted the studies have limitations. For example, the findings are specific to a certain point in time during a quickly changing situation in the United Kingdom and other countries may not fare the same way.

Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that in the Scottish study, the percentage of younger people was almost twice as high for the omicron group compared with the delta group, and that “could have biased the conclusions to less severe outcomes caused by omicron.”

He nonetheless said the data were interesting and suggest omicron might lead to less severe disease. But he added: “It’s important to emphasize that if omicron has a much higher transmission rate compared to delta, the absolute number of people requiring hospitalization might still increase, despite less severe disease in most cases.”

Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested omicron might be milder there. Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious disease epidemiologist in South Africa, said earlier this week that the rate of admissions to hospitals was far lower for omicron than it was for delta.

“Our overall admission rate is in the region of around 2% to 4% compared to previously, where it was closer to 20%,” he said. “So even though we’re seeing a lot of cases, very few are being admitted."

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Levels of neutralising antibodies rose sharply after a third dose.

A third dose of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines significantly increased the immune response to the Omicron variant, according to a new study by University of Oxford researchers.

The laboratory study, which has not been peer reviewed yet, compared antibody levels in blood samples from people who received two doses of vaccine with samples from those who had received a third dose.

While two doses provided much less protection against Omicron than earlier variants, levels of neutralising antibodies rose sharply after a third dose, the study found.

The researchers wrote: “In summary, neutralization titres against omicron are boosted following a third vaccine dose, meaning that the campaign to deploy booster vaccines should add considerable protection against omicron infection.”

The study also found that unvaccinated people who had recovered from COVID-19 probably have “little protection from reinfection with omicron”, though they may have some protection against serious illness.

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Vaccines do provide protection and the focus in our country should be on vaccinating the remaining 22% population with double dosage, says Director Vinay Kumar Nandicoori

Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research–Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB) is working on specific primers for improving the current Covid testing methods like the RT-PCR where the emerging Omicran variant can be identified. “We are working on a few sets of primers, but we have to test them extensively and validate them, before we can put them out so that a positive patient can know if it is the current dominant Delta variant or the new Omicron,” said Director Dr. Vinay Kumar Nandicoori.

“As per the data available, Delta is still dominant across the country. Whether Omicron will replace it, we will see in the coming days. We should know that in South Africa where it was first detected, the Delta wave was waning when this new variant took over, which shows better infectivity and naturally the unvaccinated are prone to get infections than others,” he explained.

In an exclusive interaction, Dr. Nandicoori emphasised that vaccines do provide protection and the focus in our country should be on vaccinating the remaining 22% population with double dosage. “There are going to be fatalities among the double vaccinated also but the numbers are much less when compared to those unvaccinated. I would urge people not to get alarmed and follow Covid protocols. Panic is not going to work but precautions would,” he asserted.

The top scientist said, while the immune escape ability of Omicron is higher, its severity and pathogenicity appear to be lower compared with the Delta, which also had immune escape features. “There is alarm because of the 32-37 mutations on the spike protein alone and some are already known to escape the immune response,” he said.

Studies, thus far, have shown existing antibodies due to prior infection to vaccines offer lower protection for Omicron when compared to Delta, but it is not as if the “immunity is non-existent”. “The response will vary from patient to patient depending on many parameters, however, we should know that in addition to B-mediated immunity, which produces the antibodies, we also have T-Cell immunity. Current knowledge suggests there is still some protective cover,” he explained.

While he does not want to ‘speculate’ on how Omicron infection could pan out, the Director points to the United Kingdom example where the first round of infections led to several deaths and when Delta ravaged, the fatalities were not that high. “It shows vaccines do protect from severity and this is different from testing positive due to symptoms on getting infected. We should be looking into how many were hospitalised and deaths,” he pointed out.

India, having experienced the worst second ‘Delta’ wave, with significant vaccination status among the population and hybrid immunity considering 70-90% population are ‘sero-positive’ — infected or vaccinated or both infected and vaccinated, there is some ground for hope. “But, it is an emerging thing and too soon to say anything even if the South African experience shows the hospitals and deaths are lower. We will have a lot more information in a few days' time,” he said.

Apart from increasing testing, more genome sequencing from cases among the general population will give a picture if a wave is coming in, added Dr. Nandicoori.

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Fortification will increase serum ferritin without changing haemoglobin level

Many things have been said about the necessity for mandatory iron fortification of foods in India. That it is a ‘necessity’, ‘complementary strategy’ to dietary diversity, ‘effective’ and more loudly now, that it is ‘safe’. Given what we now know, and are uncovering, about the risks associated with too much iron, particularly in children, the proclamation of safety must be made carefully.

The simple fact is that iron is not safe in excess; it is an oxidant with a variety of ill-effects. Just because a ‘tolerable upper limit was proposed for its intake, any intake less than this was thought to be safe. But no longer. We must think of the long-term risk for other diseases, not the toxicological approach of looking at acute clinical symptoms, like stomach pain. This is because we now know that iron increases the risk for many non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and even high blood cholesterol.

What is the evidence? Take diabetes: what happens when body iron stores, measured by serum ferritin concentration, increase? In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of a healthy U.S. population, those with high ferritin level had a four-fold higher risk of having diabetes. In India, our team recently analysed a national, quality-controlled survey (Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey) of Indian adolescents, to evaluate the risk of high blood sugar, high blood lipids and high blood pressure as their serum ferritin increased.

The results were scary; there was a clear and significant risk for each of these conditions as serum ferritin increased. Note that fortification of any one staple (rice, wheat, or salt) will increase serum ferritin, without necessarily changing the haemoglobin level. When provided together, the increased iron intake could be 20- 30 mg/day. We also modelled the risk when an additional 10 mg of iron/day (single staple fortification) was present: this increased high blood sugar prevalence by 2-14% across States of India, with similar findings for high blood pressure and high lipids.

Risk already high

If that is not sobering enough- another of our published analyses of the same national survey, showed that no less than 50% of Indian children, aged 5-19 years, already had a biomarker of either high blood sugar or high blood lipids, even when thin or stunted. Thus, the risk of chronic disease is already very high in our children, and we will implement this veiled threat of risk magnification by mandatory cereal fortification. Cereal intake is already too high, and should be replaced by more quality foods like pulses, fruits and vegetables, etc. We should be straining every sinew to prevent the high burden of chronic disease with life-long and intergenerational consequences, starting with our children. Remember- India is already called the world capital of diabetes and hypertension: what next?

There are also other simple truths, that should give us pause before we rush to mandatory iron fortification. First, we do not even know if anaemia is as rampant to warrant such mandatory measures. The WHO is having a consultation this year to evaluate if haemoglobin diagnostic cut-offs for anaemia should be lowered in different geographies, one of which is India. This is partly based on a recent paper in The Lancet by us, that showed that the cut-offs were likely lower than the WHO cut-off in Indian children. This lowering has been also confirmed in a study of no less than 32 countries worldwide, as well as another in pregnant women. A lower cut-off will mean a lower (halved) anemia prevalence.

Choices removed

Second, when mandatory fortification is enforced in parts of the population that do not need this, it removes their choice of foods, or autonomy, and could even be unethical if the risk of other morbidities is increased. Third, iron deficiency in the Indian diet is not a universal problem: the Indian requirement for iron has been lowered by half to two-thirds in 2020. Fourth, rice fortification has not been shown to work in a combined analysis, by the respectable Cochrane group, of all available and rigorous studies.

It is misleading to dismiss this analysis, and instead quote sporadic Indian studies purporting to show that fortification is successful, since these are either not published, or ‘quasi experimental’, sometimes without randomization or even a true measurement of blood haemoglobin.

Pragmatism demands that we await the forthcoming WHO haemoglobin cut-offs to get to the true anaemia burden and only rely on gold-standard venous blood haemoglobin in future surveys. Dietary modification strategies should be the preferred solutions; they are not impossible to achieve, as studies in rural India show. With the ever-expanding health care infrastructure (Ayushmaan Bharat and associated clinics), we need to move to equity for all in precision treatment: here, we should evaluate the cause of anaemia and prescribe treatment accordingly. Experience from Covid testing shows that India can do it!

(Anura Kurpad is Professor of Physiology and Nutrition in St John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, and Harshpal Singh Sachdev is a senior consultant in Paediatrics and Clinical Epidemiology, Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi)

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There would have been a surge in cases if the variant is already present in India as Omicron spreads two to three times faster than Delta

Over 100 Omicron variant cases have been detected so far in 11 States in India. Except for one case of a medical doctor in Bengaluru who has been confirmed to be infected with the Omicron variant, the remaining have been detected in international passengers arriving in India and their contacts.

A November 30, 2021 circular from the health ministry clearly mentions that effective December 1, all passengers arriving from specified “at-risk” countries will be required to undergo an RT-PCR test on arrival. And random testing is to be done on 2% of the total flight passengers arriving from other countries. Incidentally, the at-risk countries list has not been updated since the circular was sent on November 30; it includes only Europe, the U.K. and 11 other countries.

While all positive samples are to be sent for genome sequencing, passengers arriving from at-risk countries will have to undergo home quarantine for seven days, retest on the eighth day of arrival in India and if negative, further self-monitor their health for the next seven days.

The testing strategy adopted now looks quite similar to the one put in place early last year when testing was confined to international passengers and their contacts if the index case tests positive. While over 80 countries have confirmed Omicron variant, the testing in India is confined to international passengers. Positive samples sent for genome sequencing to confirm for the Omicron variant are almost primarily restricted to international passengers. Is India missing to identify the Omicron variant in the community by not at least randomly sequencing a few positive samples? Absence of evidence is surely not evidence of absence.

Limited testing

“This depends on the extent to which we believe the Omicron variant has already spread in the country. Levels of overall testing are currently fairly low, at the level of 1-3 million daily but the problem is that most of these tests are being done in a small number of States, mainly Kerala, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Because of this, it is hard to figure out to what extent silent spread has already begun in other parts of the country or whether cases are picking up,” says Dr. Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University.

Based on the speed at which the Omicron variant spreads, scientists have said one infected person can spread it to three or more people. Scientifically speaking, the R0 of the Omicron variant is over 3. The Omicron variant has been found to spread two-three times faster than the highly transmissible Delta variant. As a result, in other countries, Omicron cases are doubling every two to four days, which is far shorter time frame compared with the Delta variant.

Since the variant spreads faster than the Delta variant, there would have been a surge in cases in India if it is already present in the community. “For now, we have nothing that suggests a large-scale rise in cases so far, which might have been a consequence of Omicron,” Dr. Menon says in an email to The Hindu.

Incorrect test kits used

Not only are the testing rates across India low, most of the RT-PCR test kits used in many States do not have a S-gene target in the primer. The S-gene dropout in the BA.1 sub-lineage is used as a proxy for identifying the Omicron variant. In the absence of test kits with a S-gene target, only genome sequencing can identify the variant.

“We need more random testing to detect community spread in those States which are not already testing well, and we need to sequence some fraction of the positive cases, both symptomatic and random, on a priority basis to look for Omicron. Right now, we don't have any evidence of large-scale transmission of Omicron but that could simply be an artefact of lack of testing,” he says.

In the absence of increased testing and genome sequencing, another layer of complexity in noticing a surge in cases might be related to the mild nature of the disease caused by the variant in those who are already protected. While the Omicron variant can cause reinfections in people who have been previously infected and cause breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people and even among those who have received a booster shot, the cases mostly have only mild disease.

Missing the mild cases?

With a large percentage of the population in India being naturally infected, over 57% fully vaccinated and over 87% having received the first dose, most of the cases caused by Omicron may be mild, thus not being tested. A significant number of people who have been vaccinated might have been previously infected during the deadly second wave. This combination of infection plus vaccination produces hybrid immunity, which is more protective than just vaccination or infection alone. This could be another reason why cases in the community might have been missed.

One of the first Omicron positive cases detected in India on November 22 was a medical doctor in Bengaluru who had no travel history or contact with any international passenger. This suggests that the possibility of the variant already being present in the community cannot be completely ruled out. “That [case] is certainly evidence for some degree of community transmission, since there is no apparent connection to a case of international travel. However, not all such infections will necessarily lead to an explosion in cases and it is possible that this was a one-off event,” Dr. Menon says.

“I personally think it is just a matter of time till we see Omicron cases rising, perhaps by January. There is some level of protection, one assumes, from the fact that many Indians have sustained a recent Delta infection and many are now vaccinated as well. This may lead to overall milder cases, which might be one reason why we have not seen any sizeable jump in hospital admissions,” he adds.

Kerala health secretary Dr. Rajan Khobragade says that besides sequencing positive cases of international passengers, Kerala will sequence positive cases from huge clusters and superspreader events to rule out the Omicron variant in the State.

But Dr. Menon feels it might be necessary to sequence some fraction of symptomatic COVID-19 patients across the country to assess the presence of COVID-19 and this specific variant in the population, and also test randomly, looking for the presence of Omicron in a fraction of those that test positive. “Only then can we assess the extent of community spread,” he says.

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The Parker Solar Probe flew through the solar atmosphere known as corona in April during the spacecraft’s eighth close approach to the sun.

A NASA spacecraft has officially “touched” the sun, plunging through the unexplored solar atmosphere known as the corona.

Scientists announced the news Tuesday during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The Parker Solar Probe actually flew through the corona in April during the spacecraft’s eighth close approach to the sun. Scientists said it took a few months to get the data back and then several more months to confirm.

"Fascinatingly exciting,” said project scientist Nour Raouafi of Johns Hopkins University.

Launched in 2018, Parker was 13 million kilometers from the center of the sun when it first crossed the jagged, uneven boundary between the solar atmosphere and outgoing solar wind. The spacecraft dipped in and out of the corona at least three times, each a smooth transition, according to scientists.

“The first and most dramatic time we were below for about five hours ... Now you might think five hours, that doesn't sound big," the University of Michigan's Justin Kasper told reporters. But he noted that Parker was moving so fast it covered a vast distance during that time, tearing along at more than 100 kilometers per second.

The corona appeared dustier than expected, according to Raouafi. Future coronal excursions will help scientist better understand the origin of the solar wind, he said, and how it is heated and accelerated out into space. Because the sun lacks a solid surface, the corona is where the action is; exploring this magnetically intense region up close can help scientists better understand solar outbursts that can interfere with life here on Earth.

Preliminary data suggest Parker also dipped into the corona during its ninth close approach in August, but scientists said more analyses are needed. It made its 10th close approach last month.

Parker will keep drawing ever closer to the sun and diving deeper into the corona until its grand finale orbit in 2025.

The latest findings were also published by the American Physical Society.

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Its rapid spread is likely to test public health systems and their ability to react efficiently

It has been two weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOC) in the ongoing SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus pandemic. Efforts by researchers from Africa and across the world over this time have provided immense insights into the epidemiology as well as biological properties of the virus. We provide a brief overview of the current understanding on the Omicron variant.

Timeline recapped

The earliest genome for what is now designated as the Omicron variant was sequenced from a viral isolate collected from Gauteng, South Africa in early November, 2021 and was made publicly available by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa through GISAID, a database for sharing genomes of viruses. Further analysis revealed similar genomes deposited from Botswana and Hong Kong, characterised by a large number of mutations, particularly in the spike protein. This led researchers to report the cluster of genomes on the Pango Network, an open community of researchers working together to annotate lineages of SARS-CoV-2, and the lineage was thus designated as B.1.1.529.

The unique cluster, epidemiologically linked with the uptick of cases in Gauteng, and the configuration of mutations, many of which have been previously linked with immune escape and recommendations by the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), led to the designation of the lineage as a VOC.

Since its designation, owing to added genomic surveillance and deposits of genomic data from across the world, over 2,700 sequences of the Omicron variant are presently available in GISAID, a database which shares genomic sequences deposited by researchers from across the world. As more sequences were submitted to GISAID, it was observed that a number of genomes did not have the full set of mutations that define Omicron while having many of the characteristic mutations. The originally designated B.1.1.529 lineage was thus split by the Pango Network into two sister lineages, BA.1 and BA.2 (where BA is an alias for B.1.1.529). While both these lineages have almost all important spike protein mutations that were initially defined for Omicron, the lineage BA.2 does not have a deletion in the spike protein which is present in the original lineage (BA.1).

The transmission rate, immune evasion and the proportions of patients developing severe disease and death are the useful parameters which would enable broad assessments on how the variant would impact the population. In the following sections, we detail the evidence on each of these parameters.

Immune evasion

The immune system has two arms. The first arm is mediated by antibodies — proteins which can recognise and bind proteins on the surface of microorganisms thereby neutralising them. The second type is mediated by T-cells which can recognise and kill cells infected with viruses.

It is widely believed that the antibody mediated response determines the initial barrier of infection while the cellular response is decisive in the development of disease severity to COVID-19. The corpus of evidence at hand for Omicron is largely based on antibodies and neutralisation.

The Omicron variant has about 32 mutations in the spike protein, many of which have been associated with binding sites of antibodies, indicating that it would escape antibodies from previous infections, vaccines and many monoclonal antibodies used in the treatment.

While clinical estimates of vaccine efficacy can only occur after sufficient number of tracked infections with well-defined vaccination status have occurred, early assessments of immune evasion could be assessed in the lab by performing neutralisation tests. In these experiments, whole virus or virus-like particles (pseudoviruses) are tested with sera from people who have been vaccinated or previously infected. This assesses whether the virus can evade the antibodies present in the sera of these individuals. While these are not surrogates of vaccine efficiency, they can provide early insights.

A total of six studies are now available in public domain from across the world. While the ranges of neutralisation compared with the ancestral lineages as well as Delta provide a wide range, it is unequivocal that the neutralisation of Omicron is significantly less than that of the ancestral lineage (B.1, 20-40-fold lower)) or Delta (about five-fold lower). The only silver lining is that antibodies from individuals with boosters, or individuals with infection prior to vaccination (hybrid immunity), seem to neutralise the virus to some extent.

Early evidence on vaccine efficiency has also emerged from the United Kingdom Health Security Agency, which evaluated efficiency for vaccines against symptomatic infection, that also corroborated quite well with the observations in the laboratory. Two doses of AstraZeneca (ChAdOx1) seemingly provides practically no protection against symptomatic infection, while an added booster with mRNA vaccine seemingly provides much better protection against symptomatic infection. The estimates for protection against severe disease and death would be estimated much later as these are delayed events.

In the perspective of public health, this would mean a significant number of people with pre-existing immunity from COVID-19 infections or from two doses of vaccines could still have symptomatic re-infections and vaccine breakthrough infections.

Transmission rate

The rate of transmission is another major parameter which could be useful in understanding how fast the variant would spread in a region, and is critical in making appropriate plans for testing and management, including hospitalisation. One of the useful estimates for assessing the rate of transmission is the doubling time. Early data in this regard has been made available from South Africa, the United Kingdom and Denmark. Early assessments suggest the doubling time for the Omicron variant is approximately 2.5 to 3 days, which is much shorter than the Delta variant. This significant advantage of Omicron over Delta means that in regions where ongoing and high transmission of the Delta variant is occurring, including in the U.K., the Omicron would emerge as the dominant lineage in a very short period of three to four weeks.

From a public health point of view, a higher rate of transmission would mean a large number of people could be infected in a short period of time. This would have implications in the ability of the system to test as well as offer adequate care to the needy. This is important since such a wave of infections can quickly overwhelm established healthcare capacity in no time.

Disease severity

Disease severity is another important parameter for public health and possibly the most difficult to assess accurately, since severity of disease, and deaths, occur late in the course of disease, and therefore, accurate assessment takes time. Additionally, there could be biases such as demographics, reinfections or vaccination, which could make the observations non-generalisable to other settings. Within these limitations, early and preliminary estimates from South Africa suggest that the proportion of patients requiring hospitalisation for the Omicron variant in Gauteng province is much lower than in the previous waves. Similar trends have been observed for oxygen requirements as well as Intensive Care Unit admissions.

While this indeed is a silver lining, a sufficiently high rate of transmission could quickly saturate existing healthcare capacity with consequent more than expected deaths (excess deaths). Such healthcare stress may also increase unnecessary deaths that are not directly related to COVID-19.

Impact in diagnostics

The RT-PCR test widely used in the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infections rely on pieces of DNA (also known as primers) which bind to the genome of the virus to specifically amplify a genomic region. A typical RT-PCR kit has two or more of such sets of primers which target the genome at two or more genes to increase the sensitivity and specificity of diagnosis. Mutations in the virus genome, which could be incidentally where the primers bind, could make these primers inefficient. This is called a target failure or dropout.

This would typically not affect the diagnosis, since the other sites would work as expected. Some of the kits widely used across the world have one such primer targeting, the S gene, and one of the mutations in the Omicron variant is right at this primer binding site. Therefore, the Omicron variant will cause the spike primers to not function as expected. This is called a Spike Gene Target Failure or S-dropout and has been used as a surrogate to look at Omicron variants in surveillance.

The important point to note is that the S-dropout is only applicable to the BA.1 cluster of Omicron as the BA.2 cluster, though presently only a very small fraction of Omicron, does not cause S-dropout and therefore may be missed out. This also highlights the importance of genomic surveillance for accurate assessments for surveillance.

The silver lining

It is reassuring that early evidence suggests that individuals who have attained hybrid immunity (infection as well as vaccination) are likely to be better protected at least against severe disease and deaths. With a significant population in India being infected as suggested by serosurveys, and at least an additional 50% and more of the population having accessed both doses of vaccine, could potentially be the silver lining.

The early evidence from South Africa suggests that the proportion of patients infected requiring hospitalisation is lower than the previous waves. While this does not necessarily mean that the variant is “milder” than other variants, it does imply that populations similar to South Africa — young and with high prior infections — may be less affected this time.

What does this mean for strategies to manage the upcoming wave of infections ?

Evidence at hand suggests that vaccines indeed protect against severe disease and death, and therefore the immediate need is to cover as many eligible people, especially in the high risk groups, with two doses of vaccines.

With a rapid rate of transmission, even a lower proportion of patients requiring hospitalisation can put enormous strain on existing resources — both for testing as well as for provision of care for the needy. On that account, it is important that measures to slow down transmission through appropriate and concerted public health approaches are planned and implemented in advance, thereby minimising the impact of such interventions on livelihoods.

The current scenario also mandates placing a lot of emphasis on time-tested public health measures. The growing corpus of evidence indicates the effectiveness of non-pharmacological interventions, including masks and ventilation, both of which have not been well-appreciated. There is also convincing evidence suggesting that masks especially, good quality masks (FFP2/N95) are extremely efficient in preventing infection. In light of evidence suggesting a high rate of transmission, it is imperative to think of better ways to protect vulnerable populations, including people over 60 years of age as well as with multiple comorbidities and on immunosuppression, with better masks.

Similarly, the importance of ventilation and social distancing cannot be emphasised more, especially in a scenario where a large number of people are likely to congregate over the festive and marriage season. The emphasis on ventilation in places where multiple footfalls are expected, including schools, public offices and marriage halls, which are likely to be lively over the season, would go a long way in limiting transmission.

Molecular surveillance approaches, including whole genome sequencing and the utility of spike-dropouts as surrogates to assess prevalence, come in enormously handy to understand the prevalence in communities, assess growth, and prepare healthcare systems well in advance to handle the onslaught of cases.

In summary, the emerging evidence on the Omicron variant offers too little to comfort. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant is likely to test out public health systems and their ability to plan and implement strategies well in advance, and also their ability to react efficiently and in a timely manner. For the common man, it is possibly the best time to take their pending doses of vaccine, pull up their masks, let a lot more fresh air into their rooms, and avoid crowds. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

(Vinod Scaria and Bani Jolly are researchers at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi)

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IIT Madras researchers developed this tool using deep learning and traditional machine learning

Indian Institute of Technology Madras researchers use a combination of deep learning techniques and traditional machine learning to develop a tool that can diagnose cancer by looking at whole slide images of the tumour. The tool has been tested on datasets of breast, liver and colon cancer tissue images. It is economical in terms of the time required to process the images and analyse them.

Digital histopathology

Traditionally, histopathologists slice the tumour tissue into approximately 20-micron-thick slices which they put on slides. They look at enlarged images of the slides and go over it cell by cell to manually classify it as cancerous or otherwise. This is highly time-consuming, and it is to alleviate this burden that digital histopathology developed. In this, after preparing the slides, the entire slide is scanned using a high-resolution microscope and digitised. This is then analysed using computerised tools.

This digital process has its own challenges. The first of this is the sheer size of the scanned images which can run into gigabytes.

A single image could be 100,000 by 100,000 pixels large – compare this with a shot generated by a smart phone which is about 7,000 by 7,000 pixels in size,” says Ganapathy Krishnamurthy of the Engineering Design Department of IIT Madras in an email, giving an idea of the challenge to computer time posed by this task.

The technique posed further challenges, such as insufficient training data and the variation in staining across labs.

Also extracting clinically relevant information, that is, directly inferring fine-grained disease classification using deep learning alone was turning out to be prohibitively expensive in terms of computational time.

So, the researchers used a combination of deep learning and traditional machine learning.

Hybrid approach

“We have used deep learning for classifying the tissue regions into normal and cancerous tissues from the Whole Slide Image. After this step, important patterns called features are computed using the output of the deep learning algorithm and used in a conventional machine learning algorithm for fine grained disease classification,” says Prof. Krishnamurthy. The details have been published in a paper in Scientific Reports.

To test the algorithms, the researchers enrolled in three open challenges – the CAMELYON17 challenge, the DIGESTPATH 2019 challenge and the PAIP 2019 challenge. “This paper takes data from three different challenges. In two of these, we were placed in the top 3 performing methods and in one challenge (CAMELYON) we were placed in the top 10 out of several hundred entries,” explains Balaji Srinivasan from the Mechanical Engineering Department of IIT Madras, who is an author of the paper. The technology is ready for deployment, say the authors. “We have a startup that can provide this solution and we are looking for potential healthcare partners,” says Prof. Srinivasan.

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What information do beads of glass in meteorites hold?

Most meteorites contain tiny beads of glass that date back to the earliest days of the solar system, before planets formed. Now, scientists with Chicago University have published an analysis of how these beads came to be, and what they can tell us about the early solar system.

The beads of glass inside these meteorites are called chondrules. But what exactly caused the formation of these chondrules remains unclear.

Scientists can find clues about the early days of the solar system by looking at the types of a given element in a rock. Elements can come in several different forms, called isotopes, and the proportion in each rock varies according to what happened when that rock was born, how hot it was, whether it cooled slowly or was flash-frozen. From there, scientists can piece together a history of likely events.

Scientists at the University of Chicago measured the concentrations and isotopes of two elements that are depleted in meteorites, potassium and rubidium.

The team pieced together what must have been happening as the chondrules formed. The elements would have been part of a clump of dust that got hot enough to melt, and then to vapourize. Then, as the material cooled at a rate of around 500 degrees C per hour, some of that vapour coalesced back into chondrules.

They theorise that massive shockwaves passing through the early nebula could have been sudden and violent enough to cause this extreme heating and cooling, says a University of Chicago release.

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From being centred around the idea of of ‘herd immunity’, over a period of a year, the narrative has now shifted to that of booster doses

On this day a year ago (December 11, 2020), Pfizer’s vaccine for COVID-19 was granted an emergency use authorisation, and exactly a week later Moderna vaccine was granted an EUA. On December 30, 2020. AstraZeneca was given an EUA by the U.K. drug regulatory body. In India, the drug regulator granted a restricted use authorisation to both Covishield and Covaxin on January 3, this year.

The discussion for months before and after the vaccines got an EUA was centred around achieving herd immunity — where a large percentage of the population is infected or vaccinated so that virus spread in the population is significantly slowed or stopped. Achieving herd immunity was seen as an end goal of the pandemic.

It was made to appear that we could vaccinate our way out of the pandemic and get back to normal times. The over 90% efficacy against symptomatic disease by both the mRNA vaccines made that goal of ending the pandemic look simple and straightforward.

Except for AstraZeneca and Covaxin vaccines, which also tested trial participants for asymptomatic COVID-19, the efficacy of the two mRNA vaccines were based on their ability to prevent symptomatic COVID-19. This was despite the fact that about 80% of infections were asymptomatic. That asymptomatically infected people could still spread the virus to others was overlooked.

Besides major issues of vaccine availability in most countries, vaccine hesitancy and approvals being limited to adults in the beginning meant that reaching this desired percentage needed for achieving herd immunity even in countries which had easy access to vaccines would take several months.

Herd immunity

While the mRNA vaccines were very effective at preventing symptomatic disease, their ability to protect people from getting infected remained unclear, which posed a problem for achieving herd immunity.

“Herd immunity is only relevant if we have a transmission-blocking vaccine. If we don’t, then the only way to get herd immunity in the population is to give everyone the vaccine,” Shweta Bansal, a mathematical biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC told Nature.

A vaccine effectiveness study conducted between December 2020 and end-March 2021 in nearly 4,000 health-care and frontline workers in the U.S. showed that full vaccination with mRNA vaccines were 90% effective in preventing infections, regardless of symptom status. So, in mid-May, the CDC director said fully vaccinated people need not wear a mask or maintain physical distance while participating in indoor and outdoor activities.

But the emergence of the Delta variant and its ability to cause breakthrough infections even in fully vaccinated people, and such people shedding the virus and infecting others completely changed the calculus.

Off the charts

It not only forced CDC to revise its masking guidelines in end-July, but both herd immunity and the idea of vaccinating our way out of the pandemic were off the charts. The discussion around herd immunity died slowly. Scientists soon realised that it is necessary to vaccinate almost everyone. “Expecting the benefit to pass on to the unvaccinated does not seem to be possible with this virus,” epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu of PHFI had earlier told The Hindu.

“The narrative of herd immunity and vaccinating one’s way out of the pandemic was flawed from the beginning. Herd immunity does not apply to coronavirus. These viruses cause recurrent infection. Herd immunity applies to viruses such as measles, where immunity is of the sterilising type, and vaccination of a large segment of the population results in suppression of the epidemic,” Dr. Rajeev Jayadevan, Vice Chairman, Research Cell, Kerala State IMA says in an email.

And Pfizer began aggressively making a case for providing booster doses.

Waning immunity

Pfizer began raising concerns about waning immunity despite full vaccination based on vaccine effectiveness studies. But the sharply declining protection that Pfizer was referring to was based on neutralising antibodies which shield the vaccinated people from breakthrough infections. While the Delta variant caused more breakthrough infections even in fully vaccinated people, the vaccines still remained highly effective against severe disease, hospitalisation and death.

According to a December 9 paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the effectiveness of Pfizer vaccine against “symptomatic infection was higher than effectiveness against asymptomatic infection but waned similarly. Variant-specific effectiveness waned in the same pattern”. Most importantly, the effectiveness against severe disease and death reached over 96% two months after the second dose and persisted at nearly the same level for six months.

“The only randomised trial on boosters so far that measured disease outcomes was conducted by Pfizer. There was no difference in severe disease between the two- and three-dose groups,” says Dr. Jayadevan. “In fact, there were no hospitalisations in either group in a study involving over 10,100 people, which suggests that severe disease was not occurring in any significant number even in the two-dose group. As expected, the booster group had fewer infections.”

Protection offered by vaccination in previously infected people has been found to be far superior to protection conferred by full vaccination in infection-naïve individuals. A study posted in the preprint server medRxiv, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, found that compared with full vaccination using Pfizer vaccine, immunity gained from infection offered longer lasting and stronger protection against symptomatic disease and hospitalisation caused by the Delta variant.

“There is no evidence on the ground so far that severe disease, hospitalisation or death has been increasing among fully vaccinated people in India,” Dr. Jayadevan says. “However, breakthrough infections have been occurring, the vast majority of which are asymptomatic or mild.”

Vaccines holding up

According to WHO, even in the case of the Omicron variant, early data from South Africa suggest that currently available vaccines are “holding up in protection” against severe disease and death. Though the existing vaccines might prove less effective against Omicron, it is “highly unlikely” the Omicron variant would be able to evade vaccine protections altogether, says Dr. Michael Ryan of the WHO.

A December 8 press release from Pfizer said that two doses showed over 25-fold reduction in neutralisation titres against the Omicron variant in people who had received two doses. But importantly, it said it believes that people vaccinated with two doses “may still be protected against severe forms of the disease”.

Even as the U.S. has approved booster shots for all adults, the WHO called for a moratorium on booster doses till year-end. On December 9, the WHO said people who are immunocompromised or have received an inactivated COVID-19 vaccine (like Covaxin) should receive a third dose to protect against waning immunity.

“A third dose is given to complete a vaccination series in selected subgroups to generate adequate immune responses,” Dr. Jayadevan says. “Immunocompromised individuals require a third dose not because of waning immunity, but because two doses might not evoke a robust response in everyone.”

“For the time being we continue to support the need for equity in distribution [of vaccines] and the use of a third dose is only in those who are immunocompromised or people who have received an inactivated vaccine,” Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) chair, Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, told Reuters.

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How chaperone proteins work to maintain normal cellular function

DNA is a linear chain of nucleotides, portions of which are faithfully transcribed into linear messenger RNA. The message in this RNA is translated into strings of amino acids - proteins. Proteins need to take a precise three-dimensional shape to become functional entities. This protein folding does not happen all by itself, at least most of the time. A special bunch of proteins called molecular chaperones assist in correctly folding the protein.

Chaperones in biology

The idea of chaperones may sound quaint and Victorian, but in biological systems they play crucial roles. After the new protein chain has been shaped correctly, chaperones move on. Or else the new chain is eliminated. Without chaperones, newly synthesised proteins would soon become a tangled mess of insoluble aggregates, hindering cellular processes.

Many molecular chaperones belong to the class of “heat shock” proteins (or stress-response proteins). This is because whenever an organism is subjected to elevated temperatures – a heat shock – proteins in the system begin to lose their native shapes, and chaperones are produced in large quantities to restore order.

Chaperones are needed under physiological conditions too, for normal cellular function.

Misfolding of proteins can cause a number of diseases. Alpha-synuclein protein, present in neurons, is wrongly folded in Parkinson's disease. Brains of Alzheimer's patients have plaques formed from aggregates of amyloid beta-peptide. This accumulation of amyloid fibrils is toxic, leading to widespread destruction of neurons – a 'neurodegenerative’ disorder. Aberrant folding of crystallins of the eye lens leads to cataract. In the eye lens, an abundant subset of proteins called alpha-crystallins themselves serve as chaperones – a single R116G mutation in human alpha crystallin is responsible for autosomal dominant congenital cataract.

Molecular thermometer

Major chaperones in humans include HSP70, HSC70 and HSP90: the numbers express the size of the proteins in kilodaltons. In normal cells 1%–2% of all proteins present are heat shock proteins. This number rises threefold during stressful conditions.

HSP70 is induced by heat, whereas HSC70 is always present at high levels in normal cells. HSC70 appears to be more like a molecular thermometer, with an ability to sense cold temperatures. This knowledge comes from the study of an intriguing set of disorders, exemplified by Familial Cold Autoinflammatory Syndrome (FCAS). Symptoms of these disorders include rashes on the skin, pain in joints and fever. Periodic episodes may last from a few hours to a few weeks. These episodes begin early in life, the trigger being exposure to cold, or a stress such as fatigue. The confusing set of symptoms shown in this rare disorder make diagnosis difficult – it often takes ten years from first clinical presentation to a confirmed diagnosis.

The first family with confirmed FCAS in India was reported only in August this year. Sagar Bhattad and colleagues, at the Aster CMI Hospital in Bengaluru, traced the genetic underpinnings of FCAS in a four-year old boy who frequently suffered from winter rashes. It turns out that several family members, including his paternal great-grandfather, had similar symptoms. This was published in Indian Journal of Pediatrics, August 2021, 88(8):834.

Triggering inflammation

Addressing the role of HSC70 in sensing low temperatures, the group of Ghanshyam Swarup at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology has worked out a framework for the triggering of autoinflammatory conditions This was published in The FEBS Journal, 2021; doi:10.1111/febs.16203. Disorders related to cold sensitivity are caused by mutations in proteins that regulate inflammation. At normal body temperatures, HSC70 is able to coax these mutated proteins to fold correctly and thus function normally. In cold conditions, however, the HSC70 molecule is itself slightly altered in its shape and is not able to unerringly interact with the mutated regulators of inflammation. This leads to a pathological state with symptoms such as chills, joint pains and rich red skin rashes setting in within two hours.

Cancer cells divide at break-neck pace, and heat shock proteins are very important in maintaining the stressful cancerous state. An overabundance of heat shock proteins in cancer cells is an indicator of a poor prognosis. Cancerous cells accumulate mutations in proteins that would normally suppress tumours. HSP70 and HSP90 play the roles of villains, as they continue to fold the mutated proteins, thus allowing tumour progression. In the laboratory, inhibitors of HSP90 have shown much promise as anti-cancer agents. However, no inhibitor has yet been approved for human use, as the levels required for these to be effective are too toxic for your body.

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Astronomers led by researchers from the Netherlands have found no trace of dark matter in the galaxy AGC 114905. An ultra-diffuse dwarf galaxy, AGC 114905, is about 250 million light-years away. The word dwarf here refers to its luminosity (MNRAS).

The researchers collected data on the rotation of gas in AGC 114905 for 40 hours with the Very Large Array telescope. Subsequently, they plotted the distance of the gas from the centre of the galaxy on the x-axis and the rotation speed of the gas on the y-axis. The graph shows that the motions of the gas in AGC 114905 can be completely explained by normal matter.

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More than 12,000 applied for the coveted spots. The 10 selected are in their 30s and 40s, and face two years of training before becoming eligible for spaceflight.

NASA selected 10 new astronauts on December 6, half of them military pilots, as it looks ahead to the moon and Mars.

The space agency introduced the six men and four women during a ceremony in Houston, home to Mission Control and the astronaut corps.

More than 12,000 applied for the coveted spots. The 10 selected are in their 30s and 40s, and face two years of training before becoming eligible for spaceflight.

Besides the combat and test pilots, the astronaut candidates include a medical physicist, drilling specialist, maritime roboticist, NASA-turned-SpaceX flight surgeon and bioengineer who was a champion cyclist. Two astronauts from the United Arab Emirates will train with them.

One of the pilots — Air Force Maj. Marcos Berrios, who’s from Puerto Rico — volunteered during a question-and-answer session to fly a life-size successor to NASA’s mini helicopter at Mars.

”I know Deniz, the other helicopter pilot here, and I would love to take it for a spin for science,” he said, drawing laughs and applause from the audience.

Navy Lt. Deniz Burnham, an Alaskan, manages drilling projects throughout North America.

NASA has accepted 360 people into its astronaut corps since the original Mercury Seven in 1959. The previous astronaut selection was in 2017.

With SpaceX sending astronauts to the International Space Station and other private companies launching tourists on short rides, and NASA’s Artemis moon-landing programme on the horizon, “we are in the golden age right now of human spaceflight,” said NASA chief astronaut Reid Wiseman.

NASA plans to put astronauts back on the moon no earlier than 2025.

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Known by its brand name Mosquirix, the recombinant protein vaccine was found to prevent 39 per cent cases of malaria.

The success of this new RTS,S vaccine is the culmination of three decades of research and development, and close collaboration within African communities. (Wikimedia Commons)

In October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended the widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission. Known by its brand name Mosquirix, the recombinant protein vaccine was found to prevent 39 per cent cases of malaria, 29 per cent cases of severe malaria and also reduced the overall hospital admissions.

According to WHO’s World malaria report 2021, globally, there were about 241 million malaria cases in 2020 and six countries – Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Mozambique, Angola and Burkina Faso – accounted for about 55 per cent of all cases.

The WHO South-East Asia Region accounted for about 2 per cent of the burden and India accounted for 83 per cent of cases in the region. Despite this high burden, WHO says that India has shown a remarkable reduction in reported malaria cases and deaths.

The World malaria report 2021 adds that globally, malaria deaths have reduced steadily over the years – from 896000 in 2000 to 558000 in 2019. However, due to service disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw an increase in malaria deaths – 12 per cent rise compared with 2019.

Globally, 40 countries and territories have now been granted a malaria-free certification from WHO – including, most recently, China, El Salvador, Argentina and Uzbekistan.

Infection and vaccination

When an infected female Anopheles mosquito bites a person, it injects Plasmodium parasites into our bloodstream. The parasite – in the form of sporozoites – quickly enters the liver and multiplies over 7 to 10 days and becomes merozoites. They are released from the liver cells and once in the bloodstream invade red blood cells and cause fever and other symptoms.

Malaria vaccines are classified based on which parasite developmental stage they target. The RTS,S vaccine targets the circumsporozoite protein on the sporozoite surface and prevents the parasites from infecting the liver cells.

To develop the new vaccine, two protein components of the parasite were expressed in genetically engineered Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast cells and formulated using an adjuvant. An adjuvant helps create a stronger immune response.

Why was it difficult to develop a malaria vaccine?

The US CDC explains: “The development of a malaria vaccine has faced several obstacles: the lack of a traditional market, few developers, and the technical complexity of developing any vaccine against a parasite. Malaria parasites have a complex life cycle, and there is a poor understanding of the complex immune response to malaria infection. Malaria parasites are also genetically complex, producing thousands of potential antigens.”

It adds that unlike the many diseases for which we have vaccines, the exposure to malaria parasites does not confer lifelong protection. The acquired immunity can only protect partially and people can still become infected with the parasite. Sometimes, the infection can also persist for months without any symptoms.

A recent editorial in The Lancet notes that the success of this new RTS,S vaccine is the culmination of generations of scientific ingenuity, three decades of research and development, and close collaboration within African communities.

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The ichthyosaur was the largest tetrapod of its time, whether on land or at sea.

A team of palaeo-biologists from Germany and the USA have unearthed a Middle Triassic fossil of an ichthyosaur (Cymbospondylus youngorum) from the Favret Canyon in Nevada, USA.

The animal was 18 m long, with the skull alone more than 2 m. The discovery is important as it shows that the ichthyosaur evolved gigantism very early in its evolutionary history.

The ichthyosaur was the largest tetrapod of its time, whether on land or at sea. To put this in perspective, whales (cetaceans), which emerged in the Cenozoic at around 60 mya, took nearly 90 per cent of their evolutionary history to evolve into the giants they are today. But the ichthyosaur, which dominated ocean waters from 252-94 million years ago, took only 1 per cent of its evolutionary history to evolve gigantism.

This is well documented in the fossil record. The Cartorhynchus, the closest relative of Cymbospondylus, which lived 248.5 million years ago, had a skull length of only 55 mm. But Cymbospondylus youngorum had a skull length of 1890 mm – a mere 2.5 million years later.

The study employed conventional palaeontological tools of fossil recovery and identification using established protocols of comparative morphology. This was further supplemented by computational phylogeny, and energy flux modelling to better situate the ichthyosaur in the food web.

Phylogenetic analyses, in conjugation with fossil studies, reveal that C.youngorum and its close relatives account for a great deal of ‘morphological disparity of Early and Middle Triassic ichthyosaurs’. This points towards adaptive radiation, a phenomenon in evolution whereby organisms evolve, adapt, and diversify very quickly from a common ancestor in tandem with a changing environment.

The study further argues that the presence of fossils from the Cymbospondylus genus across the Northern Hemisphere adds weight to the adaptive radiation theory in the case of the ichthyosaur.

The oldest relative of the ichthyosaur – the Cartorhynchus hailing from China – is no bigger than a few inches long. The researchers argue whether the conditions in the proto-Pacific were conducive to gigantism as opposed to the warm-and-shallow Tethys sea, where the fossils of the Chinese ichthyosaur relative are found.

What constituted the ichthyosaur diet?

This is an important question to answer if we seek to explain the short burst of evolution that led to gigantism. The fossil assemblage recovered from the site is dominated by cephalopods, which constituted much of the marine invertebrate fauna of that time.

The ichthyosaur, therefore, fed on these cephalopods, the now-extinct conodonts, and even small ichthyosaurs. These provided the ichthyosaur with a sufficient and stable food reservoir.

A morphological analysis of ichthyosaur dentition shows that C.youngorum had a fairly generalist diet of fish and squid, and studies have consistently found cephalopods and fish in the stomach contents of fossilised ichthyosaur remains.

A case for convergent evolution

The comparison between the ichthyosaurs that lived during the Mesozoic and present-day cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is an interesting case study for convergent evolution.

Both ichthyosaurs and cetaceans returned to the sea – ‘transitioning from full-time life on land to full-time life in the ocean’. Both have remarkably similar body shapes and lifestyles. Being tail propelled swimmers, not only are they similar in terms of body shape, but also size – both evolved gigantic bodies. The only difference is that they existed nearly 200 million years apart.

This leads to another question: did ichthyosaurs and cetaceans follow similar trajectories of evolution, regardless of the speed at which the process took place?

As things stand, despite so many similarities, the evolutionary pathways to both were quite different. The end-Permian mass extinctions led to a proliferation of conodonts and ammonoids that served as food to the ichthyosaur. Cetacean gigantism also evolved from trophic specialisation but the pathway was different.

“This discovery and the results of our study highlight how different groups of marine tetrapods evolved body sizes of epic proportions under somewhat similar circumstances, but at surprisingly different rates,” says one of the authors Dr. Jorge Velez-Juarbe in a release. He is from the Department of Mammalogy, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“Moving forward, with the dataset we’ve compiled and analytical methods we’ve tested, we can start thinking about including other groups of secondarily aquatic vertebrates to understand this aspect of their evolutionary history,” he adds.

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

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Dancing has been used to generate energy before. More than a decade ago, Dutch company Energy Floors introduced a line of tiles that convert dancers’ steps into electricity.

Written by Margaret Fuhrer

In the pre-vaccine pandemic days, as shutdowns dragged on, odes to the lost joys of the dance floor became a motif in media. Recollections of sweaty nights out in crowded clubs captured much of what COVID-19 had taken from us: community, freedom, gloriously messy physical proximity.

When restrictions began to loosen, teeming dance floors became a symbol of recovery around the world. At SWG3 — an arts center in Glasgow, Scotland, that hosts some of the city’s largest dance parties — tickets for club nights sold briskly during the summer and fall of 2021, before the arrival of the omicron variant. “The appetite for these events has been stronger than ever, and it’s fueled by the long period of time we were all denied it,” said Andrew Fleming-Brown, SWG3’s managing director. “We’ve missed that shared body heat experience, being packed together in a full venue.”

What if dance floor catharsis could be good not only for the soul but also for the planet? This month, SWG3 and geothermal energy consultancy TownRock Energy will begin installing a new renewable heating and cooling system that harnesses the body heat of dancing clubbers. The plan should eventually reduce SWG3’s total carbon output by 60 per cent to 70 per cent. And it may be replicable. TownRock and SWG3 recently started a company to help other event spaces implement similar technology.

There is poetry in the idea: the power of dance, made literal. “Conversations about sustainability can be pretty abstract,” said David Townsend, founder and CEO of TownRock. “But if you can connect it to something people love to do — everyone loves a dance — that can be very meaningful.”

A mutual friend introduced Townsend and Fleming-Brown in 2019, after Fleming-Brown expressed interest in exploring low-carbon energy systems for SWG3. Townsend, 31, is a regular on the club scene and had been to the location several times. (“You’ll usually find me right at the front of the room, always dancing, sometimes with my shirt off,” he said.) At that point more than 250,000 people were coming to SWG3 annually, Fleming-Brown said. Townsend knew from experience how large, and how hot, the crowds could get.

Many geothermal energy projects involve deep wells that tap the naturally occurring heat of the earth. But digging them can be prohibitively expensive. “Trying to do a geothermal well would have been millions of pounds,” Townsend said. “Instead, we thought, why not collect the heat you’ve already got in your customers and then use the ground to store it?”

At rest, the human body produces about 100 watts of energy. Strenuous dancing might multiply that output by a factor of five or six. Dr. Selina Shah, a specialist in dance and sports medicine, said club dance floors can be especially good at creating heat. “If it’s really high-energy music, that generally results in very fast and high-energy movement, so you’re looking at a significant level of heat generation — potentially even the equivalent of running,” she said.

To capture that energy at SWG3, TownRock developed an application for an already widespread technology: the heat pump. One of the most common heat pumps is the refrigerator, which maintains a cold interior by moving warm air to its exterior. The SWG3 system, called Bodyheat, will cool the space by transferring the heat of dancing clubbers not into the atmosphere, as in conventional cooling, but into 12 boreholes approximately 500 feet deep. The boreholes will turn a large cube of underground rock into a thermal battery, storing the energy so it can be used to supply heat and hot water to the building.

Development of the system began in 2019. Pandemic shutdowns, and the financial uncertainty that came with them, paused the project for several months. But with their events calendar emptied, SWG3 leadership had time to develop a larger sustainability plan for the building, setting the goal of achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2025. “That moment allowed us to pause and really assess what’s important to us as an organization,” Fleming-Brown said. “We decided to make it a priority.”

Bodyheat became a central component of the plan when work on the project resumed in fall 2020. The first phase of installation should be complete by early spring, and will provide heating and cooling to SWG3’s two main event spaces. Later phases will offer hot water to the bathrooms and heating to the foyer and art studios. At that point, SWG3 will be able to get rid of its three gas boilers, reducing its annual carbon output by up to 70 metric tons.

The system is not cheap. Fleming-Brown estimates that a conventional heating and cooling system for a similarly sized space would cost 30,000 to 40,000 pounds ($40,000 to $53,000); phase one of Bodyheat will require an outlay of 350,000 pounds ($464,000). But the timing was fortuitous, as Glasgow’s hosting of the 2021 United Nations global climate summit created “a lot of momentum behind this kind of project,” Fleming-Brown said. A grant from Scotland’s Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Program covered half of the costs for phase one, and a government-backed low-interest loan helped with the rest. Fleming-Brown estimates that savings on energy bills would make the investment recoverable in about five years.

While developing Bodyheat, Townsend and Fleming-Brown realized their system could work elsewhere, too. The new TownRock and SWG3 joint venture Bodyheat Club, established in November, aims to help a range of event spaces and gyms refit their buildings with some version of Bodyheat. The Berlin club SchwuZ, a British chain of gyms and the Scottish arts council, which runs a variety of creative spaces, have already expressed interest.

Townsend emphasized that the idea is not proprietary. “If we end up with other companies also trying to put in systems similar to Bodyheat to be more sustainable, that’s fantastic,” he said. “We just want to galvanize momentum around renewable heating and cooling.”

Dancing has been used to generate energy before. More than a decade ago, Dutch company Energy Floors introduced a line of tiles that convert dancers’ steps into electricity. Club Watt in Rotterdam, Netherlands, installed the tiles to media fanfare in 2008, and they have since been used in hundreds of other projects. The band Coldplay plans to use a similar “kinetic” floor, designed by British company Pavegen, during its eco-friendly 2022 tour. Townsend said that TownRock and Pavegen have been discussing a possible collaboration.

Kinetic dance floors make only small quantities of electricity. Bodyheat should have a more meaningful effect on carbon output, although broadly speaking, dancing isn’t a very efficient way to make body heat. Shah said that dance studios probably wouldn’t be great candidates for a Bodyheat-style system, because most of the dancing done there isn’t aerobic. Slow, methodical warm-up exercises, which make up large chunks of most dance classes, create little heat; vigorous movement tends to happen only in short bursts.

Gyms, with their emphasis on aerobic exercise, seem like more obvious fits for projects that harness the work of the body. Townsend mentioned that in addition to capturing body heat, gyms could use equipment like stationary bikes to help generate electricity.

Dancing may not be the best source of renewable energy, but it has proved important in another way: storytelling. There is something vaguely grim about harvesting heat from gym rats pumping away on treadmills. Energy born of dancing — born of joy — captures the imagination in a different way.

“We did not initially think that dance would be such a big part of this project,” Fleming-Brown said. “But you need a visual language to communicate an idea, and it quickly became apparent that the emotional connection people have with live music and dance was a winning streak.”

To help tell the Bodyheat story to the crowd at SWG3, Fleming-Brown and Townsend are considering ways to illustrate the amount of heat dancers create, perhaps with a large thermometer, or a heat map similar to those used on weather reports. Townsend spitballed about having competitions to see which dancer could generate the most renewable energy — sustainability as performance art.

For nightclubs, renewable energy systems might be business-friendly as well as eco-friendly options. The young clubbing demographic is particularly engaged in discussions about climate change. Natalie Bryce, 30, an SWG3 regular, said she takes a club’s greenness into account when choosing where to go dancing. “All my friends who like to go out, we all care very much about sustainability and how what we do is affecting the climate,” she said. Fleming-Brown said he’s also had DJs and other artists inquire about the organization’s environmental policies while negotiating bookings.

Technology that depends on large crowds of people is, however, not lockdown-friendly. Fleming-Brown expressed concern about the omicron surge in Britain affecting turnout or leading to capacity restrictions, which would make Bodyheat less sustainable — particularly early on, before the system’s thermal battery has time to “charge” with clubbers’ heat. He is also simply eager to see the thing installed and functioning. “We’ve still got a system to deliver,” he said. “We’ve discussed it a lot and everything’s been really positive, but it needs to work.”

As soon as Bodyheat is ready, clubgoers — COVID-19 permitting — will be too.

“The fact that you can do some good by just having fun and doing what you love is brilliant,” Bryce said. “Is it going to encourage me to go out more? I can’t afford it, but yeah!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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With less time on the sea ice, and less seal fat to consume, polar bears will find it more difficult to meet their energy needs

Written by Henry Anderson-Elliott

Recently, scientists in Hornsund, Svalbard — a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic ocean — witnessed a polar bear pursuing a reindeer into the sea before killing it, dragging it ashore and eating it. The video that they captured was widely shared on news and social media platforms. Then, two days later, they saw the same bear beside a second fresh reindeer kill.

Their observations are the first detailed account of a complete and successful polar bear hunt of a Svalbard reindeer. But they follow 13 previous reports of polar bears preying and scavenging on reindeer on the same archipelago between 1983 and 1999.

These are far from the first accounts of polar bears varying their diets. Normally, in the months when the sea is frozen, they enjoy a diet of offshore seals. But their use of supplementary food sources in the leaner summer months has been known for decades, with bears gorging on seabird eggs as well as feeding at the Churchill dump (a rubbish and recycling facility) in Hudson Bay. Yet, similar reports of terrestrial feeding have become more frequent in recent years.

From stalking and chasing Canadian caribou, fishing for Arctic char and catching geese and rodents to grazing on vegetation and patrolling human refuse sites, polar bears can eat, have eaten and have tried to eat many things.

But the viability of these onshore food sources is doubtful as a long-term strategy. In their study of foraging on the eider duck nests of Mitvik island, Canada, researchers found polar bears to be inefficient predators of seabird eggs, such that the energy an individual bear gains from eggs may be less than previously thought.

That’s because they may use more energy to find the eggs than they get from eating them. Equally, other studies have found that the consumption of terrestrial food by polar bears has been insufficient to compensate for reduced hunting opportunities out on the ice.

The climate change threat

Polar bears have evolved to be highly efficient predators of marine mammals. They support themselves on a fat-heavy diet and rely on ice-based prey, primarily ringed and bearded seals. As a result, they are profoundly threatened by a warming climate.

With rising global temperatures, Arctic sea ice is melting earlier in summer and refreezing later in winter. And as the ice-free periods become longer, polar bears are spending more time on land without access to their primary food.

Their situation is being made worse by other factors, too. A recent study found the energy demands of polar bears to be higher than previously assumed. With less time on the sea ice, and less seal fat to consume, polar bears will find it more difficult to meet their energy needs — leading to higher death rates. At the same time, higher Arctic wind speeds may make hunting seals harder still.

Therefore, increasing reports of summer scavenging, foraging and terrestrial hunting are unsurprising in the context of climate change, high energy stress and the resulting effect on their bodies.

Burdened by publicity

The proliferation of digital platforms plays a part in this story, too. As Andrew Derocher, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta and longtime polar bear expert, explained: “Everyone has a camera” and “news spreads fast”. He rightly pointed out that if the same phenomenon was happening in the 1950s and 1960s, no one would likely have seen it.

Over the past few years, photos and videos of polar bears have garnered enormous online attention. From 56 bears besieging a Russian town, to tragic sequences of emaciated individuals, polar bears are being used as the face of our climate catastrophe.

While the broad relationship here is undeniable — a sea ice species cannot live in an above freezing future — polar bears now inhabit a world where their every action is viewed as evidence in a wider climate change context. Amplified in our digital age, we see bears as the embodiment of our worsening global condition.

While their plight is rightly brought to our attention, online content can be misdirecting. A focus on individual bears to illustrate climate issues risks shifting the burden of proof away from overwhelming scientific evidence and onto the lives of single animals.

Therefore, observations like those in Hornsund reinforce the need for further peer-reviewed research on the future of this iconic species. This single event should not be seen as definitive proof of shifting diets in a warmer world, but as a reminder of the spectacular creatures we stand to lose. A species whose fate, even in the distant reaches of their Arctic landscape, is inexorably bound to our own.

— The author is from the University of Cambridge.

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It's been a year of astronomical achievements. Here is proof.

The year 2021 may be remembered by most as the year of coronavirus vaccination and variants. But it was also a year that stretched the boundaries of explorations in space. NASA presented the perfect wrap for 2021 with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will help answer questions about the first formed stars and galaxies.

This year also saw a boom in private space tourism with December witnessing a record 19 people in space.

In July, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own rocket and experienced three to four minutes of weightlessness before safely gliding back.

Nine days later, billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos also completed his spaceflight. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched an all-civilian crew into space in September. They spent three days in orbit before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

This month, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa became the first space tourist to travel to the International Space Station in more than a decade. He spent 12 days in space as a practice-run for his trip around the moon with SpaceX in 2023.

Mars ahoy!

In February, NASA’s Perseverance rover made a historic touchdown on the red planet after “the seven minutes of terror.”

In April, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes. The same month Ingenuity, the small helicopter carried by Perseverance, started its flight on Mars. In September, the rover successfully collected its first rock sample for return to Earth, and in October, by studying the pictures sent by the rover, researchers confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater was once a lake.

In February, UAE’s Hope spacecraft entered the orbit of Mars to study the Martian atmosphere and climate dynamics. In May, China’s first Mars rover, named Zhurong after an ancient fire god, also started exploring the surface of the planet.

All about asteroids

In May, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departed asteroid Bennu with samples of dust and started its two-year long journey back to Earth.

In October, NASA launched the Lucy mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. Believed to be rich in carbon compounds, the asteroids may even provide new insights into the origin of organic materials and life on Earth, NASA said.

On November 24, NASA launched the ‘DART mission’, which is the agency’s first planetary defense test mission. Between September 26 and October 1, 2022, the spacecraft is expected to intentionally collide with a small moonlet called Dimorphos and change its orbit.


A very hot date!

On December 14, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe entered the Sun’s atmosphere (corona) for the first time.

Launched in 2018, the probe was 13 million kilometers from the center of the sun. According to the researchers the spacecraft dipped in and out of the corona at least three times, each a smooth transition. The probe will keep moving closer to the sun until its final orbit in 2025.

China Space Station

In April, the first module of the Chinese Space Station called the Tianhe (Harmony of the Heavens) was launched. “(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.

Movie in Space

In October, Russian Actor Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko spent 12 days on the International Space Station and produced the world’s first film in space.

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“We do not know what kind or type of life we will find. If there is life we do expect it to be simple single-celled life forms," says Dr. Sara Seager

Last year, the discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus triggered global excitement about the possibility of life on our neighbouring planet. Another study published this month in PNAS supports the long-standing idea that life could exist in Venus’ clouds.

The authors list various chemical pathways by which life forms could neutralise the acidic environment on Venus’ clouds and create habitable pockets.

In the 1970s, ammonia was detected in the planet’s clouds by the Venera 8 and Pioneer Venus probes and the source of this ammonia remained an unsolved mystery. In the new study, the researchers propose that biological origin is the most plausible explanation for ammonia. They say that meteorite strikes, lightning, or volcanic eruptions cannot produce huge amounts of ammonia observed by the probes.

They also modelled several chemical processes to show that if ammonia is indeed present, the gas would set off various chemical reactions. These reactions “would neutralise surrounding droplets of sulfuric acid and could also explain most of the anomalies observed in Venus’ clouds,” explains a release.

The corresponding author of the study Dr Sara Seager, from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains in an email to “We do not know what kind or type of life we will find. If there is some life we do expect it to be simple single-celled life forms…Life may have originated on Venus as it did on Earth, assuming that Venus had water oceans early on. As Venus heated up and lost its oceans, life would have had to migrate to and evolve to live in the clouds.”

She adds that we need targeted missions to search for signs of life and life itself. “We need missions that drop probes or balloons in the Venus atmosphere directly to study the cloud particles as if there is life it likely resides inside the cloud droplets,” Dr Seager says.

The team is currently working on a privately-funded focused mission to Venus with a targeted launch date of 2023 as well as MIT’s Venus Life Finder missions which aim to study Venus’ cloud particles and continue where the previous missions from nearly four decades ago left off.

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The Tiangong performed “evasive maneuvers” to “prevent a potential collision” with Starlink satellites, the government said in a December 6 complaint to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

China is calling on the United States to protect a Chinese space station and its three-member crew after Beijing complained that satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX nearly struck the station.

A foreign ministry spokesman accused Washington on Tuesday of ignoring its treaty obligations to protect the safety of the Tiangong station’s three-member crew following the July 1 and October 21 incidents.

The Tiangong performed “evasive maneuvers” to “prevent a potential collision” with Starlink satellites launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the government said in a December 6 complaint to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The United States should “take immediate measures to prevent such incidents from happening again,” said the spokesman, Zhao Lijian.

Zhao accused Washington of failing to carry out its obligations to “protect the safety of astronauts” under a 1967 treaty on the peaceful use of space.

The American Embassy in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk also is chairman of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, Inc. The company opened its first factory outside the United States in Shanghai in 2019.

The Tiangong, however, is a prestige project for the ruling Communist Party, making it unlikely Beijing would tolerate disruption even by a major foreign investor in China.

The main module of the Tiangong was launched in April. Its first crew returned to Earth in September following a 90-day mission. The second crew of two men and one woman arrived on October 16 for a six-month mission.

SpaceX plans to launch some 2,000 Starlink satellites as part of a global internet system to bring internet access to underserved areas. In its 34th and latest launch, SpaceX sent 52 satellites into orbit aboard a rocket December 18.

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Biodiversity researchers are calling on citizen scientists to contribute data to fill information gaps, identify species declines and inform management decisions.

Written by Judy Friedlander

Taxonomy was once the domain of white-coated scientists with years of university training. While this expertise is still important, everyday Australians are increasingly helping to identify species through citizen science apps. Rapid advances in smartphone and tablet cameras are helping to popularise this activity.

Biodiversity researchers are calling on citizen scientists to contribute data to fill information gaps, identify species declines and inform management decisions. And young researchers — some as young as infant school children – are stepping up to help.

Stories such as the experience of 14-year-old Luke Downey, of Canberra, inspire others to record and upload images to biodiversity databases. Earlier this year, Luke found a rare beetle, Castiarina testacea, last seen in the ACT in 1955. His observation was recorded in the Canberra Nature Map, an online repository of rare plants and animals.

I put a macro lens on my smartphone and I was hooked

My own inspiration to become a citizen scientist was an inexpensive macro lens now permanently affixed to my smartphone. This small portable lens photographs small subjects at very close distances. (Some newer smartphones have built-in lenses that can do this.)

I caught the ‘bug’ of taking detailed close-up images such as the one below of stingless native bees, Tetragonula carbonaria, communing with one another and admiring — or minding — their beeswax. Sharing the images I have taken has converted others to this type of citizen science.

Anyone can now take close-ups of insects, plants and other species to contribute to citizen science databases. The clarity of these images means experts can often determine the species, adding to understandings of distribution and numbers to assist on-ground conservation.

Activities like these feature in the B&B Highway program, run by PlantingSeeds Projects. The program encourages school students in New South Wales and Victoria to participate in a citizen science project. It’s affiliated with the international iNaturalist biodiversity network and database and CSIRO’s Atlas of Living Australia.

Students are using smartphones and tablets in school playgrounds to capture extraordinary images of insects less than 1cm long, or tiny details of flower parts. There’s an online dashboard where students can see and share observations and knowledge. These images then contribute to our knowledge of species distributions and densities.

Focusing on pollinators

The B&B Highway program has developed a biodiversity-based curriculum with the NSW Department of Education. The project includes plantings and constructed habitats at schools to form regenerative corridors. It has a target of over 60 hubs by mid-2022 to help counter the alarming decline in pollinators in Australia and around the world.

The B&B Highway program provides training for teachers and students. While students are often more at ease with smart devices and their camera functions than their teachers, separate instructions are given to school administrators to set up an iNaturalist account and upload observations. Having a school account ensures students’ identities are protected and all observations are listed as the schools’.

Children under the age of 13 cannot create an account or engage directly with many citizen science communities, including iNaturalist. This means an adult needs to upload observations.

An observation is regarded as research grade if at least two site users agree on the identification to the taxonomic species level. Observations on iNaturalist are shared with the Atlas of Living Australia.

Taxonomists regularly report concern at the lack of data on the distributions and densities of insect pollinators. This month’s addition of 124 Australian species to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species means urgent strategies — including citizen science — are needed to help regeneration.

Urban observations are important as about 30 per cent of Australia’s threatened species occur in cities. Yet only about 5 per cent of citizen science projects in Australia are urban-based. With three-quarters of Australia’s 23.4 million people now living in a capital city, the citizen science potential is enormous.

Some tips from the experts

The following tips drawn from the iNaturalist teacher’s guide will help you get started.

*Take identifiable photos. Try to fill the frame with your subject. It may help to use your hand to hold a flower or plant still, but make sure the plant is not dangerous.

*Take multiple photos. Many organisms, particularly plants and insects, cannot be identified to species level from a single photo. Take several photos from different angles. For plants, photos of flowers, fruit and leaves are all helpful for ID.

*Focus on wild organisms. In general, the iNat community is more interested in wild organisms. Members respond more to pictures of weeds and bugs than cultivated roses and hamsters in cages.

*Pay attention to metadata. This is the information associated with a photo that captures when and where (if location services are on) a photo was taken. Screen shots of photos will lose this data, which may result in incorrect data entry. Watch for locations and dates that don’t make sense. If your device’s time and date settings are wrong, the data will be wrong.

*Don’t feel pressured to make research grade observations. Many organisms cannot be identified to the species level using only photographic evidence so observations of them may never attain research grade.

*Be aware of copyright. Images should not be copied from books or the internet to illustrate what you observed. Post only your own photos.

*Check out Seek. Seek is an educational tool built on iNaturalist. It does not actually post observations to iNaturalist but provides tools such as automated species identification (when possible) and nature journalling.

– The author is from the University of Technology, Sydney

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The Haughton research station has provided a permanent place where scientists can pretend to be on the moon or Mars, study similar geology, test equipment for future missions and train humans to take part.

Written by Sarah Scoles

In the historical imagination, astronomers look through telescopes, and photonic wisdom pours in at the speed of light. Taking what they can get, they passively receive information about far-off stars and planets. These objects are fixed, and their conditions cannot be tweaked.

But that’s not how all astronomy works. Planetary and exoplanetary scientists, for instance, don’t just wait for data to come to them: They also construct miniature versions of other places using convenient geological landscapes, gravel crushers and simulation chambers on Earth. In these simulacra, they see, feel and control worlds — or at least metaphors for them — in an attempt to decipher parts of the universe they’ll most likely never visit.

In making the untouchable physical and the abstract concrete, they are creating not just similes but ways to conceive of these planets as actual places.

“Throughout science, we reason by comparison all the time,” said Pascal Lee of the Mars and SETI institutes. “And so there’s something very fundamental to the approach of using analogues.”

Their methods are in keeping with scientific traditions that value both laboratory-based research and direct contact with nature.

“It actually makes a lot of sense why planetary scientists, whose phenomena are removed in time and space, would think that simulation and replication would be how they could still study that which is remote,” said Lisa Messeri, an anthropologist at Yale University and author of the book “Placing Outer Space,” “because that’s what science has been doing for hundreds of years.”

The most direct arrow between this world and those beyond is the “terrestrial analogue,” a physical location on Earth that resembles some aspect of another world — usually the moon or Mars. That relevance can take the form of geological formations, such as lava tubes or sand dunes, or it can be a whole region with lunar or Martian flair, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile or volcanoes in Hawaii.

Lee runs the Haughton-Mars Project, an analog research station on Devon Island, an uninhabited, barren Arctic outpost in Nunavut, Canada. “There’s an incredibly wide array of features that are similar to what we see on the moon and on Mars,” he said.

The island is permacold and dry, with valleys and canyons, and boasts a 14-mile-wide crater left from a cosmic impact. That’s about the same size as Shackleton Crater at the lunar South Pole, where NASA plans to send astronauts this decade.

During dozens of field campaigns, the Haughton research station has provided a permanent place where scientists can pretend to be on the moon or Mars, study similar geology, test equipment for future missions and train humans to take part.

“It’s a bit of a turnkey operation,” Lee said, although he notes that it’s not like an Airbnb where anyone could show up and use it. A core habitat station spokes into a series of tents for geology, astrobiology, medicine and administrative and repair work. A greenhouse stands alone, while ATVs and Humvees support travel and simulate rovers.

Lee spent 23 straight summers at the station, eating canned sardines in the cold on day trips away from the main camp. But in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic forced him to skip his annual journeys to that other world on Earth. He missed the simplicity and isolation.

“When you are there, you are the population of Devon Island,” Lee said, just like a lonely astronaut.

There are times, though, when scientists don’t need to go to an analogue: They can bring it home in the form of simulants, or material that resembles the surface of the moon or Mars.

Mars, for instance, is covered in sand and dust that together are called regolith. It makes travel difficult and can also block solar panels, clog filters and seize up moving parts. To determine how robotic rovers, power sources and other hardware will withstand those red-planet rigors, scientists have to test them against something similar before they make the journey.

That’s why, in 1997, NASA developed a dusty substance called JSC-Mars 1, based on data from the Viking and Pathfinder missions. It is made from material found on the Pu’u Nene cinder cone volcano in Hawaii. There, lava once oozed into water, eventually forming regolithesque particles.

NASA scientists later improved on this material, while preparing the Mars Phoenix lander, and concocted Mars Mohave Simulant. It is sourced from the lava deposits of the Saddleback volcanic formation in the Mojave Desert in California.

Still, the test process isn’t foolproof: Phoenix collected icy soil samples on Mars in 2008 that were too “sticky,” in NASA’s words, to move from the scoop to an analysis instrument. A year later, the Spirit rover got stuck in sand, forever. Its sibling robot, Opportunity, was lost when a dust storm coated its solar panels, a fate that has also hindered the more recent InSight mission.

Today, private companies use NASA’s data and recipes for private simulant supplies. This “add to cart” version goes into science-fair projects, alien cement and otherworldly gardening soil. Mark Cusimano, founder of one such company, The Martian Garden, said cultivating a red planet victory garden using Saddleback’s soil was his hobby. It’s satisfying, he said, to grow “a weird little radish or carrot in it.”

Wieger Wamelink, an ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has taken such work further with the “Food for Mars and Moon” project, growing crops such as peas and potatoes. He is currently at work on a full agricultural system, including bacteria, earthworms and human excrement. The idea, Wamelink said, is “to boldly grow where no plant has grown before.” Today, Mars on Earth. Tomorrow, perhaps Mars itself.

Mimicking more exotic solar-system spots takes some doing, so scientists often turn to simulation chambers — essentially test tubes in which they re-create the conditions of other worlds. The idea goes back to the 1950s, when a military scientist brought to the United States from Nazi Germany pioneered the use of low-pressure chambers sometimes called Mars Jars to learn about whether biology might persist in Martian conditions.

Today, researchers including Tom Runcevski of Southern Methodist University in Dallas are looking at a different place: Titan, a moon of Saturn, the only world in the solar system other than Earth that currently has standing bodies of liquid on its surface.

“I always personally go talking about how hostile and terrifying Titan is,” Runcevski said. Lakes and seas swim with ethane. It snows benzene and rains methane. But if you look up through the haze, you’ll see the rings of Saturn.

Although a European space probe, Huygens, parachuted to its surface in 2005, Titan’s magnificent hostility is, in its totality, hard to understand from a hospitable planet such as this one. “Titan is a world,” Runcevski said. “It’s very difficult to study a world from Earth.”

But he’s trying, having created in his lab what he calls “Titan in a Jar.”

You won’t see Saturn’s rings from the bottom of Runcevski’s jars. But you will learn about the organic compounds and crystals occupying its most famous moon. Inside the jars — test tubes, truthfully — Runcevski will put a drop or two of water, and then freeze it to mimic a tiny version of Titan’s core. He’ll add to that a couple of drops of ethane, which will condense straightaway, making mini moon-lakes. After that, he’ll add in other organic compounds of interest, such as acetonitrile or benzene. Then, he’ll suck the air out and set the temperature to Titan’s, around minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA is planning a return to Titan, launching a nuclear-powered quadcopter called Dragonfly in 2027. By watching the crystals and structures that form in his jars, Runcevski hopes to help scientists interpret what they see when the robotic explorer arrives in 2034. “We cannot send a full laboratory,” he said, so they have to rely in part on the laboratories of Earth.

In a lab at Johns Hopkins University, Sarah Hörst does work similar to NASA’s and Runcevski’s, including simulating Titan. But her test tubes also stretch to simulate hypothetical exoplanets, or worlds that orbit distant stars.

Hörst initially steered away from exoplanets, because specifics are scant. “I’m spoiled from the solar system,” she recalls thinking. But a colleague persuaded her to start mimicking hypothetical worlds. “We put together this matrix of possible planets,” she said. Their fictional atmospheres are dominated by hydrogen, carbon dioxide or water, and they range in temperature from around minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit to 980 degrees Fahrenheit.

Her test tubes start with the major constituents that might make up an atmosphere, set to a given temperature. She flows that mixture into a chamber the size of a soda bottle, and exposes it to energy — ultraviolet light or electrons from a plasma — which breaks up the initial molecules. “They run around in the chamber making new molecules, and some of those new molecules also get broken up,” Hörst said. That cycle repeats until the energy source is cut off. Sometimes, that process produces solid particles: an otherworldly haze.

Figuring out which potential exoplanets produce smog can help scientists point telescopes at orbs they can actually observe. Plus, haze affects a planet’s surface temperature, making the difference between liquid water and ice or evaporation, and it can shield the surface from high-energy photons — both of which affect a planet’s habitability. Atmospheres can also supply the building blocks of life and energy — or fail to.

Despite her initial hesitations, Hörst has grown attached to her lab-grown planets. They feel familiar, even if fictional. She can usually tell when she walks into the office what kind of experiment is running, because different plasmas glow different colors. “‘Oh, we must be doing Titan today, because it’s kind of purple’ or ‘We’re doing this specific exoplanet, which is kind of blue,’” she said.

Compared with the landscapes of Devon Island, fistfuls of regolith simulant or even a test-tube moon, Hörst’s lab planets lack physicality. They don’t represent a specific world; they don’t take its shape; they are only ethereal atmosphere, with no ground to stand on. But that makes sense: The farther an astronomer wants to peer from Earth, the fuzzier their creations become. “I think the fact that the exoplanet simulations are more abstract is this stark reminder that these aren’t places you can go,” Messeri said.

Still, Hörst recalls days when her lab simulates searing planets: Then, the chamber heats its whole corner of the room. That little world, which doesn’t exactly exist anywhere else, warms this one.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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This unfolding of the pallets marks the beginning of Webb’s major structural deployments.

The James Webb Space Telescope launched on December 25 has now passed the altitude of the Moon and is cruising on to its destination – the second Lagrange point (L2). JWST will be positioned about a million miles from Earth and will orbit the Sun.

On December 28, at approximately 1:21 pm EST (11:51 pm IST), the James Webb Space Telescope began the first step in the sunshield deployment phase. The process was completed at approximately 7:27 pm EST (5:57 am IST on December 29).

“While the actual motion to lower the forward pallet from its stowed to its deployed position took only 20 minutes, and the lowering of the aft pallet took only 18 minutes, the overall process took several hours for each because of the dozens of additional steps required,” NASA said in a release.

The additional steps included monitoring structural temperatures, turning on heaters to warm the key components, configuring electronics and software. This unfolding of the pallets marks the beginning of Webb’s major structural deployments. Such deployments will continue till January 2.

Today, the two-metre Deployable Tower Assembly (DTA) will be deployed. NASA said that this movement/distance provides the needed separation between the spacecraft and telescope to allow for better thermal isolation and to allow room for the sunshield membranes to unfold.

On January 1, the five-layered sunshield made of a material called Kapton will begin unfolding. The sunshield helps the telescope to cool down to a temperature below -223°C.

“The five layers are needed to block and redirect enough heat to get the telescope down to required temperatures…The fifth layer is mostly for margin against imperfections, micrometeoroids, holes, etc,” said James Cooper, James Webb Space Telescope Sunshield Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland in a release.

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Thirty amulets or jewellery pieces made of gold, quartz, and beads were found in the mummy.

The mummy of pharaoh Amenhotep I, who ruled Egypt between 1525 and 1504 BC, has now been digitally unwrapped using CT scans.

The paper published today in Frontiers in Medicine reveals minute details of the life and death of the pharaoh. He was about 169 cm tall, circumcised, and died around the age of 35 years. The cause of death was not clear.

The scan also helped visualise the face. He had an oval face with a small, flattened nose and narrow chin, and coiled hair. The team writes that his upper teeth were mildly protruding and there was a small piercing in the lobule of the left ear. He also had a complete set of teeth, including all of the third molars.

Thirty amulets or jewellery pieces made of gold, quartz, and beads were found in the mummy which was wrapped in linen. The paper adds that the mummy was covered from head to feet in floral garlands and the head was also covered with a mask made of painted wood and cartonnage. The face was painted pale yellow and the contour of the eyes and eyebrows marked in black.

“This fact that Amenhotep I’s mummy had never been unwrapped in modern times gave us a unique opportunity: not just to study how he had originally been mummified and buried, but also how he had been treated and reburied twice, centuries after his death, by High Priests of Amun,” said Dr. Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University and radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project, the study’s first author, in a release.

The mummy had suffered from several postmortem injuries likely inflicted by ancient tomb robbers. Amenhotep I’s mummy was later restored by priests of the 21st dynasty who “lovingly repaired the injuries…restored his mummy to its former glory, and preserved the magnificent jewellery and amulets in place,” Dr. Saleem said.

The mummy of Amenhotep I (meaning ‘Amun is satisfied’) was discovered in 1881 at the archeological site Deir el Bahari in southern Egypt.

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Lovejoy’s research brought him to the Amazon in the 1960s and he became a passionate advocate for tropical rainforests.

Thomas E. Lovejoy, a leading conservation biologist who is credited with popularising the term “biological diversity,” has died. He was 80.

His death on Saturday was announced by George Mason University, where he was director of the Institute for a Sustainable Earth, and the Amazon Biodiversity Center, which he founded.

Lovejoy began referring to biological diversity — the rich variety of life on Earth — in the late 1970s. Later shortened to biodiversity, it has become one of the most important themes of the age of climate change.

A leading extinction researcher, Lovejoy found that habitat destruction, pollution and global warming were snuffing out species around the world. He called for restoring forests to encourage the regrowth of native plants and animals and for protecting large tracts of water and land.

Lovejoy also was involved in the founding of US public television’s “Nature,” the venerable show featuring stunning video from ecosystems around the world. At the time of the show’s inception in 1982, he was working for the World Wildlife Fund.

Lovejoy’s research brought him to the Amazon in the 1960s and he became a passionate advocate for tropical rainforests. He helped run a project in Brazil to protect and restore threatened forest fragments.

The National Geographic Society gave Lovejoy a grant in 1971 to study rainforest birds in the Amazon and he played various roles with the society in the five decades that followed.

“To know Tom was to know an extraordinary scientist, professor, adviser and unyielding champion for our planet,” Jill Tiefenthaler, National Geographic’s chief executive officer wrote in a blog post.

He also served stints at the Smithsonian Institution, at the World Bank and as a science and environment adviser under several different presidents.

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In May, China became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

Japan revised the schedule of its space exploration plans on Tuesday, aiming to put a Japanese person on the moon by the latter half of the 2020s.

“Not only is space a frontier that gives people hopes and dreams but it also provides a crucial foundation to our economic society with respect to our economic security,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a meeting to finalise the plan.

The plan also spells out Japan’s aspirations to launch a probe to explore Mars in 2024, as well as to find ways to generate solar electricity in space. Neigbouring China also aims to become a major spacefaring power by 2030, and it too plans to put astronauts on the moon, raising the prospect of an Asian space race.

In May, China became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

Japan’s announcement of its space exploration targets comes a week after Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa returned to earth after spending 12 days aboard the International Space Station, becoming the first space tourist to travel to the ISS in more than a decade.

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The team described an additional, deeper layer in the masseter muscle, a prominent jaw muscle which is found in the rear part of the cheek and helps in chewing.

Researchers from Switzerland have discovered a new layer of muscle on our jaw. The team described an additional, deeper layer in the masseter muscle, a prominent jaw muscle which is found in the rear part of the cheek and helps in chewing.

Their findings were published recently in the journal Annals of Anatomy. They recommend that the muscle be named Musculus masseter pars coronidea, which means the coronoid part of the masseter.

The team carried out a detailed anatomical study using computer tomographic scans. They analysed stained tissue sections from deceased individuals and MRI data from a living person.

Lead author Dr. Szilvia Mezey from the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel explained in an email to “We have been looking to clarify the architecture of the masseter muscle not only from the point of view of an anatomist but also approached it from the angle of dentists specialised in orofacial pain. This new approach allowed us to locate and describe a part of the muscle that has been simply overlooked or not specified in enough detail by former authors.”

When asked what the role of this muscle was, she added that it can at the moment only be deduced from its architecture. “It is likely to be involved in retracting the lower jaw back towards the ear and stabilising the temporomandibular joint, for example, while chewing,” she says. The team has planned to conduct a detailed analysis of the function of the muscle to validate the theory deduced from the architecture.

“Most people think of human anatomy as science where everything has been fully described for decades. However, there are still many areas of the human body where more detailed descriptions are needed, especially in view of modern medical treatments allowing for more specific and focused interventions,” adds Dr. Mezey.

So does this mean our textbooks need revisions? “Anatomy textbooks are regularly revised with new editions following the results of the latest research in all areas of anatomy, not only on the macroscopic level but also including histology and embryology,” she concludes.

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Through his career, Wilson discovered more than 400 species of ants.

Edward O. Wilson, a US naturalist dubbed the “modern-day Darwin” died on Sunday at the age of 92 in Massachusetts, his foundation said in a statement.

Alongside British naturalist David Attenborough, Wilson was considered one of the world’s leading authorities on natural history and conservation. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project calls for protecting half the planet’s land and sea so there are enough diverse and well-connected ecosystems to reverse the course of species extinction, which is happening at a rate not seen in 10 million years.

The United Nations has urged countries to commit to conserving 30 per cent of their land and water – almost double the area now under some form of protection – by 2030, a target known as “30 by 30” and inspired in part by Wilson.

Born in the southern US state of Alabama, Wilson’s trajectory as an entomologist, someone who studies insects, was set at the age of 10, when he spent hours in the woods collecting bugs and butterflies.

He went on to spend 70 years as a scientist at Harvard University, putting in time as a professor and curator in entomology. Through his career, Wilson discovered more than 400 species of ants. He said one of his greatest achievements was working out how ants communicate danger and food trails, for example, by emitting chemicals.

Wilson attracted controversy when his 1975 book “Sociobiology: the New Synthesis” was interpreted by some scientists as implying that human behaviours like altruism or hostility are determined by genes, or “nature”, rather than environment, or “nurture”. Critics at the time decried the theory as carrying echoes of eugenics.

He had been living in a retirement community in the northeastern United States and had recently published the latest in a long series of books on biodiversity.

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Because the eye drops reduce pupil size, they also make it harder to see in the dark, so they are not recommended for people who drive at night or need to see well in low light for other reasons.

Written by Melinda Wenner Moyer

An eye drop that improves close-range vision could make misplaced reading glasses less of an inconvenience for many of the 128 million Americans who suffer from age-related deficits in near vision. Vuity, which became available by prescription this month, is a once-a-day treatment that can help users see up close without affecting their long-range vision.

“For anybody who doesn’t want to fiddle with reading glasses, this might be a really helpful alternative,” said Dr. Scott MacRae, an ophthalmologist at the University of Rochester’s Center for Visual Science. MacRae was not involved in the clinical trials for the drug, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late October.

Nearly 90 per cent of US adults older than 45 have problems with close-range vision, a condition known as presbyopia that typically worsens over time. To focus on close objects, the eye’s lens must change shape, yet it becomes less flexible as people age, making this process difficult. “Your ability to zoom in decreases,” MacRae said.

People who suffer from presbyopia often find that they need to hold a book at arm’s length or turn on a bright light to read it, said Dr. George Waring IV, an ophthalmologist and medical director of the Waring Vision Institute in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, who led Vuity’s clinical trials for the pharmaceutical company Allergan. Typically, eye doctors recommend that people with presbyopia wear over-the-counter or prescription reading glasses when they need to see up close, but Vuity may also be an option for them, he said.

Vuity improves near vision by constricting the size of the pupil. “It makes the pupil small, creating what we call a pinhole effect,” which reduces the amount of peripheral light that passes through the eye that can make it hard to focus, said Dr. Stephen Orlin, an ophthalmologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

Vuity’s active ingredient is a drug called pilocarpine, and it is not a new medication. It’s actually “one of the oldest drops that we have in ophthalmology,” Orlin said. It has been used for decades to treat glaucoma, a condition characterized by damage to the optic nerve. Although Vuity is the first product of its kind to treat presbyopia, at least nine similar eye-drop products are in clinical development to treat presbyopia and may be available in the future, Waring said.

Waring and his colleagues presented the results of their Phase 3 clinical trials, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery in July. A single Vuity drop in each eye improved trial subjects’ close-range vision for six hours and improved their intermediate vision — important for computer work — for 10 hours.

Vuity’s benefit over reading glasses is that it does not impair distance vision as reading glasses do. Usually, when a person stops reading to do something else, they need to remove their reading glasses to see around them properly. “That’s the good part about this — the drops don’t really affect distance vision under normal daylight conditions,” MacRae said.

MacRae also noted that Vuity will work best for people who have only mild to moderate presbyopia, which probably means people between the ages of 45 and 55. Older individuals with more serious presbyopia may find that the eye drops do not improve their near vision enough to make a difference.

Vuity does not correct regular nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism — it improves only the age-related deficits in close-range vision. So people with other eye errors will want to continue wearing glasses or contact lenses even if they also use Vuity, MacRae noted.

And the drops are not meant to replace reading glasses entirely, Waring said. People with presbyopia will probably want to own reading glasses, too, but Vuity may reduce the amount of time they need to wear them. “For some people, it’s going to work great,” MacRae said.

Vuity is not typically covered by health or vision insurance, and Waring said it might cost around $80 per 30-day supply.

Although the clinical trials did not report any serious side effects, 14.9 per cent of subjects who took Vuity reported mild headaches, compared with 7 per cent of subjects who took placebo drops. Up to 5 per cent of subjects taking Vuity reported other side effects such as eye redness, blurred vision, eye pain, visual impairment, eye irritation and an increased production of tears.

Because the eye drops reduce pupil size, they also make it harder to see in the dark, so they are not recommended for people who drive at night or need to see well in low light for other reasons, Waring said.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science journalist and author of “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Genetic analysis may indicate how long ago or recently similar species split apart and whether they’ve been in regular contact with each other since then

Louisiana researchers have identified 14 new species of shrews on an Indonesian island where seven in that genus were previously known.

There were so many and some look so similar that after a while Louisiana State University biologist Jake Esselstyn and his colleagues began hunting for Latin words meaning “ordinary.”

“Otherwise I don’t know what we would have named them,” said Esselstyn, who also named the seventh known species of the pointy-nosed insect-eating mammals on the island of Sulawesi.

That’s why shrews whose species names mean such things as “hairy-tailed” and ”long” have been joined by “Crocidura mediocris,” “C. normalis,” “C. ordinaria,” and “C. solita” — the last of those meaning “usual.”

The 101-page paper will be “super valuable for all current and future students of mammal biodiversity,” said Nathan S. Upham, assistant research professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and lead creator of the American Society of Mammalogists’ online Mammal Diversity Database.

He was not involved in the study, which was published December 15 in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and also involved researchers from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Museums Victoria in Australia, and the University of California. This image taken by doctoral student Heru Handika and provided by Louisiana State University, shows some of the terrain on Oct. 30, 2016, through which scientists and students trekked to collect shrews on Mt. Bawakaraeng in Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Heru Handika/Louisiana State University via AP)

It’s been 90 years since this many new species were identified in one paper, Esselstyn said. The 1931 paper by George Henry Hamilton Tate identified 26 possible new species of South American marsupials, but 12 were later found not to be separate species for a total of 14 new ones, he said.

Esselstyn led a decade of trips to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to collect the animals, which are relatives of hedgehogs and moles. All weighed less than a AA battery, ranging from about 3 grams — just over one-tenth of an ounce, or about the weight of a pingpong ball — to about 24 grams (0.85 ounces). The largest species had bodies averaging 95 millimeters, or about 3.7 inches long.

At the start, he was hoping to clarify how the six species then known in the genus Crocidura had developed. “I was interested in questions about how shrews interacted with their environment, with each other, how local communities were formed,” he said.

But he quickly realized that species had been sorely undercounted. “It was overwhelming because for the first several years, we couldn’t figure out how many species there were,” he said.

Five had been identified in 1921 and a sixth in 1995. Esselstyn’s team identified the seventh species, the hairy-tailed shrew, in 2019.

For this paper, they examined 1,368 shrews, more than 90 per cent of them collected by Esselstyn’s group, which trapped the animals on a dozen mountain sites and two in the lowlands of Sulawesi.

The island is shaped rather like a lower-case letter k with the top of the stem bent sharply eastward.

That odd shape has contributed to species diversity, Esselstyn said. “There are consistent boundaries between species…whether you’re looking at frogs or macaques or mice. It suggests some sort of shared environmental mechanisms.”

Researchers have found at least seven such zones — roughly, the island’s central mass, the three “legs” of the k, and three zones on the long bent neck.

Genetic analysis may indicate how long ago or recently similar species split apart and whether they’ve been in regular contact with each other since then, Esselstyn said.

“It’s a difficult problem. But I think we can do it now that sequencing genomes is relatively low-cost,” he said. “A few years ago we couldn’t have done it but it’s relatively feasible now.”

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The rogue planets were found in a star-forming region located within the Scorpius and Ophiuchus constellations.

An international team of astronomers has discovered the largest group of ‘rogue planets’. Rogue planets do not orbit a star and exoplanet hunters have found few such planets in our galaxy.

The team used 20 years of data from several European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope located in Chile, along with other facilities to make the discovery.

“We did not know how many to expect and are excited to have found so many,” says Núria Miret-Roig in a release. She is an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux, France, and the University of Vienna, Austria, and the first author of the study published last week in Nature Astronomy.

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The researchers found the rogue planets in a star-forming region located within the Scorpius and Ophiuchus constellations.

“We measured the tiny motions, the colours, and luminosities of tens of millions of sources in a large area of the sky,” explains Miret-Roig. “These measurements allowed us to securely identify the faintest objects in this region, the rogue planets.”

The team notes that the exact number of rogue planets found is hard to pin down and the count is between 70 and 170. They add that by studying rogue planets, we may find clues to how these mysterious objects were formed.

The study adds there could be many such starless planets yet to be discovered. “There could be several billions of these free-floating giant planets roaming freely in the Milky Way without a host star,” explains Hervé Bouy, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux, France, and project leader of the new research.

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Because shark skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone, their teeth are often the only fossils available.

A Louisiana State University museum official has received a unique retirement gift — researchers in Alabama and South Carolina named a prehistoric shark species after her.

Suyin Ting has been collections manager for vertebrate paleontology at the LSU Museum of Natural Science for 26 years. Her new namesake is Carcharhinus tingae, which lived 40 million years ago and was identified from fossilized teeth in the museum’s collection.

“I am very honored to be recognized by my peers for my work,” Ting, who studied mammal paleontology, said in a news release Thursday, the day she retired.

But, she added, the fact that David Cicimurri of the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, and Jun Ebersole of the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama, also identified many other specimens for the museum is much more important. Their contribution to the vertebrate paleontology collection is huge, she said.

Cicimurri, curator of natural history at the South Carolina museum, and Ebersole, director of collections at McWane, spent two days at the museum in 2020, photographing specimens and gathering data. The museum doesn’t have a fossil fish specialist, and they were able to identify much of the material previously labeled “fish.”

Because shark skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone, their teeth are often the only fossils available.

The two scientists realised that some hand-sized teeth were from a previously unrecognized species. Their paper identifying and describing it was published this week in the journal Cainozoic Research.

The researchers spent months studying the teeth, comparing them to those of other fossil and modern-day sharks.

“We were able to determine that the fossil species was closely related to modern requiem sharks, so we used jaws of modern species to reconstruct how the teeth were arranged in the mouth of the extinct species,” Cicimurri said.

According to the researchers, Carcharhinus tingae teeth have not yet been found anywhere but Louisiana, where they are relatively common — evidence that these sharks lived in an ancient ocean that covered what is now Louisiana.

The scientists came to LSU to work on a chapter for a book that is not yet published, to be titled “Vertebrate Fossils of Louisiana.”

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In a chat with The Indian Express, Dr. Kinjalk Lochan, Assistant Professor of Physics at IISER Mohali, explains string theory, Copernican principle and the multiverse concept.

“Multiverse is a concept which we know frighteningly little about”: These words by Doctor Strange to Peter Parker in the recently released Spider-Man: No Way Home is not absolutely incorrect. Last week, too, the teaser for Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness also shows this concept of multiple universes.

So, is there any scientific backing to this fantasy? Though some physicists have proposed that our universe may just be one among multiple realities, others say that this is nothing but speculation.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist had an interesting take on the multiverse. In a video published in 2019 on her YouTube channel, she says that “believing in the multiverse concept is logically equivalent to believing in God. Therefore it’s religion, not science”. She explains that science does not tell us anything about universes we cannot observe.

To understand more about this, spoke to Dr Kinjalk Lochan, Assistant Professor of Physics at IISER Mohali, who specialises in the fields of general relativity, black holes, and early universe.

Most physicists say that the concept of multiverse is speculation or science fiction. Then, why do some believe that it might exist?

Let me infuse some optimism for the sake of discussion, without committing to being a supporter of the concept. With the advent of quantum mechanics, there came a wonderful insight — that it is unimaginably difficult to completely rule out something. Every process has some probability of occurrence — low or high — but seldom zero.

Whatever we usually see, learn and fathom is based upon experiences we have — experiences gained at the scale (of size and energy) we typically live in. There is usually a well-understood flow of events from which we deduct some inferences as per logic. For example, if a person stands in front of me, I will infer that he/she is not at any other place at that time.

At the microscopic level, however, two or more realities may coexist — an electron, for example, may simultaneously live “here” and “there” (proven by experiments). The famous Schrodinger’s cat example shows that the cat may simultaneously be dead and alive if it gets coupled with a microscopic particle whose being “here” or “there” either kills the cat or spares it.

These concepts lead to the idea (speculations if you may like to call it) that when the universe was born, it was also a microscopic entity. Hence, it must also have had a million possibilities to coexist in. The question is what happened to those other possibilities? Did they fade away in favour of the one we see or all of them do really co-exist? I dare say we do not know for sure.

Are there any published scientific papers about this concept?

The idea has been around for many years in one form or another. Some think that this idea has its roots in the famous paper on the many world interpretation of quantum mechanics by Hugh Everett III (1957) where he proposed quantum systems do not collapse to one reality but continue to live with different “worlds” capturing different realisations.

Similar ideas later appeared in various forms in terms of the existence of multiple “vacua” (initial seeds of the universe) in theories such as chaotic inflation and string theory among others.

Many famous scientists like Leonard Susskind and Andrei Linde seemingly vouch for its existence.

If we are in a multiverse, shouldn’t different universes interact? Wouldn’t we see some effect?

This is a very pertinent question with no clear and acceptable answer for everyone. We know that the microscopic systems indeed simultaneously live all the realities and those realities do interact — interference being a buzzword for that.

However, somehow, when the systems grow larger, the interference disappears as we do not see it in our daily lives — possibly through a mechanism called decoherence.

Whether the many worlds of the multiverse — if they exist — have decoherred (undergone decoherence) enough as the universe expands and grows is not clear theoretically.

Can LIGO, Webb or newer advances help shed light on this question?

The scientific mandates of the advanced experimental proposals being run now or proposed in near future are not for testing the multiverse. They are precisely designed to carry out experiments that shed light on some unknown aspects of scientific queries within this universe.

Having said that, such experimental runs often get some spurious signals, something they were not looking, thereby opening the horizon for other possibilities. However, I do not imagine people will run to a “multiverse explanation” for any of them so easily as there are still so many things within our universe that need proper understanding.

I’ve read that a certain Copernican principle shows that a multiverse is possible. Is it true?

The Copernican principle suggests that in the universe, no position or frame is special, including that of the Earth. So there is no special condition that miraculously occurred on Earth to sustain life or science as we know it.

Ours is a very average position in the comic landscape and there is ample scope that very similar conditions are prevailing at other locations too. For example, in a classroom, many students will be found with marks near the average and very few far away from it.

This, per se, is not related to the idea of the multiverse but one can stretch the argument to microscopic configurations to ask if the occurrence of our universe is something special? Is our universe a miraculous entity or just an average one like many others? This is just stretching the initial argument.

Can you explain what string theory is? Does it explain the existence of a parallel universe?

String theory is a theoretical framework. It was initially envisioned to unite all the known forces of nature into one, in terms of a new fundamental entity — the strings.

Such unification requires that there ought to be more than four dimensions (the three spatial and the one-time dimension) we perceive, which is just the low energy manifestation of the grand picture.

Imagine it in this way — if you see a mural from close quarters, you will see only a small part of it. To see the full picture, you have to zoom out, but “zooming out” in case of a string theory needs extremely high energy.

Interesting, in many aspects, this leads to the question: Can we have different realisations of different 3+1 dimensions at low energy?

Carrying forwards the painting analogy, if you start coming close to the canvas, what is the guarantee that you will end up focussing on the same spot every time? There is always the likelihood of ending up on a different part of the painting the next time.

Similarly, you may end up getting a different 3+1 dimensional space in each low-energy migration. If so, can many co-exist? Do they constitute a multiverse? Many think that this is a possibility.

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The Clotilda’s final voyage was undertaken illegally because Congress had banned the importation of enslaved people more than half a century earlier.

Written by Michael Levenson

In 2019, a team of researchers confirmed that a wooden wreck resting off the muddy banks of the Mobile River in Alabama was the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States.

Now, the researchers say they have made another startling discovery: The wreck is remarkably well preserved. As much as two-thirds of the original structure remains, including the hold below the main deck where 110 people were imprisoned during the ship’s final, brutal journey from Benin to Mobile in 1860.

The researchers said it was possible that DNA could be extracted from the sealed, oxygen-free hull, which is filled with silt. Barrels, casks and bags used to stow provisions for the captives could also be found inside, they said.

“It’s a time capsule that is cracked open and it survives,” said James Delgado, an archaeologist who has been helping to study the site on behalf of the Alabama Historical Commission.

Delgado said researchers planned to remove sediment and wood from the Clotilda, which could be analyzed to determine if there was DNA that could be traced to a particular region or linked to descendants.

Last month, the Clotilda was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving it added protection as officials in Alabama continued to research the site to determine what should happen to the wreck. The revelation that the ship was largely intact was reported this past week by National Geographic.

Historians and descendants of those who were transported on the ship hope that the research will draw attention to the stories of the enslaved people on board, who eventually formed their own community, Africatown, in Mobile, after the end of the Civil War.

“The ship has been incredibly important in the sense that it has shed light on the whole story,” said Sylviane A. Diouf, a historian who has written about the Clotilda. “The story of the people is the most important, and they were on the Clotilda for about six weeks.” It was a place, she said, that they never wanted to see again.

The Alabama Historical Commission’s report detailing why the Clotilda should be added to the National Register of Historic Places said it “provides a unique and horrific archaeological opportunity” to enter the hold where men, women and children were transported during the 45-day voyage from West Africa to Alabama.

The space, which had previously held lumber, was dark, cramped and suffocating: 23 feet long, 18 feet to 23 feet wide and less than 7 feet high.

“It’s very chilling,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, who said his great-great-grandfather, Kupollee, arrived in Alabama on the ship as an enslaved teenager.

Patterson said he hoped that Alabama officials could raise the vessel from the river and display it.

“It takes a certain amount of evil to carry out something like that, to treat human beings like cargo,” Patterson said. “We would like for that ship to be on display so the world never forgets.”

Such an undertaking would be costly, if it is even possible, Delgado said.

The Alabama Historical Commission said it had hired researchers, engineers and others to study the site, including the composition of the sediment, the river current and the effects of biological decay on the wreck.

The data will be used to develop a plan to address the effects of erosion and to determine if the site should be stabilized. The study will also examine whether the riverbed could be used to erect a memorial, the commission said.

“It is a tremendous duty to ensure that Clotilda is protected, and the Alabama Historical Commission takes its role as the legal guardian of Clotilda very seriously,” Lisa D. Jones, the commission’s executive director, said in a statement. “The Clotilda is an essential historic artifact and stark reminder of what transpired during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

The Clotilda’s final voyage was undertaken illegally because Congress had banned the importation of enslaved people more than half a century earlier.

After the schooner arrived in Mobile and transferred the captives to a riverboat in July 1860, the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, burned and scuttled the ship to hide evidence of his illicit trade, Delgado said. The ship has remained in the same spot in the Mobile River ever since, researchers said.

After the Civil War, some of the people who had been transported on the Clotilda asked their former enslaver, Timothy Meaher, who had organized and financed the voyage, to give them land, said Diouf, author of “Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America.”

When Meaher refused, the formerly enslaved workers bought land from him and others, Diouf said, and formed Africatown, where African languages were spoken for decades.

“It’s, of course, a story of resistance,” she said. “They, from Day 1, acted as a community and as a family and they continued to be very active after they became free.”

Joycelyn Davis, who lives in Africatown and is a descendant of Charlie Lewis and Maggie Lewis, who were enslaved on the Clotilda, said she hoped that archaeologists could find barrels and other items as well as DNA that could be linked to descendants.

“I am anxious to see what they can bring up and what they can preserve,” she said. “Finding the ship brought us closure. With it being intact, it’s just mind-blowing.”

The stories of Africatown and the survivors of the Clotilda have drawn broader interest since researchers confirmed the identity of the wreck in 2019 after it was found by Ben Raines, a journalist and filmmaker and a son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times.

“Descendant,” a documentary about the Clotilda and the descendants of those on board, will be featured at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The descendants themselves plan to hold a festival in Mobile in February.

“We want people to never forget,” Patterson said, “that even though there was a certain amount of evil involved, those people in the cargo hold were able to overcome.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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James Webb Space Telescope launch: If all goes as planned, the 14,000-pound instrument will be released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument built to peer the farthest yet into the cosmos, was launched by rocket early Saturday from South America’s northeastern coast, opening a much anticipated new era of astronomical exploration.

The powerful $9 billion infrared telescope, hailed by NASA as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT) from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana. The launch was carried live on a joint NASA-ESA webcast.

If all goes as planned, the 14,000-pound instrument will be released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth – about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.

By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 340 miles away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.

Named after the man who oversaw NASA through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.


The new telescope’s primary mirror – consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

That, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

Hubble’s view reached back to roughly 400 million years following the Big Bang, revealing objects that Webb will be able to re-examine with far greater clarity.

Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars in the universe, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centers of distant galaxies.

Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting distant stars – and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor. The Arianespace launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.

Webb was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational expenses projected to bring its total price tag to about $9.66 billion, far higher than planned when NASA was previously aiming for a 2011 launch.

Astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the summer of 2022, following about six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments.

It is then that NASA expects to release the initial batch of images captured by Webb. Webb is designed to last up to 10 years.

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James Webb Space Telescope Launch Highlights Updates December 25: It carries four main scientific instruments and will “hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today,” according to NASA.

James Webb Space Telescope Launch Highlights: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched at 5:50 pm IST on December 25. Webb, NASA’s largest space science telescope ever constructed, will be the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, that has been in service for more than three decades now.

Carrying four main scientific instruments, Near-Infrared Camera, Near-Infrared Spectrograph, Mid-Infrared Instrument, and Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, Webb will “hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today,” according to NASA.

JWST has the ability to look in the infrared spectrum, which will allow it to peer through much deeper into the universe, and see through obstructions such as gas clouds.

NASA says Webb is not Hubble’s replacement but its successor, whose science goals were motivated by the results from Hubble. Webb will primarily study the universe in the infrared, while Hubble looks at it mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. Webb’s mirror is much larger than Hubble’s; it can, therefore, look farther back into time than Hubble. Also, Hubble is in a much closer orbit around Earth than Webb will be.

James Webb Space Telescope Launch Highlights December 25: The telescope will help answer our questions about: First light, Assembly of galaxies, Birth of stars and protoplanetary systems and Planetary systems, and the origin of life.

The James Webb Space Telescope has separated. The solar panels are deployed and Webb is now flying on its own power.

If all goes as planned, the 14,000-pound instrument will be released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth - about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb's special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem. - Reuters

The two solid rocket boosters have separated from the @Ariane5 rocket carrying #NASAWebb. They will fall back to Earth and land safely in the ocean. #UnfoldTheUniverse

The James Webb Space Telescope is less than 10 minutes from launch for liftoff.  NASA spokesperson said that the launch site reports show that all systems are green for launch at 7:20 a.m. EST (5:50 pm IST) ignition.The system is now cut off from external power and is being powered internally by its batteries.

The primary mirror is made of 18 hexagonal-shaped mirror segments — each 1.32 metre in diameter — stitched together in a honeycomb pattern. When fully open it will be 6.5 metre in diameter. The Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror had a diameter of just 2.4 metre.

“The primary mirror is a technological marvel. The lightweight mirrors, coatings, actuators and mechanisms, electronics, and thermal blankets when fully deployed form a single precise mirror that is truly remarkable,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a release.

Arianespace tweeted that the fueling process for the Ariane 5 rocket is now complete. The process began at around 1:30 pm IST and was completed at 4:30 pm.

'Webb will be observing some of these extremely hot systems and those with very non-circular orbits and provide new insights into: What does it mean to be extreme? What is happening in that atmosphere? Do they have weather patterns and clouds? And we can relate that back to our own solar system,' says Dr. Knicole Colón, James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science.

'With every telescope, we are launching and every study we’re doing — at least my intention — is to get closer to searching for planets and studying planets that are potentially like Earth – maybe the same size or the same temperature.

And Webb will certainly look at some of these Earth-like planets. But it is really hard to look for signs of life. I don’t expect it will actually find signs of life because it is going to require a lot of data. Even if we could find some evidence, it’ll be a long time before we confirm.'

James Webb Space Telescope Launch Highlights December 25: The liftoff scheduled for December 22 was postponed to December 24 due to difficulties in electronic communications between the launch vehicle and its payload. It was further delayed until Christmas Day due to poor weather conditions at the launch site.


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A paper published last year showed that between 4.98 and 13.64 million seahorses land as by-catch from India’s southeast coast every year.

A study conducted by a Kerala-based scholar shows how seahorses are affected by commercial fishing in Palk Bay. Between August 2018 and July 2019 Shalu Kannan, a Ph.D. scholar at Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) used to board between 10 and 15 mini-trawlers each month, looking for two threatened species of seahorses, Hippocampus kuda and H. trimaculatus, encountered as by-catch.

The study shows that these two species of seahorses are vulnerable to overfishing, and there is an urgent need to develop species-specific conservation guidelines and on-ground implementation.

The results were published last month in Marine and Freshwater Research.

The spotted seahorse, H. kuda, and the three-spot seahorse, H. trimaculatus, are two widely distributed species having a life span of two to three years. Though both species are listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, they are heavily exploited because of their high value in the traditional Chinese medicine markets and the aquarium trade.

“Syngnathidae family (seahorse and pipefish) have the same protection given to tigers. There is a ban on all forms of their capture and trade from the country. But still, both species are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and their population is decreasing worldwide,” says Shalu.

“We have currently done a country-wide survey to understand if there is awareness among fishers. The results which are soon to be published show that fishers from Tamil Nadu have the highest awareness about seahorses. Though they know that they are a protected species, the clandestine trade continues. We urgently need to raise awareness about pipefish in our country,” she adds.

”Using mathematical models based on length-frequency of seahorse samples taken as bycatch, we estimated the mortality rates and exploitation levels and found that both species are facing extreme fishing pressure in the Palk Bay region. Such studies need to be undertaken in other locations along the east and west coast of India to better understand the fishing pressure of seahorses,” says K. Ranjeet, Associate Professor and Head, Department of Aquatic Environment Management, KUFOS who supervised the work in an email to

A paper published last year by an international team showed that between 4.98 and 13.64 million seahorses land as by-catch from India’s southeast coast every year.

“Though they are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), dried seahorses continue to be illegally exported from our country. Catching and marketing an animal listed in the Indian Wildlife Protection Act can invite both imprisonment and fine,” says Prof. Rajeev Raghavan, one of the authors from the Department of Fisheries Resource Management, KUFOS, Kochi.

“Restrictions of non-selective fishing gear such as trawl nets and small mesh-sized nets in the seashore habitats, coupled with habitat restoration are ways to restore the seahorse populations. The captive breeding and sea ranching of seahorses is yet another option, which is currently handicapped by the regulations in the collection. Regular monitoring of seahorse fisheries and trade and enhanced awareness among fishers are other options in management,” says Dr. A. Biju Kumar, Professor, and Head, Dept. of Aquatic Biology & Fisheries from the University of Kerala who was not involved in the work.

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Archaeological data sets hold immense potential in informing present-day dialogues on resilience, food security, and “can be used to promote community-based adaptation.”

Archaeological records present an excellent opportunity to study how human societies responded to climate change in the past, says a review paper that appeared recently in PNAS journal.

The last 50 years or so have witnessed tremendous developments in the realm of climate modelling, which provides a backdrop to the natural archives that archaeologists, ecologists and earth scientists study.

A classic example of that is a project called MIS3 that applied climate models to the archaeological repositories and climate archives (in the form of pollens, ice cores, fossils etc.) from 25000-29000 years ago to understand why the Neanderthals went extinct during the Ice Age and why only the Homo sapiens survived.

But earlier corroborations between the archaeological and/or fossil records and climate models did present some major problems. For example, earth scientists or archaeologists have little way of control over the natural record. Certain environments, like acidic soil, are not at all conducive to preservation, which makes the natural archive sparse and patchy.

Much of these obstacles have been overcome in the recent past, with archaeologists employing remote sensing extensively to examine anthropogenic impacts to the landscape, or advances in radiogenic isotope dating techniques, or even the use of stable oxygen and carbon isotopes in biological remains.

Furthermore, the development in sampling techniques for sediment cores and speleothems have given us past records of temperature, precipitation, sea ice records with a high temporal resolution, albeit at a regional if not global scale.

Indeed, both scientists working on direct assessments of past climate change using natural archives (pollen, molluscs, plant remains, fossilised bones; also known as proxies) and climate modellers stand to gain from each other.

While modellers benefit from the data yielded by these proxies, helping them develop better models, archaeologists and earth scientists, in turn, rely on high-resolution models to get a context to the climate shifts they see in the archaeological record.

However, despite the ability of archaeology to contribute to climate science, for much of the twentieth century, many archaeologists did not approve of archaeology’s engagement with human-environment relationships.

Even today, though there have been technical advances and though more regions of the world continue to be explored by archaeologists and earth scientists, palaeoclimate proxies with a high temporal resolution are few and far between.

Oftentimes, data from one region is extrapolated to others. For instance, as plenty of records are available for the Mediterranean region of Europe, but not so much for the loess regions of Northern Europe, the former has been projected on much larger regions than from which they were sourced.

A similar challenge is also presented by ice cores. The study points out that it is unclear whether polar ice core records can be good baseline data for, let’s say, people living at mid-latitudes. Archaeological data, therefore, the authors highlight, could fill a major gap here as it targets regional-scale data across human settlements globally.

In 1993, a study on a third-millennium rain-fed agricultural settlement in north Mesopotamia – what are today the Habur Plains of Syria – employed archaeological and pedo-sedimentological (soil sediments) data and concluded that the site and nearby areas were abandoned due to an increase in aridity.

So, what does the ‘archaeology of climate change,’ as the authors call it, tell us?

Environmental stress often compels societies to reorganise themselves in different ways in different regions, highlighting the importance of cultural diversity.

In South-West Asia, for instance, the transition to settled agriculture did not happen at the same time during the Last Glacial/Interglacial cycle. There was considerable economic and cultural experimentation, and the lack of a homogenous response to climate change made the society more resilient.

Similarly, archaeological studies have shown how farming systems in the Southern Hemisphere adapted to El Nino events that are hard to predict.

The forefathers of today’s Cree people (an indigenous people from North America) “showed a clear preference for topographically stable locations, where the impacts of landscape transformations due to climate change were lessened.”

However, in Arctic regions, patterns of sea ice formation are unpredictable. This topographical uncertainty makes it difficult for Inuit people to fall back on pre-decided ‘ancestral tracks’.

A key takeaway from the study is that human societies navigate through climate change differently, and not every society is successful, let alone equally successful.

Archaeological investigations into past human-environment interactions help in identifying the “social and ecological tipping points” that compel societies to reorganise themselves in different ways.

Ultimately, the study asserts, archaeological data sets hold immense potential in informing present-day dialogues on resilience, not least food security, and “can be used to promote community-based adaptation.”

Arian Burke, the lead author of the study, says in an interview: “One of the things we’re learning is how important cultural diversity is – both in the past and in the present – for the long-term survival of our species.”

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The finds made near the ancient city of Caesarea were dated to the Roman and Mamluk periods, around 1,700 and 600 years ago, archaeologists said.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday the discovery of remnants of two shipwrecks off the Mediterranean coast, replete with a sunken trove of hundreds Roman and medieval silver coins.

The finds made near the ancient city of Caesarea were dated to the Roman and Mamluk periods, around 1,700 and 600 years ago, archaeologists said. They include hundreds of Roman silver and bronze coins dating to the mid-third century, as well as more than 500 silver coins from the Middle Ages found amid the sediment.

They were found during an underwater survey conducted by the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit in the past two months, said Jacob Sharvit, head of the unit.

Among the other artifacts recovered from the site near the ancient city of Caesarea were figurines, bells, ceramics, and metal artifacts that once belonged to the ships, such as nails and a shattered iron anchor.

The IAA made its announcement just days ahead of Christmas, and underscored the discovery of a Roman gold ring, its green gemstone carved with the figure of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders.

Robert Kool, head of the authority’s coin department, called the item “exceptional.” “On the gemstone is engraved an image of the ‘Good Shepherd,’ which is really one of the earliest symbols of Christianity,” he said.

Sharvit said that the Roman ship is believed to have originally hailed from Italy, based on the style of some of the artifacts. He said it remained unclear whether any remnants of the wooden ships remained intact beneath the sands.

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On December 25, 07:20 am EST, (5.50 pm IST), the space agency’s largest and most powerful space science telescope will be launched from French Guiana.

This Christmas, NASA brings an extraordinary gift for astronomers and skywatchers. On December 25, 07:20 am EST, (5.50 pm IST), the space agency’s largest and most powerful space science telescope will launch from French Guiana.

It carries four main scientific instruments and will “hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today,” according to NASA.

The liftoff scheduled for December 22 was postponed to December 24 due to difficulties in electronic communications between the launch vehicle and its payload. It was further delayed until Christmas Day due to poor weather conditions at the launch site.

The telescope will help answer our questions about: First light, Assembly of galaxies, Birth of stars and protoplanetary systems and Planetary systems, and the origin of life.

You can watch the lift-off online on NASA TV. Sign up at NASA to become a Webb Launch virtual guest and access curated resources. The space agency will mail virtual guests a stamp for their virtual guest passports.

We will also be live-blogging the event at In the meantime, click here to read our explainer on the differences between Webb and Hubble telescopes.

Also, catch our interviews with Dr. Knicole Colón, James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science, and Anisa Jamil, Electrical Power Systems Engineer – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Analyzing DNA from 793 individuals, the investigators discovered that a massive Late Bronze Age movement displaced around half the ancestry of England and Wales

Written by Franz Lidz

Three years ago in the journal Nature, a vast international research team led in part by Harvard University geneticist David Reich shined a torchlight on one of prehistoric Britain’s murkier mysteries.

By analyzing the degraded DNA from the remains of 400 ancient Europeans, the researchers showed that 4,500 years ago nomadic pastoralists from the steppes on the eastern edge of Europe surged into Central Europe and in some areas their progeny replaced around 75% of the genetic ancestry of the existing populations.

Descendants of the nomads then moved west into Britain, where they mixed with the Neolithic inhabitants so thoroughly that within a few hundred years the newcomers accounted for more than 90 per cent of the island’s gene pool. In effect, the research suggested, Britain was almost completely repopulated by immigrants.

In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Reich again targeted the genomic history of Britain, the country from which geneticists have mined more ancient samples than any other. The study, which has 223 co-authors, documents a subsequent and previously unknown major migration into Britain from 1,300 BC to 800 BC

Analyzing DNA from 793 individuals, the investigators discovered that a massive Late Bronze Age movement displaced around half the ancestry of England and Wales and, possibly solving another long-standing riddle about British history, may have brought early Celtic languages to the island from Europe.

According to the findings, from 1,000 BC to 875 BC the ancestry of early European farmers increased in southern Britain but not in northern Britain (now Scotland). Reich proposed that this resulted from an influx of foreigners who arrived at this time and over previous centuries, and who — no doubt to the disbelief of 21st-century British nativists — were genetically most similar to ancient inhabitants of France.

These newcomers accounted for as much as half the genetic makeup of the populace in southern Britain during the Iron Age, which began around 750 BC and lasted until the coming of the Romans in AD 43. DNA evidence from that period led Reich to believe that migration to Britain from continental Europe was negligible.

Ian Armit, an archaeologist at the University of York who collaborated on the research, noted that archaeologists had long known about the trade and exchanges across the English Channel during the Middle to Late Bronze Age. “But while we may once have thought that long-distance mobility was restricted to a few individuals, such as traders or small bands of warriors,” he said, “the new DNA evidence shows that considerable numbers of people were moving, across the whole spectrum of society.”

Lara Cassidy, a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin who was not involved in the research, described the study as “a triumph. It takes a step back and considers Bronze Age Britain on the macro scale, charting major movements of people over centuries that likely had profound cultural and linguistic consequences.”

Reich said the study demonstrated how, in the past few years, archaeologists and ancient DNA researchers have made great strides in coming together to address questions of interest to archaeologists.

“To a huge extent, this is due to the large ancient DNA sample sizes that it is now possible to generate economically,” he said. “These studies are also beginning to address questions that truly matter biologically and culturally.”

A pioneer in the swiftly evolving field of paleogenomics, Reich is a kind of puzzle master of human origins. By sequencing DNA from ancient skeletal remains and comparing it to the genetic material of individuals alive today, he and his collaborators piece together ancient population patterns that traditional archaeological and paleontological methods fail to identify. By overturning established theories and conventional wisdoms about migrations following the ice age, they are illuminating the mongrel nature of humanity.

For all the success of what Reich calls the “genomic ancient DNA revolution” in transforming our understanding of modern humans, the practice of extracting DNA from ancient human remains has raised ethical issues ranging from access to samples to ownership of cultural heritage. Critics point out that in some parts of the world, the very question of who should be considered Indigenous has the potential to fuel nationalism and xenophobia.

To respond to these concerns, three months ago Reich and 63 archaeologists, anthropologists, curators and geneticists from 31 countries drafted a set of global standards to handle genetic material, promote data sharing and properly engage Indigenous communities, although the guidelines did little to assuage critics.

Celtic pride

Since languages “typically spread through movements of people,” Reich said, the wave of migration was a plausible vector for the diffusion of early Celtic dialects into Britain. “Everybody agrees that Celtic branched off from the old Indo-European mother tongue as it spread westward,” said Patrick Sims-Williams, emeritus professor of Celtic studies at Aberystwyth University. “But they have been arguing for years about when and where that branching took place.”

For most of the 20th century, the standard theory, “Celtic from the East,” held that the language started around Austria and southern Germany sometime around 750 BC and was taken north and west by Iron Age warriors. An alternative theory, “Celtic from the West,” saw Celtic speakers fanning out from the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, perhaps arising in the Iberian Peninsula or farther north, and settling in Britain by as long ago as 2,500 BC.

In 2020, Sims-Williams published a third theory, “Celtic from the Centre,” in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. His premise was that the Celtic language originated in the general area of France in the Bronze Age, before 1,000 BC, and then spread across the English Channel to Britain in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age.

“What is exciting for me is that Dr. Reich and his team, using genetic evidence, have reached a compatible conclusion,” Sims-Williams said. “Their earliest DNA evidence is from Kent, still the easiest place to cross from France.”

Sims-Williams hypothesizes that Celtic speakers transmitted their language northward and westward from Kent, in southeastern England, until Celtic was spoken in most of Britain, and newer languages reached its shores with later migrations: Latin with the Romans, English with the Anglo-Saxons, Norse with the Vikings and French with the Normans. “The big remaining question is: “Did Celtic reach Ireland via Britain or direct from the continent?” Sims-Williams said.

The milk of Neolithic kindness

By leveraging their large data set of ancient DNA, Reich and his colleagues also found that lactase persistence — the ability of adults to digest the sugar lactose in milk — increased 1,000 years earlier in Britain than in Central Europe. At the dawn of the Iron Age, Reich said, overall lactase persistence on the island was about 50 per cent, compared with less than 10% in the region stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic.

Curiously, analysis of the hardened dental plaque coating ancient teeth, and of traces of fat and protein left on ancient pots, showed that dairy products were a dietary staple in Britain thousands of years before lactase persistence became a common genetic trait.

“Either Europeans tolerated stomachaches prior to the genetic changes or, perhaps more likely, they consumed processed dairy products like yogurt or cheese where the lactose content has been significantly reduced through fermentation,” Reich said.

Paul Pettitt, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Durham University, said, “The results sound fascinating, although in terms of what drink the English adapted to before their continental neighbors, it amazes me that it’s not beer.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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In 2002, the World Health Organisation devised the UV index in an effort to make people around the world more aware of the risks.

Written by Sarah Loughran

You’ve probably seen the UV index in the day’s weather forecast, and you know it tells you when you need to cover up and wear sunscreen. But where does that number come from? We produce it at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, accounting for about 80 per cent of cancers diagnosed in Australia each year. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

What is the UV index?

The UV index tells you how much ultraviolet radiation is around at ground level on a given day, and its potential to harm your skin. UV radiation is a component of sunlight that can cause tanning and sunburn in the short term. In the longer term, too much exposure to UV can cause cataracts and skin cancer.

In 2002, the World Health Organisation devised the UV index in an effort to make people around the world more aware of the risks. The index boils down several factors into a single number that gives you an idea of how careful you need to be in the sun. A score of 1 or 2 is low, 3 to 5 is moderate, 6 or 7 is high, 8 to 10 is very high, and 11 and above is extreme.

What is UV radiation?

The Sun showers Earth with light at a huge spectrum of different wavelengths, and each wavelength can have a slightly different effect on human skin. An important part of the spectrum is ultraviolet or UV radiation: light with wavelengths too short for our eyes to see, from around 400 nanometres to 10 nanometres.

There are two important kinds of UV radiation: UV-A, with wavelengths from 400 to 315 nanometres, and UV-B with wavelengths from 315 to 280 nanometres. (Shorter wavelengths are called UV-C, but are mainly blocked by the atmosphere so we don’t need to worry about it.)

UV-A and UV-B both contribute to skin damage, ageing and skin cancer. But UV-B is the more dangerous: it is the major cause of sunburn, cataracts and skin cancer.

How is the UV index calculated?

The UV index takes into account how much UV radiation of different wavelengths is around and how each of those wavelengths affects our skin.

ARPANSA has a network of sensors around Australia measuring sunlight at different wavelengths to determine the UV index, with the information available online in real time. This data is combined with other information about location, cloud cover and atmospheric conditions to produce maps and forecasts of the UV index for the whole country.

How are UV levels different around the world?

The UV index you see reported is usually the daily maximum — that’s the highest it will be all day. How high it gets depends on lots of factors, including your location, the time of year, the amount of cloud cover, and ozone and pollution in the atmosphere.

The index tends to be higher closer to the Equator and at high altitudes, as the sunlight has to pass through less air before it reaches the ground. People often experience the sun in Australia as particularly harsh, compared with places in North America or Europe.

In a British summer, for example, the maximum UV index might be between 6 and 8. In an Australian summer it can range from 10 to 14.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that Australia’s cities are closer to the Equator than many big cities in Europe and North America. Another is that Earth is very slightly closer to the Sun in the southern hemisphere’s summer than the northern summer, meaning the sunlight is a few percent brighter. A third reason is the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. The layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere, which absorbs some UV-B, is thinner towards the South Pole. This was caused by the use of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, and it has been improving since they were banned by an international agreement in 1987. And finally, the air in Australia generally has less smoke, dust and other small particle pollution than many places in the northern hemisphere. While this makes the air nicer to breathe, pollution does absorb or block some UV radiation.

Is UV changing over time?

We know UV levels have increased in recent decades. In Australia, a study in 2011 found the average UV index had increased by 2 to 6 per cent between the 1970s and the period 1990 to 2009, due to depletion of the ozone layer. A NASA study found similar results for 1979 to 2008. It’s harder to say what will happen in the future, as there are several uncertain factors.

We expect the ozone layer to slowly recover from the impact of CFCs, which is likely to reduce UV levels. However, we also expect less fossil fuel will be burned, which would mean less air pollution and higher UV levels.

On the flip side, we may also have more bushfires due to climate change, which would mean more air pollution and lower UV. Clouds are also likely to behave differently due to climate change, but we’re not sure exactly how. Researchers in Japan found reductions in clouds and tiny particles in the air are expected to have a bigger impact than the recovery of the ozone layer, which would mean UV levels are likely to go up overall.

-The author is from the University of Wollongong

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Oviraptorosaurs lived during the Cretaceous period(145 to 66 million years ago) in Asia and North America.

From the rocks of Ganzhou in southern China, researchers have discovered a 72-to 66-million-year-old embryo inside a fossilised dinosaur egg. The embryo, named ‘Baby Yingliang’ belongs to a toothless theropod dinosaur group called oviraptorosaur. Oviraptorosaurs lived during the Cretaceous period(145 to 66 million years ago) in Asia and North America.

The most interesting find was the posture of the embryo. The team writes that “its head lies below the body, with the feet on either side and the back curled along the blunt end of the egg.”

This posture is similar to that seen in modern-day bird embryos. One of the authors Professor Steve Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh said in a release: “This dinosaur embryo inside its egg is one of the most beautiful fossils I have ever seen. This little prenatal dinosaur looks just like a baby bird curled in its egg, which is yet more evidence that many features characteristic of today’s birds first evolved in their dinosaur ancestors.”

Their findings were published in iScience. The embryo was found inside a 17-cm long egg and the creature is estimated to be 27 cm long from head to tail. The specimen is now housed in China’s Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum.

Fion Waisum Ma, the joint first author and PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, said in a release: “Dinosaur embryos are some of the rarest fossils and most of them are incomplete with the bones dislocated. We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’ – it is preserved in great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it…It is interesting to see this dinosaur embryo and a chicken embryo pose in a similar way inside the egg, which possibly indicates similar prehatching behaviours.”

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Andrew Vitz, an ornithologist, said the bird most likely arrived in North America after it got caught in a weather-related storm.

A long way from its home in Asia, a rare Steller’s sea eagle was spotted by 200 bird watchers around Taunton River, Massachusetts on Monday.

The eagle is reportedly the same one that went off course a year ago and has been spotted in Alaska and Canada by bird watchers across North America, The Boston Globe reported on Tuesday.

Flocks of bird watchers in the Northeast said they traveled hours to the river to catch a glimpse of the eagle in what they said was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the birding community.

Steller’s sea eagles, native to Russia, China, Korea and Japan, have wingspans of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) and weigh between 6 to 9 kilograms. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the eagles as vulnerable species, estimating a total population of about 4,000.

“We’ve never had one here in this area of the world: the Northeast coast of North America or Massachusetts,” said Andrew Vitz, the state’s ornithologist. “This is like the bird of the decade for people around here.”

Vitz said the bird most likely arrived in North America after it got caught in a weather-related storm. The state has no plans to capture or tag the bird, he said.

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SpaceX is ending the year with 31 launches, the most ever by the company.

SpaceX launched Christmas gifts, goodies and supplies to the International Space Station on Tuesday and got a present in return: the company’s 100th successful rocket landing.

The predawn liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was barely visible in the fog and clouds, as the Falcon rocket hoisted a Dragon capsule loaded with more than 2,950 kilograms of gear for the station’s seven astronauts. Several minutes later, the first-stage booster landed upright on an ocean platform, six years to the day that Elon Musk’s company accomplished its first booster touchdown in 2015.

This particular booster was making its first flight. A few days ago, a SpaceX booster made its 11th flight.

“It’s critical to lower the cost of spaceflight to continue to reuse these boosters more and more times. A hundred is a big milestone, so we’re excited about that,” said SpaceX’s Sarah Walker, a mission manager. “We’re also excited to see how few new boosters we have to produce as the years go by.”

Watch Falcon 9 launch Dragon’s 24th resupply mission to the @Space_Station →

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 21, 2021

Among the items due to arrive at the space station Wednesday: Christmas presents from the astronauts’ families, as well as smoked fish and turkey, green beans and fruitcake for a holiday feast. NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano wouldn’t divulge anything else. “I won’t get in front of Santa Claus and tell you what’s going to be sent up,” he told reporters on the eve of launch.

The delivery also includes a laundry detergent experiment. Station astronauts currently trash their dirty clothes; Procter & Gamble Co. is developing a fully degradable detergent for eventual use at the station, on the moon and beyond.

SpaceX is ending the year with 31 launches, the most ever by the company.

Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to revolutionise astronomers' understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Liftoff of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, designed to peer farther than ever into the universe, has been delayed until Christmas Day at the earliest, due to poor weather at the launch site on South America’s northeastern coast, the space agency said on Tuesday.

The 24-hour weather delay at the Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana follows a two-day postponement from an earlier Dec. 22 targeted launch window caused by electronic communications difficulties between the launch vehicle and its payload, according to NASA.

Encapsulation of the powerful infrared telescope inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket was completed on Dec. 17. The rocket is now poised for blastoff between 7:20 am and 7:52 am EST on Saturday. If all goes according to plan, the $9 billion instrument will be released from the rocket after a 26-minute ride into space. It will then take the Webb telescope a month to coast to its destination in solar orbit roughly 1 million miles from Earth – about four times the distance from the moon.

By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth itself from 340,000 miles away. Named for NASA’s chief during most of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to revolutionise astronomers’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to gaze through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. The new telescope’s primary mirror – consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble.

That advance, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating back to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting distant stars – and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor. The Ariane launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.

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The earliest and most distant known galaxy, discovered by the Hubble, dates to a time 400 million years after the Big Bang. The Webb telescope will be able to see back farther, to a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang.

Written by Dennis Overbye

There are only a few times in the history of a species when it gains the know-how, the audacity and the tools to greatly advance the interrogation of its origins. Humanity is at such a moment, astronomers say.

According to the tale that they have been telling themselves (and the rest of us) for the past few decades, the first stars flickered on when the universe was about 100 million years old.

They burned hard and died fast in spectacular supernova explosions, dispelling the gloomy fog of gas left over from the primordial fireworks known as the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. From those sparks came all that we care about in the universe — the long, ongoing chain of cosmic evolution that has produced everything from galaxies and planets to microbes and us.

But is that story right?

The tools to address that question and more are at hand. Sitting in a spaceport in French Guiana, wrapped like a butterfly in a chrysalis of technology, ambition, metal and wires, is the biggest, most powerful and, at $10 billion, most expensive telescope ever to be launched into space: the James Webb Space Telescope. Its job is to to look boldly back in time at the first stars and galaxies.

“We’re looking for the first things to come out of the Big Bang,” said John Mather of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Green Belt, Maryland, the chief scientist for the telescope. Or, as he likes to ask: “How did we get here from the Big Bang?”

If all goes well — always a dubious prospect in the space business — the telescope will be loaded onto an Ariane 5 rocket and, Friday morning, blast off on a million-mile journey to a spot beyond the moon where gravitational forces commingle to create a stable orbit around the sun.

Over the next 29 days on its way up, the chrysalis will unfold into a telescope in a series of movements more complicated than anything ever attempted in space, with 344 “single points of failure,” in NASA lingo, and far from the help of any astronaut or robot should things become snarled.

“Six months of high anxiety,” engineers and astronomers call it.

First, antennas will pop out and aim at Earth, enabling communication. Then the scaffolding for a sunscreen the size of a tennis court will open, followed by the sunscreen itself, made of five thin sheets of a plastic called Kapton.

Finally, 18 gold-plated beryllium hexagons will snap into place to form a segmented mirror 6.5 meters, or 21 feet, across. By then, the telescope will have reached its destination, a point called L2, floating on its sun shield and aimed at eternity.

Astronomers will then spend six months tweaking, testing and calibrating their new eye on the cosmos.

Looking back at the fog

The James Webb Space Telescope, named after the NASA administrator who led the agency through the Apollo years, is a collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. Its official mission is to explore a realm of cosmic history that was inaccessible to Hubble and every telescope before it.

“We are all here because of these stars and galaxies,” said Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California.

That mission requires the Webb to be tuned to a different kind of light than our eyes or the Hubble can see. Because of the expansion of the cosmos, those earliest stars and galaxies are rushing away from Earth so fast that their light is shifted to longer, redder wavelengths, much as the siren from an ambulance shifts to a lower register as it speeds by.

What began as blue light from an infant galaxy 13 billion years ago has been stretched to invisible infrared wavelengths — heat radiation — by the time it reaches us today.

To detect those faint emanations, the telescope must be very cold — less than 45 degrees Celsius above absolute zero — so that its own heat does not wash out the heat being detected. Hence the sun shield, which will shade the telescope in permanent, frigid darkness.

Even before the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, in 1990, astronomers were arguing about what should come next. Dressler was the head of a committee proposing a Next Generation Space Telescope powerful enough to see the first stars and galaxies in the universe. It would need to be at least 4 meters in diameter (Hubble’s mirror was only 2.4 meters across) and highly sensitive to infrared radiation, and it would cost $1 billion.

NASA was game, but Dan Goldin, the agency’s administrator, worried that a 4-meter telescope would not be keen-eyed enough to detect those first stars. In 1996, he marched into a meeting of the American Astronomical Society and scolded Dressler and his committee for being too cautious. The new telescope, he said, would be 8 meters wide, a drastic leap in power, cost and development time.

“The crowd went wild,” Dressler recalled recently. “But many of us knew from that day on that this was big trouble. Webb became the perfect storm: The more expensive it got, the more critical it was that it not fail, and that made it even more expensive.”

Doubled in size, the telescope could no longer fit aboard any existing rocket. That meant the telescope’s mirror would have to be foldable and would have to assemble itself in space. NASA eventually settled on a mirror 6.5 meters wide — almost three times the size of Hubble’s and with seven times the light-gathering power. But all the challenges of developing and building it remained.

If the foldable mirror operates as planned, the mission could augur a new way to launch giant telescopes too big to fit on rockets. Only last month, a National Academy of Sciences panel recommended that NASA develop a giant space telescope 8 meters or more across to look for habitable planets. But if Webb’s origami fails, NASA and the astronomical community will have to take a long walk back to the drawing board.

“NASA committed too early to a particular design,” Dressler said. “I think this discouraged creative solutions that might have delayed the start of construction but made the telescope better and more affordable and, in the end, faster to launch.”

The setbacks mounted. At one point, the telescope was projected to cost about $5 billion and be ready in 2011; in the end, it took almost $10 billion and 25 years.

Cost overruns and mistakes threatened to suck money from other projects in NASA’s science budget. The journal Nature called it “the telescope that ate astronomy.” Ten years ago, Congress considered canceling it outright.

Naming the telescope was its own challenge. In 2002, Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator at the time, announced that the instrument would be named for Webb, who had been a champion of space science and the agency’s leader during the crucial days of the Apollo program. Some astronomers were disappointed that it did not honor a scientist, like the Hubble Telescope or the Einstein X-ray Observatory do. Some of them were critical of Webb, questioning his role in a purge of gay men and lesbians from the State Department during the Truman administration.

Others in the astronomy community joked that the telescope’s initials stood for the “Just Wait Space Telescope.” The delays were par for the course, Mather said: “We had to invent 10 new technologies to build this telescope, and that’s always harder than people think it will be.”

Designing the foldable mirror and the sunscreen was particularly difficult. In early 2018, the sunscreen was torn during a rehearsal of the unfolding process, and the project was set back again.

Finally, last October, the telescope arrived by ship in French Guiana, where it would be launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. But the telescope’s troubles were not over. As technicians prepared to attach it to the spacecraft, a clamp let loose unexpectedly and the whole instrument quivered.

The launch date was pushed back four days, from Dec. 18 to Dec. 22, while NASA confirmed that the telescope had not been damaged. A few days later, a broken data cable set the adventure back another couple of days.

An auspicious past

Almost 14 billion years ago, when the universe was less than 1-trillionth of a second old, quantum fluctuations in the density of matter and energy gave rise to lumps that would become the first stars.

These stars were different from those we now see in the night sky, scientists believe, because they were composed of only hydrogen and helium created in the thermonuclear furnace of the Big Bang. Such stars might have quickly grown to be hundreds of times more massive than the sun and then just as quickly exploded as supernovas. They do not exist in the present-day universe, it seems.

For all their brilliance, these early stars might still be too faint to be seen individually with the Webb, Mather said. But, he added, “they come in herds,” clumps that might be the seeds for the earliest protogalaxies, and they explode: “We can see them when they explode.”

Those supernova explosions are surmised to have began the process, continuing today, of seeding the galaxy with heavier and more diverse elements like oxygen and iron, the things necessary for planets and life.

A top item on the agenda will be to hunt for those first galaxies, Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona said. Rieke has spent the last 20 years leading the development of a special camera, the Near Infrared Red Camera, or NIRcam, one of four instruments that take the light gathered by the telescope mirror and convert it into a meaningful image or a spectrum.

So far, the earliest and most distant known galaxy, discovered by the Hubble, dates to a time 400 million years after the Big Bang. The Webb telescope will be able to see back farther, to a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang.

In that foggy realm, Rieke expects to find dozens more infant galaxies, she said. Astronomers believe these were the building blocks for the clusters of galaxies visible today, agglomerations of trillions of stars.

Along the way, these galaxies somehow acquire supermassive black holes at their centers, with masses millions or billions larger than the sun. But how and when does this happen, and which comes first: the galaxy or its black hole?

Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale, and her colleagues are among those hoping to use the Webb to find an answer to the origins of these black holes.

Did they come from the collapses of those first stars? Or were the black holes already there, legacies of the Big Bang?

“A lot is on the line, intellectually in terms of our understanding of black-hole growth, and practically in terms of careers for the younger members of our team and that of others working on this important open question,” Natarajan said. “Assuming, of course, that all goes well, and JWST takes data as expected.”

Worlds beyond the sun

In the years that the Webb telescope has been in development, the hunt for and study of exoplanets — worlds that orbit other stars — has become the fastest-growing area of astronomy. Scientists now know that there are as many planets in the galaxy as there are stars.

“Everything we have learned about exoplanets has been a surprise,” Mather said.

Seeking such a surprise, he said, the telescope will look at Alpha Centauri, a star only 4 1/2 light-years from Earth: “We don’t expect planets there, but who knows?”

As it turns out, infrared emissions are also ideal for studying exoplanets. As an exoplanet passes in front of its star, its atmosphere is backlit, enabling scientists on Earth to study the spectroscopic signatures of elements and molecules. Ozone is one such molecule of interest, as is water, said Sara Seager, a planetary expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The astronomers with viewing time on the Webb telescope have made a list of about 65 exoplanets to observe; all are relatively nearby, circling small stars known as red dwarfs. None is a true analog to our planet, an Earth 2.0 orbiting a sunlike star, Mather said. Finding one of those will require a bigger, next-generation space telescope. But they could be habitable nonetheless.

As a result, some of the most anticipated early observations with the Webb will be of the planets in the Trappist-1 system, just 40 light-years away. There, seven planets circle a dim red-dwarf star. Three are Earth-size rocks orbiting in the habitable zone, where water could exist on the surface.

Seager is part of a team that has first dibs on observing one of the most promising of these exoplanets, Trappist-1e. The researchers will begin by trying to determine whether the world has an atmosphere.

“Nothing is scheduled yet,” she said, and recounted the many steps needed before the telescope is operational.

“I liken it to waking someone up from a coma. You don’t ask them to run a marathon right away. It’s step-by-step testing.”

Mather, when asked what he was looking forward to studying, mentioned primordial galaxies, dark energy and black holes.

“What I really hope for is something we don’t expect,” he said.

Measuring the universe, again

Wendy Freedman could be excused for thinking she is living through a déjà vu moment.

Thirty years ago, before the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, eminent astronomers were arguing bitterly about how fast the universe was expanding. At issue was the correct value of the Hubble constant, which has been called the most important number in the universe. It measures the cosmic expansion rate, but astronomical measurements disagreed by a factor of two on its value. This meant astronomers could not reliably compute the age or fate of the cosmos or the distance to other galaxies.

The Hubble Telescope was to resolve this impasse, and Freedman, now at the University of Chicago, wound up running a “key project” that settled on an answer. But recent measurements have revealed a new disagreement about the cosmic expansion rate. And Freedman finds herself again in the middle, using a new space telescope to remeasure the Hubble constant.

“Today we have a chance to learn something about the early universe,” she said in an email. “As we have gotten increasingly higher accuracy, the issue has changed — we can now ask if there are cracks in our current standard cosmological model. Is there some new missing fundamental physics?”

“So yes, it is exciting,” she said. “Once again, a new fantastic space telescope that will allow us to resolve a controversy!”

And that, doubtless, will create new ones. As Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute, said at a recent news conference: “The telescope was built to answer questions we didn’t know we had.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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On December 21, the Northern Hemisphere tilts the farthest away from the Sun

Today, December 21, is marked as the Winter Solstice, during which the Northern Hemisphere experiences the shortest day and longest night of the year. Today, the angle of the sun’s rays will be perpendicular to the earth at the Tropic of Capricorn.

Our Earth tilts on its axis at 23.5 degrees and as it revolves around the Sun, it rotates on its axis. On December 21, the Northern Hemisphere tilts the farthest away from the Sun and this is known as the winter solstice. After the winter solstice, the days will get longer and the nights shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, until June 21, 2022 (the summer solstice) and things will reverse.

According to NASA, the December solstice will start today at 15:59 UTC or 21:29 IST.

The Public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India has shared a fun activity that you can do at your homes tonight.

You would need only a magnetic or digital compass. Start your observation just before sunset. Use your compass to face West and watch the horizon carefully. Keep the compass at eye level and watch the sun as it starts to go down to the horizon at sunset. You will notice that the sun doesn’t set exactly in the West.

On your compass, measure the difference in angle of the sunset from West and share your data on this Google form.

Why the difference in angle?

The December solstice is the southernmost sunset point.

After this, the sunset point starts moving North. The angle you measure today from East at sunrise (or from West at sunset) is the southernmost rising (or setting) point of the sun for your location.

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The creature – estimated to have been around 2.7 metres long and 50 kgs in weight – lived about 326 million years ago.

In January 2018, researchers from the University of Cambridge stumbled upon a fossil in a block of sandstone that had fallen from a cliff in Northumberland. “It was a complete fluke of a discovery,” said Dr Neil Davies from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences in a release. “The way the boulder had fallen, it had cracked open and perfectly exposed the fossil, which one of our former PhD students happened to spot when walking by.”

The team says that this is the largest-ever fossil of a millipede and the creature – estimated to have been around 2.7 metres long and 50 kgs in weight – lived about 326 million years ago. It belongs to the Arthropleura genus. The results were published in the Journal of the Geological Society.

“Finding these giant millipede fossils is rare, because once they die their bodies tend to disarticulate, so it’s likely that the fossil is a molted carapace that the animal shed as it grew,” said Davies. “We have not yet found a fossilised head, so it’s difficult to know everything about them.”

The researchers believe that the millipede had a highly-nutritious diet. “While we can’t know for sure what they ate, there were plenty of nutritious nuts and seeds available in the leaf litter at the time, and they may even have been predators that feed off other invertebrates and even small vertebrates such as amphibians,” said Davies.

Members of the Arthropleura genus are known to have gone extinct during the Permian period about 250 million years ago. “The cause of their extinction is uncertain, but could be due to global warming that made the climate too dry for them to survive, or to the rise of reptiles, who out-competed them for food and soon dominated the same habitats,” adds the release.

The fossil will go on public display at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum from January 1, 2022.

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The ‘leaves’ on the trees are colour-coded depending on their risk of extinction

Researchers from Imperial College and the University of Oxford have created an interactive tree of life called OneZoom. The team says the website is “the Google Earth of biology” and connects about 2.2 million living species.

You can zoom in to any species and explore its relationships with others and its IUCN status.

Dr. James Rosindell of Imperial College London and Dr. Yan Wong from the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford described the creation in a paper published last week in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

“By developing new algorithms for visualisation and data processing, and combining them with ‘big data’ gathered from multiple sources, we’ve created something beautiful,” Dr. Wong said. “It allows people to find their favourite living things, be they golden moles or giant sequoias, and see how evolutionary history connects them together to create a giant tree of all life on Earth.”

The ‘leaves’ on the trees are colour-coded depending on their risk of extinction: green means the species is not threatened, red indicates threatened, and black denotes recently extinct.

“We have worked hard to make the tree easy to explore for everyone, and we also hope to send a powerful message: that much of our biodiversity is under threat,” Dr. Rosindell added.

Most of the leaves on the tree are grey in colour, indicating that they are not fully studied or data is deficient and we don’t know about their extinction risk. “It’s extraordinary how much research there is still to be done,” Dr. Wong said.

“Two million species can feel like a number too big to visualise, and no museum or zoo can hold all of them!” Dr. Rosindell said. “But our tool can help represent all Earth’s species and allow visitors to connect with their plight.”

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The study details striking similarities between the internal structures of certain small mammal and marsupial hairs and those of human-made optical instruments.

Written by Cara Giaimo

It’s tough out there for a mouse. Outdoors, its enemies lurk on all sides: owls above, snakes below, weasels around the bend. Indoors, a mouse may find itself targeted by broom-wielding humans or bored cats.

Mice compensate with sharp senses of sight, hearing and smell. But they may have another set of tools we’ve overlooked. A paper published last week in Royal Society Open Science details striking similarities between the internal structures of certain small mammal and marsupial hairs and those of human-made optical instruments.

In this paper as well as other unpublished experiments, the author, Ian Baker, a physicist who works in private industry, posits that these hairs may act as heat-sensing “infrared antennae” — further cluing the animals into the presence of warm-blooded predators.

Although much more work is necessary to connect the structure of these hairs to this potential function, the study paints an “intriguing picture,” said Tim Caro, a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Bristol in England who was not involved.

Baker has spent decades working with thermal imaging cameras, which visualize infrared radiation produced by heat. For his employer, British defense company Leonardo UK Ltd., he researches and designs infrared sensors.

But in his spare time, he often takes the cameras to fields and forests near his home in Southampton, England, to film wildlife. Over the years, he has developed an appreciation for “how comfortable animals are in complete darkness,” he said. That led him to wonder about the extent of their sensory powers.

Observations of predator behavior further piqued his interest. While filming and playing back his videos, he noted how cats stack their bodies behind their faces when they’re hunting. He interprets this, he said, as cats “trying to hide their heat” with their cold noses. He has also observed barn owls twisting as they swoop down, perhaps to shield their warmer parts — legs and wingpits — with cooler ones.

Maybe, he thought, “predators have to conceal their infrared to be able to catch a mouse.”

Eventually, these and other musings led Baker to place mouse hairs under a microscope. As the hairs came into view, he felt a strong sense of familiarity. The guard hair in particular — the bristliest type of mouse hair — contained evenly spaced bands of pigment that, to Baker, closely resembled structures that allow optical sensors to tune into specific wavelengths of light.

Thermal cameras, for instance, focus specifically on 10-micron radiation: the slice of the spectrum that most closely corresponds with heat released by living things. By measuring the stripes, Baker found they were tuned to 10 microns as well — apparently homed in on life’s most common heat signature. “That was my Eureka moment,” he said.

He found the same spacing in the equivalent hairs of a number of other species, including shrews, squirrels, rabbits and a small mousy marsupial called the agile antechinus. The antechinus hair in particular suggested “some really sophisticated optical filtering,” starting with a less sensitive absorber at the top of the hair and ending with patterns at the base that eliminated noise, he said.

As these hairs are distributed evenly around the body, their potential infrared-sensing powers could help a mouse “spot” a cat or owl in any direction, Baker said.

Baker’s hunch that these hairs help small mammals perceive predators is “plausible,” said Helmut Schmitz, a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany who has investigated infrared-detecting mechanisms in fire beetles. (These beetles use organs in their exoskeletons to sense the radiation, which leads them to the recently burned forests where they lay their eggs.)

But jumping straight from structural properties to a biological function is risky, he said. To show that the hairs serve this purpose, it is necessary to prove that the skin cells they are attached to are able to recognize very small differences in temperature — something that has not been observed, even though these cells have been heavily studied, Schmitz said.

Baker has continued to look into this question, designing his own observational tests. (A recent endeavor involves filming how rats respond to “Hot Eyes,” an infrared emitter he built that mimics the eyes of a barn owl.) As these experiments were not controlled, they were not included in the published paper. But now that he has lit this metaphorical torch, Baker hopes to pass it to others who can look deeper into these anatomical questions and design more rigorous experiments.

“Animals that operate at night have secrets,” he said. “There must be a huge amount we don’t understand.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Saturday's mission was the 34th launch for Starlink, a constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.

A SpaceX rocket carried 52 Starlink internet satellites into orbit from California early Saturday.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from coastal Vandenberg Space Force Base at 4:41 am and arced over the Pacific.

The Falcon’s first stage returned and landed on a SpaceX droneship in the ocean. It was the 11th launch and recovery of the stage.

The second stage continued into orbit and deployment of the satellites was confirmed, said launch commentator Youmei Zhou at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Starlink is a satellite-based global internet system that SpaceX has been building for years to bring internet access to underserved areas of the world.

Saturday’s mission was the 34th launch for Starlink, a constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.

SpaceX also launched a Turkish communications satellite from Florida at 10:58 pm EST Saturday.

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Maezawa will become the first private passenger on the SpaceX moon trip in 2023, as commercial firms including Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin usher in a new age of space travel for wealthy clients.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa returned to Earth on Monday after a 12-day journey into space, ending a practice run for his planned trip around the moon with Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2023.

The 46-year-old fashion magnate and art collector, who launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 8 along with his assistant Yozo Hirano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, landed on the Kazakh steppe. Maezawa, a space enthusiast, made the trip in a Soyuz spacecraft and became the first space tourist to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in more than a decade.

One of Japan’s most flamboyant public figures, Maezawa entertained his social media followers from space by taking photos of his home prefecture of Chiba, showing how to make tea in zero gravity and discussing his shortage of fresh underwear.

precipitation and sub-zero temperatures at the landing site about 150 km south east of the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.

Maezawa will become the first private passenger on the SpaceX moon trip in 2023, as commercial firms including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin usher in a new age of space travel for wealthy clients.

The billionaire, who sold his online fashion business Zozo to SoftBank in 2019, is searching for eight people who will join him in his moon voyage in 2023, requiring applicants to pass medical tests and an interview.

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The Juno team also released the latest image of Jupiter’s faint dust ring.

Last week, NASA released an audio track collected by its Juno spacecraft as Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, made a flyby. Ganymede is the largest moon in our Solar System.

The 50-second audio track was generated from data collected by Juno’s Waves instrument on June 7, 2021. The electric and magnetic radio waves were shifted into audio range to create the track.

“This soundtrack is just wild enough to make you feel as if you were riding along as Juno sails past Ganymede for the first time in more than two decades,” said Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio said in a release. “If you listen closely, you can hear the abrupt change to higher frequencies around the midpoint of the recording, which represents entry into a different region in Ganymede’s magnetosphere.”

At the time of this closest approach to Ganymede, Juno was 1,038 kilometers away from the moon’s surface and was traveling at a relative velocity of 67,000 km/hr.

Last week, a briefing on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter was held at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in New Orleans. During the meeting, Jack Connerney from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, revealed the most detailed map ever obtained of Jupiter’s magnetic field. It was compiled using data collected from 32 orbits by Juno.

The map provides new insights into the Great Blue Spot, seen at Jupiter’s equator. The map shows that Jupiter’s zonal winds are pulling this Great Blue Spot apart and this could mean that the zonal winds seen on the planet’s surface could have reached deep into the interior of the planet.

The Juno team also released the latest image of Jupiter’s faint dust ring. The image was taken using Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit navigation camera. The image also captured the arm of the Perseus constellation. “It is breathtaking that we can gaze at these familiar constellations from a spacecraft a half-billion miles away,” said Heidi Becker, lead co-investigator of Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit instrument at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “But everything looks pretty much the same as when we appreciate them from our backyards here on Earth. It’s an awe-inspiring reminder of how small we are and how much there is left to explore.”

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Out of the four species of horseshoe crabs in the world, two are found in India and the recent Amphan and Yash cyclones have taken a toll on their habitats.

On the beaches of West Bengal and the Sundarban mangroves, you can spot one of the living fossils of the world – the lowly horseshoe crab. They have survived all five mass extinctions and have remained unchanged for millions of years.

Out of the four species of horseshoe crabs in the world, two are found in India and the recent Amphan and Yash cyclones have taken a toll on their habitats. Forest officials and researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata are now working with local fishermen and communities to help save the threatened species.

“Horseshoe crabs are listed under Schedule IV of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, but our lack of knowledge of these species impairs implementation of legal tools in Sundarbans. They are excellent sentinel animals which means they can act as indicators to monitor the health of an ecosystem and study the effects of climate change,” explains Prof. Punyasloke Bhadury from IISER, Kolkata.

“The Indian horseshoe crabs (Tachypleus gigas) that come to the shore to breed and the mangrove horseshoe crabs (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) which feed in and around the mangrove areas were affected during the cyclone,” Prof. Bhadury added.

Prof. Bhadury’s team has organised awareness camps to teach the local fisherman about the ecological importance of horseshoe crabs and how to save them when stuck in nets. He adds that ‘ghost nets’ or abandoned broken pieces of fishing nets have become a deathtrap for these crabs. “Usually fishermen inform us when they see injured carbs. We take them to the IISER Kolkata laboratory, give the required treatment before releasing them again.” The team has also saved gravid female crabs or egg-carrying ones, reared them in the lab, and released them back.

Anwesha Ghosh of IISER Kolkata, who is part of the team, said: “Horseshoe crabs are slow-moving animals and when cyclones alter the environment and change the nutrient pool, their diet is affected. There are also threats from water pollution and pathogens.” She is working with fisherwomen in the Sundarban area so that wildlife officials are informed immediately when an injured carb is spotted. “Our aim is to save as many as possible through rehabilitation measures.”

Though the rate of poaching of horseshoe crabs has come down, there are isolated incidents, says Prof. Bhadury. They are a delicacy in many countries in East Asia and are illegally transported through Bangladesh.

“Now with Covid-19 vaccines needing horseshoe crab’s blood for testing, their poaching might increase. We need to establish ‘Ecologically Sensitive Areas’ with Sundarbans framework to protect horseshoe crab and also the home for many other charismatic species including the Gangetic Dolphins,” he adds.

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Nonetheless, the models generated by the study show that had humans been absent altogether, mammoths “would have persisted for much longer."

A study published recently in Ecology Letters examines the longue durée processes that brought the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) to extinction.

Oftentimes, studies on the extinction of a species focus on reconstructing the events that transpired when the last remaining population/individual was alive. The new study notes that this is a truncated view, as “pathways to extinction start long before the death of the last individual.” These pathways and processes can commence as early as millennia before the final extinction event.

The study approached the vexed question of the interactions between humans and mammoths using two models.

*First, they juxtaposed the fossil record – that included the location and date of each fossil specimen – with established palaeoclimate models over the last 21,000 years.

*Second, a genetic model of the global diaspora of anatomically modern humans over the last 125 thousand years was considered (Homo sapiens originated ~30000 years ago).

Finally, these were taken together to understand how humans influenced some key ecological processes of extinction: niche lability, dispersal, population growth, and the Allee effect. Niche lability refers to a phenomenon whereby a species or a population does not retain its niche in order to preserve its ecological traits through space and time, and the Allee effect refers to a phenomenon wherein lower per capita birth rates lead to a loss in genetic diversity.

The range of the woolly mammoth contracted in North-East Europe around 19,000 years ago and the species was completely wiped out in most of Europe in the next 5,000 years. There were, however, certain areas called ‘refugia’ ( patches of tundra ecosystem remained amidst a drying climate) where the mammoth did survive: areas that are now Britain, Northern France, Belgium, and some areas of Netherlands and Denmark.

The models imply that the populations of the woolly mammoth would have remained in the Arctic refugia as late as the mid-Holocene, nearly 5,000 years longer than what had been earlier determined through fossil evidence. The Holocene period about 10,000 years ago is a time most notably marked by a transition from hunting-gathering to settled agriculture in human history.

The warming up of the climate around 17,500 years ago separated the populations of humans and mammoths. While humans populated the areas that were left open to colonisation by the retreating ice sheets, mammoths further retreated to the tundra pockets where they could survive.

The authors highlight that the interplay between mammoths-climate-humans was not homogeneous over space and time and that these ‘spatiotemporal heterogeneities’ played a key role in the final extinction event.

The study further asserts that the ‘dynamics of these extinction determinants were labile’. For example, in Northern Fennoscandia (the region that covers Scandinavian countries along with a part of Russia) the existing mammoth populations experienced a far greater threat from the warming of the climate in the Holocene than from humans. This is not the case for populations in Asia and Beringia, where the mammoth’s extirpation “closely mirrored the pattern of continent-wide extinctions observed for Eurasia, with humans having a proportionately larger threatening influence on expected minimum abundance.”

Nonetheless, the models generated by the study show that had humans been absent altogether, mammoths “would have persisted for much longer, perhaps even avoiding extinction within climatic refugia.”
The models showed that the absence of humans registered a “24 per cent increase in their persistence beyond 3800 years ago.”

Associate Professor David Nogues-Bravo from the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study explains in a release: “Our analyses strengthen and better resolves the case for human impacts as a driver of population declines and range collapses of megafauna in Eurasia during the late Pleistocene…It also refutes a prevalent theory that climate change alone decimated woolly mammoth populations and that the role of humans was limited to hunters delivering the coup de grâce. And shows that species extinctions are usually the result of complex interactions between threatening processes.”

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

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The researchers put their Terminator-like creation in a tank together with mosquitofish and tadpoles. When a mosquitofish approached a tadpole, the robot would lurch forward, as if to strike.

Written by Livia Albeck-Ripka

The mosquitofish is not a fussy creature: It can live in filthy bodies of water and has an undiscerning appetite. Larvae? Other fishes’ eggs? Detritus? Delicious. Often, the voracious few-inch creature chomps off the tails of freshwater fish and tadpoles, leaving them to die.

But the invasive fish is threatening some native populations in Australia and other regions, and for decades scientists have been trying to figure out how to control it, without damaging the surrounding ecosystem.

Now, the mosquitofish may have finally met its match: a menacing fish-shaped robot.

It’s “their worst nightmare,” said Giovanni Polverino, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Western Australia and lead author of a paper published Thursday in iScience, in which scientists designed a simulacrum of the fish’s natural predator, the largemouth bass, to strike at the mosquitofish, scaring it away from its prey.

The robot not only freaked the mosquitofish out but scarred them with such lasting anxiety that their reproduction rates dropped — evidence that could have long-term implications for the species’ viability, according to the paper.

“You don’t need to kill them,” Polverino said. Instead, he said, “we can basically inject fear into the system, and the fear kills them slowly.”

Mosquitofish, native to North America, are named for their penchant for eating mosquito larvae. In the 1920s, the fish began to be introduced across the world, with the intention of controlling the population of that insect, a vector for malaria.

In some places, including parts of Russia (where they erected a monument to the fish), the campaign may have had some success, although this is debated.

But in other parts of the world, the aggressive fish — free from its natural predator — flourished unchecked. In 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the marine animal among the worst invasive species in the world.

In Australia, where the study was conducted, the mosquitofish preys on several native fish and frog species, including the red-finned blue eye and the Edgbaston goby, two of the most critically endangered fish species in Australia.

“They thrive because they eat pretty much everything that moves, and there’s more than enough to be eaten,” said Francesco Santi, a biologist based in Vicenza, Italy, who was not involved in the study and has studied the mosquitofish’s diet. He added: “I have no idea of any place where they have actually been able to eradicate them.”

For the study, Polverino and colleagues designed a mechanical predator in the shape of a largemouth bass. The robot fish used a camera to differentiate between its “prey,” the mosquitofish, and the tadpoles of the Australian motorbike frog, which the mosquitofish hunts.

The researchers put their Terminator-like creation in a tank together with six wild-caught mosquitofish and six wild-caught tadpoles. When a mosquitofish approached a tadpole, the robot would lurch forward, as if to strike.

After experimenting on 12 separate groups of fish and tadpoles over several weeks, the researchers found that the stressed mosquitofish were investing more energy on evading the robot than reproducing: The males’ sperm counts dropped, and the females began to produce lighter eggs. The fish also lost weight; the males’ bodies in particular became leaner and more adept for escaping.

“It was not only that they were scared,” Polverino said. “But they also got unhealthy.”

The experiment is not the first time scientists have created robotic impersonators to more closely study the behavior of animals.

In Britain, scientists used a robotic falcon to “attack” a flock of homing pigeons and observe the birds’ response. In Germany, researchers built a bee that directed other bees to a food source by doing a “waggle dance.” In California, a biologist made a sage grouse “fembot” from a taxidermied bird, to understand the threatened species’ mating habits.

In the case of the mechanical largemouth bass, however, scientists say there is a long way to go before the robot could be released into the wild.

“It’s an important proof of concept,” said Peter Klimley, a marine biologist and a recently retired professor from the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study.

But he questioned the feasibility of introducing the creature into a real-world environment.

“This study won’t be a solution to the problem,” Polverino said, adding that the next phase of their project would involve testing the robots in a larger, outdoor, freshwater pool.

He said the robot should be thought of as a tool that can reveal a pest’s weaknesses.

“We’ve built a sort of vulnerability profile” that could help biologists and others to re-imagine how to control invasive species, Polverino said.

“This fear,” he added, “has a collateral effect.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Until now, the leggiest animal known was a California millipede species with 750 legs.

Deep underground in an exploratory drill hole in a mining region of Australia, scientists have discovered a “marvel of evolution,” a remarkably elongated blind millipede possessing the most legs – 1,306, to be precise – of any known animal.

The threadlike pale-colored millipede reaches about 3-1/2 inches (95 mm) long and about four-hundredths of an inch (0.95 mm) wide, with a conical head, beak-shaped mouth and large antennae – likely one of its only sources of sensory input because it lacks eyes, scientists said on Thursday.

“Previously no known millipede actually had 1,000 legs despite the name millipede meaning ‘thousand feet,'” said Virginia Tech entomologist Paul Marek, lead author of the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The creature is called Eumillipes persephone. The handful of individuals discovered lived up to almost 200 feet (60 meters) underground. Females had more legs than males.

“In my opinion this is a stunning animal, a marvel of evolution,” said study co-author Bruno Buzatto, a principal biologist at Bennelongia Environmental Consultants in Perth, Australia. “It represents the most extreme elongation found to date in millipedes, which were the first animals to conquer land. And this species in particular managed to adapt to living tens of meters deep in the soil, in an arid and harsh landscape where it is very hard to find any millipedes surviving in the surface,” Buzatto added.

Until now, the leggiest animal known was a California millipede species called Illacme plenipes, with 750 legs. The researchers suspect that evolving so many legs helped Eumillipes.

Also read: The story of the millipede and its more devious distant cousin, the centipede

“We believe that the large number of legs provides an advantage in terms of traction/force to push their bodies forward through small gaps and fractures in the soil where they live,” Buzatto said.

The species lives in complete darkness in a subterranean habitat loaded with iron and volcanic rocks. Lacking eyes, it uses other senses such as touch and smell to perceive its environment. It belongs to a family of fungi-eating millipedes, so the researchers suspect that is what it eats.

It was discovered in Western Australia state’s Goldfields-Esperance region in an area where miners dig for gold and other minerals including lithium and vanadium.

Four Eumillipes individuals were described in the study and another four have been found. None of them were observed alive. One of the adult females described in the study had 1,306 legs and the other had 998. One of the two adult males had 818 legs and the other had 778.The number of legs is not uniform within millipede species because they molt – shedding their tough outer layer – grow and add four-legged segments throughout their life.

“It’s quite common in millipedes for individuals to gain more legs as they molt so that older individuals have more legs than juveniles,” Buzatto said. Typically millipedes have about 100 to 200 legs. After millipedes, centipedes have the greatest number of legs, up to as many as 382. Centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment while millipedes have two pairs.

The newly discovered creature’s scientific name means “true thousand feet” and references Persephone, the queen of the underworld in ancient Greek mythology.

Millipedes – slow-moving arthropods related to centipedes, insects and crustaceans – first appeared more than 400 million years ago. Roughly 13,000 species are known today, living in all sorts of environments, feeding on decaying vegetation and fungi. They play an important ecosystem role by breaking down the matter on which they feed, freeing up its constituent parts such as carbon, nitrogen and simple sugars. “These nutrients can then be used by future generations of life,” Marek said.

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The solar array is made up of five panels that are folded up and stowed in the launch vehicle. Their deployment is one of the most critical steps.

NASA announced Wednesday that the launch of its new space telescope has been delayed for at least two days as there was a communication problem between the observatory and the rocket. The liftoff of the James Webb Space Telescope is now scheduled for no earlier than December 24.

In an interview with, Anisa Jamil, Electrical Power Systems Engineer – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, explains how NASA’s largest telescope is powered.

What is the powerhouse of the James Webb Space Telescope?

About 30 minutes after launch, the solar array is deployed. The array is made up of five panels that are folded up and stowed in the launch vehicle. They are the first things to be deployed and this process is one of the most critical steps. The telescope will go off of the battery power and start generating its own power using the panels – sunlight to electricity.

If there are some issues with the deployment, we have more than seven hours of battery power and in this window, we can figure out the problem. We can also start turning things off and try to save power if needed.

Webb requires only 1 kilowatt of power every day but the solar array is capable of generating 2 kilowatts.

The solar array has a requirement of six years, but I am sure we have plenty of margin to meet a goal of about ten and half years.

How advanced is the power system compared to the previous space telescope?

Hubble was launched over 30 years ago and the technology has advanced so much since then. The solar panels do have newer technology but not the latest as the mission has been in the making for so many years.

They are much more efficient compared to the ones found in homes/offices called the terrestrial Solar panels. The space solar panels can reach up to around 27 to 30% efficiency, while the commercial ones have less than 20%.

Also, the James Webb Space Telescope does not see any eclipse, so the solar panels can generate power at all times.

What is your role during the launch next week?

My team works with the power system. So our goal is to make sure that the power is good when we launch and the solar array deploys and starts functioning.

If it deploys correctly and we have good power in 30 to 40 minutes, then we don’t have much to do after that. So I think the first 30 minutes after launch is crucial for us. And I’m hoping that after that my team can get a good night’s sleep.

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The US agency resumed flights to the ISS last month with its new Crew Dragon spacecraft

Moscow expects NASA to start taking cosmonauts to the International Space Station again and is hopeful that cooperation can resume next year, the head of the Russian space agency was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

Russia has been the only country capable of delivering people to the ISS since 2011, when the US space agency retired its space shuttle and divert resources towards deeper space exploration. But the US agency resumed flights to the ISS last month with its new Crew Dragon spacecraft, on which Moscow expects Washington to find berths for cosmonauts.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, said he and his US counterparts had discussed the issue, alongside extending Russia’s participation in the space station’s upkeep beyond 2025, according to an interview published by Interfax.

Strained relations between Washington and Moscow have extended into space, but Rogozin said the two agencies planned to finalise the Crew Dragon deal in the first half of 2022 when NASA chief Bill Nelson visited Moscow.

Earlier this month Rogozin mentioned Anna Kikina, the only female cosmonaut at Roscosmos, as a likely nominee for such a flight.

In November, US officials accused Russia of endangering the ISS after generating a debris field in low-Earth orbit that they said would pose a hazard to space activities for years. In early December, Roscosmos said the ISS had performed a manoeuvre to temporarily swerve away from a fragment of a US launch vehicle.

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The water-rich area is about the size of the Netherlands.

A Mars orbiter launched in 2016 has spotted water in Mars’ canyon system called the Valles Marineris. The canyon system is the largest in the Solar System and is about ten times longer and five times deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon.

The Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is a joint mission of the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos agency. The water was spotted using the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)’s Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) instrument, which helps map hydrogen on the surface of the red planet.

“With TGO we can look down to one metre below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on below Mars’ surface – and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments,” said Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia in a press statement. He is also the lead author of the study recently published in Icarus detailing this new find.

The detector showed that there was an unusual amount of hydrogen in the Candor Chaos, situated in the central region of the Valles Marineris. The team writes that a little over 40 per cent of the near-surface material region appears to be water. It adds that the water-rich area is about the size of the Netherlands.

Co-author Alexey Malakhov, also of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences explained further, “We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water – far more water than we expected. This is very much like Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil because of the constant low temperatures.”

A paper published in October in Science had confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater was once a lake. Pictures sent by NASA’s Perseverance rover helped make the discovery. Last year, another research paper had shown the presence of three underground water lakes in the south pole of the Red planet.

“Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars’ once-abundant water, and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life, and organic materials from Mars’ earliest days,” said Colin Wilson, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist.

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It is administering an experimental formula donated by global animal health company Zoetis Inc to its 10 most susceptible animals.

At the Buin Zoo on the outskirts of Chilean capital Santiago, a veterinarian sporting a tiger-striped face mask administers an experimental COVID-19 vaccine to a tiger in a cage, as another zoo worker feeds the animal chunks of raw meat via a pair of long tongs.

The Buin Zoo, like others around the world, is looking to keep its animals safe from the coronavirus. It is administering an experimental formula donated by global animal health company Zoetis Inc to its 10 most susceptible animals, zoo director Ignacio Idalsoaga said.

On Monday, lions, tigers, pumas and even an orangutan received the vaccine. “We are using an experimental vaccine that will yield short-term results that will in turn allow us to develop a vaccine that is not on the market today,” Idalsoaga said. “These are the first doses being produced worldwide, which will enable scientific accuracy and later allow mass production to protect every animal from this deadly virus in zoos like ours.”

The Buin Zoo began searching for ways to keep its animals safe after learning that they – like people – were susceptible to the coronavirus.

“We got the first clue from gorillas in San Diego (zoo),” Idalsoaga said. The Buin Zoo contacted Zoetis, which donated 20 doses that the Chilean zoo on Monday used on animals that are the most susceptible: the great felines.

“We are vaccinating three tigers, three lions, three pumas and our orangutan, because great apes are also susceptible to this,” he said.

After conducting and publishing research on dogs and cats last year, Zoetis is testing the vaccine in different zoos, mainly in the United States, said Cristian Dunivicher, an animal technician with Zoetis.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of animals spreading the coronavirus to people is low, but the virus can spread from people to animals during close contact.

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After Apophis, Osiris-Rex might even have enough fuel to visit yet another asteroid. Or, it could be placed on the surface of Apophis and act as a “tracking beacon,”

Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan

First it punched an asteroid. Now, a NASA spacecraft’s rampage may continue, and it could blast a hole in another space rock.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is on its way back to Earth, having thwacked — briefly — the surface of an asteroid called Bennu last year to scoop up samples. It will arrive home in 2023, ejecting a capsule full of samples that may help eager scientists decipher the origin of Earth’s water and life.

But the spacecraft will have plenty of fuel left. Its mission team wondered: Could it go somewhere else?

Yes, it turns out. And not just anywhere, but one of the most famous near-Earth asteroids: Apophis.

“We were pretty excited when we found out we could go there,” said Michael Nolan from the University of Arizona, the science team chief on the mission, who presented findings this week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans.

Apophis was once thought to be the asteroid that posed the greatest threat to Earth. After its discovery in 2004, astronomers rated its chance of hitting our planet in 2029 as high as 1 in 37, the highest in recorded history for any asteroid. At 1,000 feet across, it would not end life on Earth if it hit but would decimate an area hundreds of miles across.

“It was very scary,” Nolan said.

Updated analysis later showed that the asteroid, which dances around Earth’s orbit, would not impact our planet. But it will still make a close pass in April 2029 at a distance of 20,000 miles, inside the orbits of some geostationary satellites, and close enough that it will be visible to the naked eye in Europe, Asia and Africa.

By coincidence, if mission controllers on Earth directed Osiris-Rex to complete three flybys of the planet after dropping off its samples, it would be able to reach Apophis. When the asteroid flies through Earth’s skies, Osiris-Rex would be just an hour behind, ready to sidle up in June 2029.

“It’s sort of a fluke,” Nolan said.

While Apophis poses no threat to Earth — at least for the next century or so — studying it could tell scientists a great deal about asteroids of this size. No other mission is planned to visit Apophis in 2029, although there are proposals to do so.

Next month the Osiris-Rex team will put forward its proposal to NASA to extend the mission, with a decision expected by April. If it goes ahead, the spacecraft will spend 18 months studying Apophis after it arrives.

While orbiting Apophis, Osiris-Rex would swoop down over the surface to take high-resolution images. This would include looking for evidence of landslides caused by the gravitational tug of Earth as the asteroid flew past.

The spacecraft would also attempt to descend to the surface and use its thrusters to blast a hole in its surface. The goal would be to expose underground material, helping to work out what the asteroid is made of.

“Apophis is compositionally the kind of asteroid that’s most likely to become a hazard,” Nolan said. “The material properties will help us understand what its structure is.”

This in turn could inform a future mission to save Earth from Apophis or another asteroid. By working out its mass, density and structure, scientists will know how spongy or hard the asteroid is, telling them how best to deal with similar objects.

“We really need to understand what we’re dealing with,” said Jim Bell, an astronomer at Arizona State University who is not involved in the Osiris-Rex mission. “Is this a solid hunk of rock? Can we change this thing’s orbit? Could we destroy it, blow it up into tiny bits, if we had to take some drastic measures?”

NASA’s ongoing Dart mission, which launched last month, is performing a not-too-dissimilar experiment by slamming into a small asteroid to see if scientists can change its orbit.

Davide Farnocchia, from NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said the close pass of Apophis was an “amazing opportunity” to observe an asteroid of this size up close. It would also lead to better understanding of whether Apophis poses a future threat to Earth.

After Apophis, Osiris-Rex might even have enough fuel to visit yet another asteroid. Or, it could be placed on the surface of Apophis and act as a “tracking beacon,” Nolan said.

Budget constraints or other issues, such as concerns that Osiris-Rex could inadvertently alter the orbit of Apophis and make it a threat to Earth, could dictate whether the extended mission is approved. But it could prove an exciting next chapter for the mission.

“It’s once in a millennium that something this big comes to Earth,” Bell said. “We should take advantage of that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The researchers show that there is no trace of dark matter in the galaxy AGC 114905, located about 250 million light-years away.

A few years ago, when Pavel Mancera Piña–a PhD scholar at the University of Groningen–along with his colleagues discovered galaxies with little to no dark matter, they were told: “measure again, you’ll see that there will be dark matter around your galaxy.” Dark matter is a form of matter that makes up about 27 per cent of the universe’s mass.

The team used a sophisticated radio telescope called Very Large Array in New Mexico for their study and spent days re-analysing their observations. Their results recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society which confirms that there is no trace of dark matter in the galaxy AGC 114905, located about 250 million light-years away.

When asked if this is the first evidence of a dark-matter free galaxy, Mancera Piña explained: “In recent years, a research group at Yale University has suggested that two galaxies (DF-2 and DF-4) have little or zero dark matter. Some of these claims are seen with skepticism by some other astronomers. Our previous study in 2019 showed six galaxies candidates to have very low dark matter content. In our new paper, we show in detail how one of these six galaxies, AGC 114905, seems indeed to have no room for dark matter, using very high-quality data.”

The researchers list two possible explanations for this lack of dark matter. One is that the AGC 114905 galaxy could have lost or been stripped of its dark matter by nearby larger galaxies.

The other assumption is around the angle at which they think they are observing the galaxy. “We observe galaxies projected at different angles in the sky. Depending on this angle, we should apply a correction to the velocity at which we observe the gas moving. We have measured the inclination of AGC 114905 and applied the corresponding correction,” explained Mancera Piña in an email to

However, he cautioned that if for some reason the measurement is off and the inclination of the galaxy is actually lower, they would need to factor in a larger correction that could level some more room for dark matter. But the researchers are confident that their measurements are robust.

The team has planned to obtain more data for more gas-rich ultra-diffuse galaxies like AGC 114905, in particular those that were studied in the 2019 paper in order to see if all of them show the same unusual dark matter properties.

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Nereus is composed of nickel, iron and cobalt.

If you have watched the 1998 science fiction movie, Armageddon, you might remember that oil drillers were selected by NASA to drill a hole into the asteroid. The plan was to detonate a nuclear bomb inside the hole and split the asteroid. But can we actually drill an asteroid and extract minerals? A potentially hazardous asteroid named “4660 Nereus”, that whizzed past our planet last week is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

According to Asterank, an online database of asteroids, Nereus is composed of nickel, iron, and cobalt. The website notes that the asteroid is worth $4.71 billion and the world can make a profit of $1.39 billion by mining them.

Asteroid mining is not a new concept. It is well known that “S-type” asteroids or rocky asteroids contain economically relevant metals. “A small, 10-metre (yard) S-type asteroid contains about 650,000 kg of metal, with about 50 kg in the form of rare metals like platinum and gold…There are rare asteroids with about ten times more metal in them, the metallic or “M-class” asteroids,” said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. He is the principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

Launched in 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was able to collect more than two kilograms of samples from an asteroid named Bennu, which is at a distance of 320 million km from Earth. The spacecraft began its journey back to Earth in May and is expected to reach in 2023.

According to Asterank, asteroid Bennu has a value of $669 million and the estimated profit is $185 million. The website notes that there are several other asteroids worth more than $100 trillion.

“It currently costs hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to build and launch a space mission, so innovations that would make these costs fall dramatically are needed before it is profitable to mine asteroids for the value of their metals alone,” says NASA.

The agency says that the lack of experience with mapping and analysing the resources in asteroids is also an obstacle to extracting material from them.

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The largest footprints of carnivorous dinosaurs are 40 cm long and in many cases the skin can be seen in detail.

Hundreds of dinosaur footprints, so well-preserved that even the scaly skin can be seen, have been found in Poland, giving an insight into a complex ecosystem around 200 million years ago, geologists said.

Described by the Polish Geological Institute-National Research Institute as a treasure trove, the fossilised tracks and bones were found in an opencast clay mine in Borkowice, 130 km south of Warsaw.

“In the traces left by dinosaurs, you can read their behaviour and habits… we have traces left by dinosaurs running, swimming, resting and sitting,” said geologist Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki.

The largest footprints of carnivorous dinosaurs are 40 cm long and in many cases the skin can be seen in detail.

“In order for such a state of preservation to be possible, a very special sequence of events had to take place in a short time,” geologist Grzegorz Pienkowski said in a statement.

Several hundred dinosaur tracks, representing at least seven species, have been found and geologists say they are likely to find more. They have also discovered bone fragments from animals and fish.

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Webb is awaiting launch aboard an Ariane rocket at the European Space Agency's spaceport in French Guiana.

Next week’s launch of NASA’s new space telescope is delayed for at least two days because of a communication problem between the observatory and the rocket.

Liftoff of the James Webb Space Telescope is now targeted for no earlier than December 24. NASA announced the latest delay for the $10 billion telescope late Tuesday. More information will be available later this week, officials said.

Webb is awaiting launch aboard an Ariane rocket at the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French Guiana. The telescope had been put on top of the rocket last Saturday. Liftoff had been scheduled for December 22.

Webb is considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and has already been delayed by years.

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Parker will keep drawing ever closer to the sun and diving deeper into the corona until its grand finale orbit in 2025.

A NASA spacecraft has officially “touched” the sun, plunging through the unexplored solar atmosphere known as the corona.

Scientists announced the news Tuesday during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The Parker Solar Probe actually flew through the corona in April during the spacecraft’s eighth close approach to the sun. Scientists said it took a few months to get the data back and then several more months to confirm. “Fascinatingly exciting,” said project scientist Nour Raouafi of Johns Hopkins University.

Launched in 2018, Parker was 13 million kilometers from the center of the sun when it first crossed the jagged, uneven boundary between the solar atmosphere and outgoing solar wind. The spacecraft dipped in and out of the corona at least three times, each a smooth transition, according to scientists.

“The first and most dramatic time we were below for about five hours…Now you might think five hours, that doesn’t sound big,” the University of Michigan’s Justin Kasper told reporters. But he noted that Parker was moving so fast it covered a vast distance during that time, tearing along at more than 100 kilometers per second.

The corona appeared dustier than expected, according to Raouafi. Future coronal excursions will help scientist better understand the origin of the solar wind, he said, and how it is heated and accelerated out into space. Because the sun lacks a solid surface, the corona is where the action is; exploring this magnetically intense region up close can help scientists better understand solar outbursts that can interfere with life here on Earth.

Preliminary data suggest Parker also dipped into the corona during its ninth close approach in August, but scientists said more analyses are needed. It made its 10th close approach last month.

Parker will keep drawing ever closer to the sun and diving deeper into the corona until its grand finale orbit in 2025. The latest findings were also published by the American Physical Society.

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The record is now an official entry in the World Weather Climate Extremes Archive, a sort of Guinness World Records for weather

An Arctic temperature record of more than 100 Fahrenheit or 38 Celsius was reached in a Siberia town last year during a prolonged heatwave that cause widespread alarm about the intensity of global warming, a UN agency confirmed on Tuesday.

Verkhoyansk, where the record temperature was hit on Jun 20, 2020, is 115 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle – a region warming at more than double the global average.

The extreme heat fanned wildfires across northern Russia’ forests and tundra, even igniting normally waterlogged peatlands, and releasing carbon record emissions.

“It is possible, indeed likely, that greater extremes will occur in the Arctic region in the future,” the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in a statement.

The probe was one of a record number of investigations the UN agency had opened into weather extremes as climate change unleashes unrivalled storms and heatwaves.

Since Arctic records are a new category, the data needed checking against other records as part of a vigorou verification process involving a network of volunteers. The record is now an official entry in the World Weather Climate Extremes Archive, a sort of Guinness World Records for weather that also includes the heaviest hailstone and longest lightening flash.

The agency already has a category for the Antarctic and has to create a new one for the Arctic after the submission in 2020 – one of the three warmest years on record.

A WMO committee is also verifying other potential heat records, including in Death Valley in California in 2020 and o the Italian island of Sicily this year.

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After the Geminids meteor shower, we can also see the Ursids meteor shower from December 17 to December 26 with the peak showers on December 23.

Stargazers are in for a treat this week as the Geminids meteor shower will be active from December 14 to December 17. Those in the northern hemisphere can see the Geminids meteor shower at about 30 to 40 meteors per hour. This year the bright moon may not provide the best conditions for viewing the shower, but after 2 am, if skies are clear we can see a good show.

Geminids can travel at a speed of about 35 km/s. This is over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet. It gets the name ‘Geminids’ as the shower appears to radiate from a point in the Gemini

After the Geminids meteor shower, we can also see the Ursids meteor shower from December 17 to December 26 with the peak showers on December 23.

What makes the Geminids meteor shower unique?

Usually, meteor showers are caused when Earth passes through rock pieces and ice left by comets. For example, Orionids meteor shower and Ursids meteor shower are associated with comet 1P/Halley and 8P/Tuttle comet respectively.

But the Geminids meteor shower is associated with an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon. According to NASA, 3200 Phaethon measures 5.10 km in diameter and was discovered on Oct. 11, 1983, using the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. It is named after the Greek myth of Phaethon, son of the Sun God Helios.

How can an asteroid produce a meteor shower?

NASA says that there are four theories: one that Phaethon broke apart from another object and ejected meteoroids during the breakup; two that a collision with another object could have produced the debris and Earth travels through this debris every December.

The third theory assumes that Phaethon can be a dead comet and the fourth theory states that Phaethon is a rock comet. The parent body of Phaethon still remains a mystery.

How to watch the shower?

Move away from the city’s light pollution. Lie down on a safe field or terrace of a house. Arrive about 30 minutes early to the spot as your eyes need time to adjust to the dark. Avoid looking at your phone as it can ruin your night vision.

NASA will broadcast a live stream on its NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page. The shower is captured via a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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The nanoparticles generate "singlet oxygen species" that elevates the cellular stress and consequently breaks open and disrupts the cell membrane of the microbes.

A team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Bhopal, have developed a safe and easy procedure to produce silver nanomaterials that can be used as antimicrobial agents.

The results of the work have been published in the journal of the American Chemical Society – ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared bacterial antibiotic resistance as one of the most important crises to human health today, notwithstanding Covid. This problem is serious for India, the ‘antimicrobial resistance capital of the world’, due to rampant and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in humans, livestock, and agriculture. There is, thus, a dire need for antibiotic substitutes, and nanotechnological solutions such as those studied by IISER, Bhopal, team are promising routes to take.

“Silver, the common ornamental metal, when present as nano-sized particles, one hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a single human hair, have good antimicrobial properties. Medical practitioners have used silver in various forms to prevent infections and promote healing from ancient times,” said Saptarshi Mukherjee, Professor, Department of Chemistry, IISER Bhopal.

Mukherjee said that generally, silver nanomaterials are produced using toxic precursors that often generate harmful byproducts inside the system.

The researchers used the amino acid, tyrosine, to produce nanomaterials of silver that had excellent antimicrobial properties. Tyrosine is present in many food items, including meat, dairy, nuts, and beans.

“The researchers treated silver nitrate, the main component of ‘election ink’, used to stain nails after voting in India, with tyrosine in the presence of caustic soda. Tyrosine functioned as a reducing agent and capping agent to produce silver nanomaterials. On examining the product under high-resolution microscope, they found two forms of silver nanostructures, nanoclusters and nanoparticles. The nanoparticles were found to kill microbes in about four hours,” he said.

The research group has also elucidated the mechanism by which the nanoparticles kill microbes. They found that the nanoparticles generate “singlet oxygen species” that elevates the cellular stress and consequently breaks open and disrupts the cell membrane of the microbes and causes leakage of proteins from the cells, thereby killing them.

“While the nanoparticles produced by the above process had microbicidal action, the smaller sized nanoclusters are luminescent and can be used as bioimaging probes. As our product comprises two components, it can be utilized for multiple purposes: from photophysical studies to applications in biological systems,” said Mukherjee, on the practical implications of the research work.

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The tycoon has also booked a flyby around the moon aboard Elon Musk's Starship, which is tentatively scheduled in the next few years.

A Japanese space tourist on Monday rejected criticism from those who questioned his decision to pay a fortune for a trip to the International Space Station, saying the ‘amazing’ experience was worth it.

Speaking to The Associated Press in a live interview from the orbiting space outpost, billionaire fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa said even though he had imagined what his mission would be like before the flight, he was struck by the reality of space travel.

“Once you are in space, you realize how much it is worth it by having this amazing experience,” he told the AP in the first TV interview since he arrived at the station. “And I believe that this amazing experience will lead to something else.”

Maezawa, 46, and his 36-year-old producer Yozo Hirano are the first self-paying tourists to visit the space station since 2009. Asked about reports claiming that he paid over USD 80 million for a 12-day mission, Maezawa said he couldn’t disclose the contract sum but admitted that he paid “pretty much” that amount.

In October, Russian actor Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko spent 12 days on the station to make the world’s first movie in orbit, a project sponsored by Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos to help burnish the nation’s space glory.

Maezawa deflected the criticism from those who questioned his decision to spend money on his space travel instead of using it to help people back on Earth, saying that “those who criticize are perhaps those who have never been to space.”

“The most memorable moments were when I saw the International Space Station from Soyuz just before the docking and when we entered after the docking,” he said.

He admitted that space tourism is mostly for the super-rich now, but added that those who embark on space travel must be prepared for other challenges.

“Yes, it is still rather expensive, but it is not only about money,” he told the AP. “It takes time for your body to adjust in this environment and the training for emergencies takes at least a few months. So, honestly speaking, it is only accessible for those who have time and are physically fit and those who can afford it. But we don’t know if that is still going to be the case in 10 years, 20 years’ time.”

Maezawa told the AP he felt “a little bit of motion sickness” and it was “a little bit difficult to sleep,” adding that future space tourists need to be aware of the need to spend up to five days to adapt to motion sickness in space.

He acknowledged that taking a nap still presents a challenge. “I am not sleeping well, to be honest. A sleeping bag has been provided but it is too hot so I am not using it,” he said. He was happy with the length of his trip. “Twelve days was about right for me,” Maezawa added. “I am getting over the motion sickness so I can enjoy the remaining days. I am returning on the 20th and starting to miss Japan. Once I return, I want to have sushi!”

Maezawa and Hirano, who was filming his mission, blasted off for the International Space Station on Wednesday in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin.

Space Adventures, a Virginia-based company that organised his flight, had previously sent seven other tourists to the space station in 2001-2009.

Maezawa expressed his profound admiration for the space station’s crew. In addition to Misurkin, they include NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and Mark Vande Hei; Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov; and Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency.
“They are like super-heroes who save Earth,” he said. “Not only that they are ahead of the latest science, but trained physically and mentally, and very brave. I can feel directly how human can develop this far, and our lives depend on these people — how it changes in the future. I respect them a lot.” He and Hirano will be returning to Earth with Misurkin on Sunday.

Before the flight, Maezawa had compiled a list of 100 things to do in space during his mission after asking the public for ideas. “I am looking forward to doing some sports inside the space station ? badminton, table tennis and golf,” he told the AP. “What I am not looking forward to that much is toilet-related stuff.”

Maezawa made his fortune in retail fashion, launching Japan’s largest online fashion mall, Zozotown. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at USD 1.9 billion.

The tycoon has also booked a flyby around the moon aboard Elon Musk’s Starship, which is tentatively scheduled in the next few years. He’ll be joined on that trip by eight contest winners.

“I am planning to go to the moon in 2023 — we are in the final stages of selecting the 8 people for the Dear Moon project,” he said.

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A genetic analysis showed that about 1,950 genes had changed in response to the infusion of runner blood, becoming either more or less activated.

Written by Pam Belluck

What if something in the blood of an athlete could boost the brainpower of someone who doesn’t or can’t exercise? Could a protein that gets amplified when people exercise help stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders?

That’s the tantalizing prospect raised by a new study in which researchers injected sedentary mice with blood from mice that ran for miles on exercise wheels, and found that the sedentary mice then did better on tests of learning and memory.

The study, published last week in the journal Nature, also found that the type of brain inflammation involved in Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders was reduced in sedentary mice after they received their athletic counterparts’ blood.

Scientific results with mice don’t necessarily translate to humans. Still, experts said the study supports a growing body of research.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of studies where proteins from outside the brain that are made when you exercise get into the brain and are helpful for improving brain health, or even improving cognition and disease,” said Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He led a 2018 study that found that exercise helped the brains of mice engineered to have a version of Alzheimer’s.

The most promising outcome would be if exercise-generated proteins can become the basis for treatments, experts said.

“The demonstration that there are transferable factors in the blood that seemed to convey beneficial effects on the brain that improve learning and memory is by far the most interesting aspect of the work,” said Dr. Madhav Thambisetty, a neurologist and senior investigator at the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new research.

The study, led by researchers at Stanford School of Medicine, found that one protein — clusterin, produced in the liver and in heart muscle cells — seemed to account for most of the anti-inflammatory effects. But several experts noted that recent studies have found benefits from other proteins. They also said more needs to be learned about clusterin, which plays a role in many diseases, including cancer, and may have negative effects in early stages of Alzheimer’s before brain inflammation becomes dominant.

“It’s far too premature to conclude that higher or lower levels of clusterin might be either beneficial or not,” said Thambisetty, who has studied clusterin. “I don’t think we’re at the stage yet where people can trade in their treadmills or cancel their gym memberships for a clusterin pill or a clusterin injection.”

The study was led by Tony Wyss-Coray, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford, who had previously done research finding that the blood of young mice can reverse age-related cognitive impairment in old mice. Wyss-Coray said he wanted to see “if exercise produced factors that would also accumulate in the blood and that you could then transfer them.”

The study involved mice that were about 3 months old — roughly the equivalent of 25- to 30-year olds for humans. Some of the mice, nocturnal animals that love to run, could freely use exercise wheels in their cages and logged about 4 to 6 miles on the wheels each night. The wheels were locked for other mice that could scoot around their cages but could not get an extended cardio workout.

After 28 days, the researchers took a third group of mice that also did not exercise and injected them with blood plasma, the liquid that surrounds blood cells, from either the runner mice or the non-runner mice. Mice receiving runner blood did better on two tests of learning and memory than those receiving blood from the non-runner mice.

In one test, which measures how long a mouse will freeze in fear when it is returned to a cage where it previously received an electric foot shock, mice with runner blood froze 25% longer, indicating they had better memory of the stressful event, Wyss-Coray said. In the other test, mice with runner blood were twice as fast at finding a platform submerged in opaque water, he said.

The team also found that the brains of mice with runner blood produced more of several types of brain cells, including those that generate new neurons in the hippocampus, a region involved in memory and spatial learning.

A genetic analysis showed that about 1,950 genes had changed in response to the infusion of runner blood, becoming either more or less activated. Most of the 250 genes with the greatest activation changes were involved in inflammation and their changes suggested that brain inflammation was reduced.

The team tested whether removing any of the four most significant proteins in the runner blood would matter, and found that if clusterin was removed, anti-inflammatory effects disappeared. And when mice engineered to have a type of brain inflammation or a version of Alzheimer’s were injected with clusterin, it lessened their brain inflammation.

In the only part of the study involving humans, 20 military veterans with a pre-dementia condition called mild cognitive impairment who had participated in a six-month exercise program were found to have high levels of clusterin in their blood.

Kaci Fairchild, associate director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Sierra Pacific Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center, and an author of the new study, said the veterans, ranging in age from 50 to 89, exercised three times a week, combining cardio with weight training.

Fairchild said that in results that have not yet been published, besides having elevated clusterin, the veterans did better on tests involving word memory and story recall.

“Across the board, veterans had improvements in cognitive function, largely related to learning and memory,” Fairchild said. Noting that some people have disabilities or limitations that prevent them from exercising, she said she hoped that “the implications from this clusterin is that we can develop a medication targeting this protein for persons who weren’t able to engage in physical activity.”

In the brain, clusterin binds to cells that line the blood vessels, cells that become inflamed in Alzheimer’s disease, Wyss-Coray said, suggesting that a potential drug might bind to those cells and “mimic the anti-inflammatory effects.”

Still, experts who study Alzheimer’s disease and neuroinflammation said much more research is needed before therapies can be developed.

“Not everything that works in mice works in humans, and we don’t know if there are other unexpected side effects that could make it untenable in humans,” said Mark Gluck, a professor of neuroscience and public health at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, who was not involved in the study.

Dr. Michael Heneka, incoming director of the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine who was not involved in the study, said the role of inflammation in diseases processes can change over time, being protective early on and detrimental later, so it is important to target inflammation at the appropriate time.

It’s also unclear if clusterin is the optimal protein for a therapy.

Other proteins linked to physical exercise have been shown in recent studies to improve cognition in mice. One, irisin, released by muscles, was found to reduce neuroinflammation and help mice perform better on memory and learning tests. Another, called Gpld1, an enzyme produced in the liver, was shown to increase after exercise and to correlate with better cognitive function in elderly mice.

Whichever proteins end up being promising, it would be safer to develop a medication than to try to transfuse blood, which would contain other things beside the proteins, said Tanzi, who was not involved in the new study. “The big question,” he added, “is which proteins are the winners and how do we take advantage of them to provide new therapies?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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When in space, astronauts can suffer from problems in vision as these fluids push and reshape the back of the eyeball.

Researchers from the University of Texas have designed a new vacuum-equipped sleeping bag that can pull down body fluids that naturally flowed into our heads while sleeping in a supine position. When in space, astronauts can suffer from problems in vision as these fluids push and reshape the back of the eyeball.

The new study published last week in JAMA Ophthalmology found that three days of lying flat in a simulated microgravity environment induced enough pressure to slightly alter the shape of the eyeball but no such change was seen when the new suction technology was used.

“We don’t know how bad the effects might be on a longer flight, like a two-year Mars operation,” said one of the authors Benjamin Levine in a release. He is a cardiologist who is helping NASA address the health risks of brain pressure and abnormal blood flow in space.

“It would be a disaster if astronauts had such severe impairments that they couldn’t see what they’re doing and it compromised the mission.”

Last year NASA said that astronaut Michael Barratt who flew a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station suffered from Space-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS). The symptoms include swelling in the optic disc, which is where the optic nerve enters the retina, and flattening of the eye shape.

Steve Laurie, a scientist with NASA’s Human Health and Performance Directorate said that signs of SANS appear in roughly 70 per cent of crew members.

The sleeping bag has a solid frame, shaped like a space capsule, and fits over a person from the waist down. The study included ten volunteers including one of the authors Dr James Leidner. He is an internal medicine hospitalist in San Antonio.

The volunteers spent three days sleeping eight hours in a research room and three days in sleeping bags for eight hours. The team then compared the changes in the brain after each stint.

The researchers add that several questions need to be answered before NASA brings this technology to the space station, including the optimal amount of time astronauts should spend in the sleeping bag each day.

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The team identified 14 regions containing DNA markers important for stool frequency. Individual genes and their specific biological functions still need to be characterised.

Written by Mauro D’Amato and Ferdinando Bonfiglio

Do you ‘go’ once a day? Maybe you go twice, or even three times? Or perhaps you only go a few times a week? Yes, we’re talking about pooing. In our new study, we’ve found how often you go is, at least to some degree, a function of your genetic make-up.

You might be wondering why this is something we chose to study. While many people rarely give a second thought to going when the urge presents itself, for others, common gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) cause problems.

IBS affects up to 10 per cent of people globally and is characterised by abdominal pain and bloating, irregular bowel habits, constipation and diarrhoea. Although not life threatening, it can severely affect a person’s quality of life.

We don’t know exactly what causes IBS, which means therapeutic options are limited, mostly directed at treating the symptoms rather than targeting specific causes. We also don’t have a way to tell who is at increased risk of IBS.

In this climate, our general research aims to identify genetic risk factors for IBS by looking at genomic information and health-related data across large groups of people. The idea is that our findings may, in time, pave the way towards better treatment options.

In our latest study, published in the journal Cell Genomics, we looked at how often people poo — or their ‘stool frequency’ — and how this correlates with their genes. Our findings provide clues as to the genetic risk factors associated with IBS.

Investigating the genetic links for complex diseases such as IBS is challenging for a variety of reasons. One way to simplify things is to deconstruct the disease into individual biological components or traits related to the physiological processes disturbed during illness.

These are called intermediate phenotypes or ‘endophenotypes’. If you were looking at heart disease, blood pressure would be an example of an intermediate phenotype.

We took this approach in our research, and opted to study intestinal motility, or gut motility, as a hallmark intermediate phenotype of IBS. By way of background, many people with IBS experience intestinal dysmotility, which is when the gut doesn’t work properly at moving its contents (such as food and drink) through the digestive system. This may result in symptoms including constipation or diarrhoea.

While direct measurement of gut motility in humans requires clinical procedures that are not suitable for large-scale studies, stool frequency has been shown to correlate with gut motility and may therefore be used as its proxy in big genetic studies.

On this basis, we analysed data from 167,875 people (taken from the UK Biobank and four smaller groups in Europe and the US) who provided information on how often they move their bowels.

Alongside this data, we analysed millions of DNA markers — the building blocks of our DNA which make each of us genetically unique. We demonstrated for the first time that stool frequency is, at least in part, a heritable characteristic.

We identified 14 regions of the human genome where specific DNA markers occur more often in people reporting higher or lower stool frequency compared to the rest of the population. This makes sense, because within these regions are multiple genes whose products (including neurotransmitters, hormones and receptors) are involved in the communication between the gut and the brain.

While some of these molecules were already known, and have even been the targets of drugs to influence gut motility, most represent potential new candidates for the treatment of diarrhoea, constipation and IBS.

A common genetic denominator

We also found evidence of similar genetic architecture between stool frequency and IBS. In other words, the genetic factors important for controlling stool frequency appear to also be important when it comes to the risk of developing IBS.

Finally, we wanted to see whether what we learned in our study could be used to try to identify people at increased risk of IBS. We did this by calculating polygenic scores, which are numerical values summarising genetic information, in this case relating to the probability of having altered stool frequency.

This was more informative for IBS primarily characterised by diarrhoea. Using data from the UK Biobank, we showed that people with higher polygenic scores (therefore more likely to have higher stool frequency) are up to five times more likely to suffer from IBS with diarrhoea than the rest of the population.

Some limitations

It’s important to point out that our study doesn’t account for lifestyle and dietary factors, which certainly have an effect on bowel habits.

And while we identified 14 regions containing DNA markers important for stool frequency, within most of these regions, individual genes and their specific biological functions still need to be characterised.

Further, stool frequency polygenic scores and their value in predicting IBS need to be tested and validated in independent studies and among people from different ethnic backgrounds (only individuals of European ancestry were included in this research).

Overall, however, these are important initial genetic findings, which could help us identify new treatment options. They also open up the possibility of using genetic information to identify IBS patients, as well as those falling into specific subtypes (such as IBS characterised by diarrhoea). This in turn could help to stratify patients into appropriate treatment groups.

– Mauro D’Amato is Visiting Professor, Unit of Clinical Epidemiology, Department of Medicine, Solna, Karolinska Institutet. Ferdinando Bonfiglio is Research Associate, Unit of Clinical Epidemiology, Department of Medicine, Solna, Karolinska Institutet.

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Recent research suggests Nipponites’ wild shell helped the ammonite slowly pirouette in the water column in search of prey.

Written by Sabrina Imbler

If you’ve seen one ammonite, you may think you’ve seen them all. Most of the 10,000 species of the extinct cephalopods sported tightly coiled shells with polite mouthfuls of tentacles.

Enter Nipponites mirabilis, a species of ammonite straight out of an M.C. Escher painting. In place of the classic, coiled-snake shell design, it substituted something far more ludicrous: a convoluted shell twisting into itself with no obvious beginning or end.

“It looks like a chunk of rope that someone threw out a window,” said Kathleen Ritterbush, a paleoecologist at the University of Utah.

“The first time you look at it, it’s just this tangled mess,” said Derek Moulton, a mathematician at the University of Oxford. “And then you start to look closely and say, oh, actually there is a regularity there.”

Moulton and colleagues developed a mathematical model that they say reveals the forces acting on Nipponites’ baffling shells and the shells of many other mollusks. The research was published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their model suggests a mismatch between the growth rates of the mollusk’s soft body and its hard shell, which creates mechanical forces that twist the body, resulting in an asymmetric shell. The model also explains how other snails develop their characteristic spiraling shells, the researchers said.

“It’s a beautiful result,” said Katharine Long, an applied mathematician at Texas Tech University, who was not involved with the research. “This is the simplest model that can possibly produce all three forms,” Long added, referring to the traditional spiral of an ammonite shell, the helical spiral of a snail and the meandering swerves of Nipponites.

The paper is the latest collaboration between Moulton; Alain Goriely, chair of mathematical modeling at Oxford; and Régis Chirat, a researcher at the University of Lyon in France. The three scientists seek to understand the physics underlying seashell formation. They have published on the spiny shells of sea snails and the interlocking shells of oysters.

In one of the team’s early meetings, Moulton and Goriely visited Chirat in Paris, and the trio spent an afternoon admiring the shells and ammonites within the Grand Gallery of Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History.

“Like children inside Willie Wonka’s factory,” Goriely said.

But the knots of Nipponites were perplexing. “Nipponites has become an obsession for me,” Chirat said over a Zoom call from his office, which holds hundreds of fossils and seashells.

Mollusks create their own shells using their mantle, a fleshy outer organ. The mantle secretes calcium carbonate in layers, which harden into the shell. The researchers wanted to design a model that captured the interactions between the mollusk’s soft body and the shell as it hardened.

When ammonites died out about 66 million years ago, they left few traces of their squishy insides in the fossil record. But evidence suggests that ammonites, like their living squid cousins, were bilaterally symmetrical; drawing a line down the middle would result in symmetrical halves. So the researchers built their model on the assumption that ammonites were bilaterally symmetrical.

So how could a symmetric body secrete an asymmetric shell? “Suppose there is a mismatch between the way the body is growing and the way the shell is growing,” Moulton said. “That’s the whole premise of the model.”

If the body grows faster than the shell, it will be too big for its shell house and will generate mechanical stress that leads the body to twist inside the shell. Moulton offered an analogy: Imagine the ammonite shell as a long, hard tube stuffed with two soft pool noodles that are longer than the tube. To relieve the stress, the noodles (the soft body) twist inside the tube (the shell). As the soft body twists, it rotates the edge of the mantle secreting the shell, resulting in an asymmetric shell.

“If the conditions are right, these abnormal shapes like Nipponites emerge,” Moulton said.

By tweaking the level of the mismatch and stiffness properties of the soft body in the model, the researchers produced the bizarre shells of other unorthodox ammonites, such as Didymoceras.

“First he’s straight, and then he’s a paper clip, and then he’s an upside-down ice cream cone coil, and then he’s a hook shape,” Ritterbush said, describing Didymoceras.

But there are other questions left unanswered by the model, she said, including the biological costs, benefits and trade-offs of having such an asymmetric shell.

Recent research suggests Nipponites’ wild shell helped the ammonite slowly pirouette in the water column in search of prey. Kenneth De Baets, a paleobiologist at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, who was not involved with the new study, said he is curious to see how the model holds up as paleontologists uncover more fossilized soft ammonite tissue.

“These animals have been dismissed as oddballs and mistakes,” Ritterbush said. “But it is actually a perfectly executed plan, a spiral coil of balance.”

But even with these questions, Ritterbush said, the new model underscores how seemingly bizarre shapes like Didymoceras and Nipponites are more like ordinary ammonites than they might appear.

“It lends credence to the idea that for an animal to produce a shell like this would not require moving heaven and Earth,” she said. “It would not require some incredibly strange evolutionary leap.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The launch was the third space tourism flight for Blue Origin

The eldest daughter of pioneering US astronaut Alan Shepard took a joyride to the edge of space aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocketship on Saturday, 60 years after her late father’s famed suborbital NASA flight at the dawn of the Space Age.

Laura Shepard Churchley, 74, who was a schoolgirl when her father first streaked into space, was one of six passengers buckled into the cabin of Blue Origin’s fully autonomous New Shepard spacecraft as it lifted off from a launch site outside the west Texas town of Van Horn.

The crew capsule separated from the top of six-story-tall rocket as it soared to an altitude of at least 100 km before falling back to Earth to descend under a canopy of three parachutes to the desert floor for a safe landing.

The entire flight, from liftoff to touchdown, lasted just over 10 minutes, with the crew experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness at the apex of the suborbital flight. New Shepard’s reusable rocket booster flew itself back to Earth and touched down a short distance from where the capsule landed moments later.

Bezos arrived with members of Blue Origin’s recovery team to greet and embrace the newly minted citizen astronauts as they emerged from the capsule, all smiles, in their blue flight suits. He then pinned astronaut wings to each of their collars amid a flurry of applause and cheers.

As she chatted with Bezos, Churchley briefly recounted her wonder at seeing the blackness of space from inside the capsule. Voices of Churchley and her crewmates exclaiming excitement at the ride could be heard in audio transmissions from the capsule played during a live launch webcast by Blue Origin as the vehicle neared the climax of its flight.

The spacecraft itself is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 made history as the second person, and first American, to travel into space – a 15-minute suborbital flight as one of NASA’s original “Mercury Seven” astronauts. A decade later, Shepard walked on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission, famously hitting two golf galls on the lunar surface. “I kind of feel a little bit like I’m following in my father’s footsteps,” Churchley said in pre-recorded remarks before the flight. “I feel like he’s right here with me.”

Citizen astronauts

Churchley was one of two honorary, non-paying guest passengers chosen by Blue Origin for Saturday’s flight. The other was Michael Strahan, 50, a retired National Football League star and co-anchor of ABC television’s “Good Morning America” show.

They were joined by four wealthy customers who paid undisclosed but presumably hefty sums for their New Shepard seats – space industry executive Dylan Taylor, engineer-investor Evan Dick, venture capitalist Lane Bess and his 23-year-old son, Cameron Bess. The Besses made history as the first parent-child pair to fly in space together, according to Blue Origin.

The flight briefly set a record for the number of humans in space at any one time – 19 total – including seven crew members and three visitors aboard the International Space Station and three Chinese taikonauts aboard their own newly build space station, according to Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

The launch was the third space tourism flight for Blue Origin, the company formed two decades ago by Bezos – founder and executive chairman of Inc. It was the company’s first with a crew of six passengers. No mention was made during the Blue Origin launch webcast of the deadly partial roof collapse at an warehouse struck by a tornado late on Friday in the town of Edwardsville, Illinois, or the search for people trapped in the rubble.

Bezos himself tagged along on Blue Origin’s inaugural flight in July, joining his brother, Mark Bezos, trailblazing octogenarian female aviator Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Oliver Daeman, a Dutch high school graduate and beneficiary of a $28 million auction sweepstake.

Actor William Shatner, who embodied the promise of space travel in his role as Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise on the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” joined the second New Shepard crew in October to become the oldest person in space at age 90.British billionaire Richard Branson beat Bezos to the punch by nine days when he rode along on the first fully crewed voyage of his own space tourism venture Virgin Galactic Holding Inc, soaring to the edge of space over New Mexico in a rocket plane released at high altitude from a carrier jet.

A third player in the burgeoning space tourism sector, fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, inaugurated his SpaceX citizen-astronaut service in September with the launch of the first all-civilian crew ever to reach Earth orbit.

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It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job.

Written by Louise Gentle

We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal?

It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why.


Reindeer live in the Arctic, where temperatures on long winter nights often plummet below -30 degrees C. Unlike most mammals, which only have one layer of fur, reindeer have two: a dense underfur beneath a blanket of hollow guard hairs. Reindeer can have up to 2,000 hairs packed into a single square centimetre, making it ten times as dense as human hair.

This double layer traps air and creates a cover of insulation that keeps reindeer from losing heat, and stops snow from reaching and cooling the skin. This enables reindeer to keep warm, whether living with Santa at the North Pole or travelling around the world on Christmas Eve.

In addition, when blood reaches our extremities, like our fingers and toes, it cools and our hearts must pump at a faster rate to warm the blood up again. This requires a lot of energy which we get from food, something that is often lacking in Arctic landscapes — well, unless you count feasting on candy canes and sugar plums with the elves.

But reindeer possess something called a counter-current heat exchange which essentially allows them to recycle heat so that the heart doesn’t need to work as hard. The arteries and veins carrying blood to and from the heart are intertwined, allowing heat from warm arterial blood to pass to the cold venous blood.

A lot of this heat exchange happens in the specialised nasal bones of the reindeer, where plenty of cold air is inhaled through the nostrils. In fact, the highly concentrated blood vessels in their nostrils often give reindeer a red nose, just like Rudolph.


Reindeer lichen — an organism that is formed from a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi — is the main thing reindeer eat during the winter. Lichens are the crusty looking things that you often see living on tree trunks and rocks.

Lichens are plentiful in the Arctic — an ideal food source that reindeer can find wherever they go. This means reindeer don’t need to store body fat and unlike many other animals, they can find enough food to power their epic sleigh journey with Santa — helped along by the carrots people leave out, of course.

Reindeer are actually the only mammals capable of digesting lichen, thanks to specialised bacteria in their gut.


The Arctic has very little daylight during the winter, so reindeer have evolved to see as much as possible in the dark. Reindeer eyes change colour from gold to blue in the winter, letting in more of the small amount of light available and improving their vision.

Reindeer can even see in the ultraviolet. Although this amazing sense is common in birds and insects, reindeer are some of the only mammals to have evolved this ability. This means that objects that would blend into the background when seen through human eyes are much more visible to reindeer.

As reindeer can essentially see in the dark, it makes them perfect for guiding Santa on his journey through the night, ensuring he is not seen by children.


To walk in snow without sinking or getting frostbite, reindeer have evolved wide, crescent-shaped hooves. These keep them stable, but they can also be used as shovels to dig down to find lichen under the snow.

The hoof pads shrink and harden over winter, allowing the reindeer to walk on the sharp edges of their hooves. As well as reducing the area of the hoof exposed to the cold ground, the hoof rims cut into the ice and snow to prevent slipping. Obviously, this is a great adaptation to keep reindeer steady when landing on snowy rooftops.


Reindeer are the only domesticated species of deer, and people have been using them to get around since the stone age. People ride on their backs like horses, and use small herds of them to drive sleds, just like Santa.

Reindeer migrate up to 5,000km a year — further than any other land mammal — and they regularly cover 55km in a day. They are surprisingly fast too, reaching speeds of up to 80km per hour. This long distance travel is ideal to help Father Christmas visit every child in just one night.

So, reindeer can stay warm, see in the dark, stay upright on slippery surfaces and find nutrition in the harshest of environments — all invaluable skills for pulling off the biggest night’s work on Christmas Eve. Their domestication and long relationship with humans means they are also well accustomed to pulling sleighs.

Of course, Santa’s reindeer can also fly. They can’t thank evolution for that, though, unlike all these other adaptations. As we all know, their ability to fly comes from a sprinkling of magical Christmas dust.

– The author is Senior Lecturer in Wildlife Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

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Leonard is a typical comet going around the Sun at a speed of about 47 kilometres per second.

Comet Leonard will make its closest approach to Earth tonight, at a distance of about 35 million kilometres from our planet.

Currently, astronomers have observed over 3700 comets in our Solar System and Leonard is a typical comet going around the Sun at a speed of about 47 kilometres per second.

“This is a bright-ish comet that we see in the skies on average once per year. As it gets a little closer, it could become visible to the naked eye, making for some attractive pictures, but, for us concerned with objects that could pose a threat to Earth, this comet is thankfully rather unspectacular,” explains Marco Micheli, Astronomer in European Space Agency’s (ESA) Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre in a release.

How to see the comet?

Get out of the city light, lie down and look up at the sky. Around 7:22 pm you can spot a ‘shooting star’ ripping at high speed. If lucky, you can also see a few other slow-moving comets with your naked eye.

On December 7, ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre released an image of the comet captured using the Calar Alto Schmidt telescope in Spain.

By superimposing a ‘stack’ of 90 images each five seconds ‘long’, the comet was captured as colourful streaks going from green to red to blue.

“Centred around the comet’s bright nucleus, these colours come together to create a brilliant white glow of the nucleus, while the green-bluish hue around it is true-to-life, the typical colour emitted by comets due to their chemical composition,” ESA said.

Comets are icy leftovers from the early phases of the formation of the outer planets. They orbit the Sun and when they move towards the inner Solar System, emit particles and gas. These are heated by solar radiation and produce the characteristic tail of comets. Some comets can have extreme orbits and can travel a distance of over 50,000 times the distance of Earth from the Sun.

When Earth passes through the old trail of ancient comets, we get to see meteor showers.

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In an interview with, Dr. Knicole Colón, James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science, explains how the mission will study exoplanets and their atmospheres.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which cost NASA about $8.8 billion to build, launch, and commission, is scheduled to be rocketed into orbit no earlier than December 22.

It will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana. NASA says it is beneficial for launch sites to be located near the equator as the spin of the Earth can help give an additional push.

Webb’s carries four major scientific instruments: Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam); Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec); Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI); Near-Infrared Imager; and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) with the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS).

These will help find clues about the first formed galaxies, the evolution of our solar system and also search for exoplanets and building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

In an interview with, Dr. Knicole Colón, James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science, explains how the mission will study exoplanets and their atmospheres.

How will NIRISS look for exoplanets?

The three main components of NIRISS are cameras, spectrographs and an instrument called the Aperture Masking Interferometer or AMI.

So a camera, as you imagine, like on your phone, you take a picture and it’s just a direct image. But with the spectrographs, there are different types of absorbing modes where you can see a star not just as a dot. What you’re doing is you’re taking the light from the star and the spectrograph spreads the light from that star out. So instead of seeing it just as a white or yellow dot, it spreads it out into different increments of light. Somewhat like a prism, it splits the light up so that you can measure and look at specific wavelengths.

The aperture mask is a very special mode as well. Instead of taking a direct picture, you remove or block the light from a star, so that you can look for the faint dots around it that could be an exoplanet.

Why do we need an infrared camera to find exoplanets?

Infrared cameras will help capture things we cannot see with our eyes. Beyond our visual range, there are thermal signatures that are emitted by warm stars. In our search for exoplanets, there are two ways in which infrared helps.

One, if we want to take direct pictures of exoplanets, it’s actually easiest to look in the infrared, because the planets are usually very warm from having recently formed. And so the young planets are the brightest in the infrared compared to their star.

The other aspect is when we’re just looking at planets that may be in transit or passing in front of their star, we can look at their atmosphere. The infrared is beneficial because that’s where water, carbon dioxide, methane, and other major molecules have the strongest absorption features that we could look for.

Your area of research is “extreme” exoplanets. Will Webb be looking for such exoplanets?

For me, ‘extreme’ is something that’s just not seen in our solar system. For example, planets that have orbits of less than a day or extremely hot ones – some of them hotter than their stars — or those with really crazy orbits.

Some exoplanets have orbits like comets – they orbit really far from their star, but they come back and are really close to their star. So the planet when it comes closest to the star gets rapidly heated up by the star, all of a sudden after being cold for a while. There are interesting dynamics that could happen in the atmosphere.

And yes, Webb will be observing some of these extremely hot systems and those with very non-circular orbits and provide new insights into: What does it mean to be extreme? What is happening in that atmosphere? Do they have weather patterns and clouds? And we can relate that back to our own solar system.

Studying these extreme exoplanets will help answer questions like: How did our solar system end up with eight major planets at these distances from the Sun? Is there a limit to when planets can’t form? A lot of big questions which all tie back to our knowledge of how the universe works. It is like finding and filling new puzzle pieces.

So, will Webb search for habitable exoplanets? Can we finally find alien life?

With every telescope, we are launching and every study we’re doing — at least my intention — is to get closer to searching for planets and studying planets that are potentially like Earth – maybe the same size or the same temperature.

And Webb will certainly look at some of these Earth-like planets. But it is really hard to look for signs of life. I don’t expect it will actually find signs of life because it is going to require a lot of data. Even if we could find some evidence, it’ll be a long time before we confirm.

Maybe future telescopes or the next generation of telescopes will find something interesting.

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Upon associating records of volcano explosions and dates of collapses, it was found that 62 out of 68 dynastic collapses were preceded by a volcanic eruption.

A recent study from Nature Communications Earth and Environment establishes a possible link between volcanic eruption driven climate changes and civilisational collapse of Chinese dynasties from the first two millennia BCE.

The study employed ice core reconstructions as proxies for explosive volcanism, which was a key driver in severe, short-term ecological change. Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica were assessed for elevated sulphate levels, an indicator of volcanic eruptions, and nearly 156 tropical and extratropical eruptions in the Northern Hemisphere were identified.

These were corroborated by historical (literary and artistic) records. Most studies trying to ascribe a palaeo-climatic agency in social or civilisational collapse are encumbered by the lack of reliable, temporally contextualised, scientific proxies; and instead rely on anecdotal accounts from that day and age.

The two millennia of the Common Era (CE; aka Anna Domini or AD) witnessed the fall of nearly 68 dynasties in China. Upon associating records of volcano explosions and dates of collapses, it was found that 62 out of 68 dynastic collapses were preceded by a volcanic eruption.

While the association might be a mere coincidence, when subjected to statistical scrutiny, the results “confirm a repeated and systematic role for volcanic climate shocks as causal agents in the collapse of successive dynasties” in China, one of the oldest and long-lasting civilisations.

Earlier, the pattern of dynastic rise and fall was attributed to decadence, moral decay, weak rulers and corruption.

Environmental changes have only recently taken the centre stage as a key player in the ‘dynastic cycle.’ In many cases, inclement weather or climate conditions were just seen as a withdrawal of the ‘mandate of heaven,’ that a volcanic eruption was essentially engineered by heaven to punish bad performance.

Other common environmental factors like drought and cold have also been invoked for the collapse of various Chinese dynasties: Tang (907 CE), Yuan (1368 CE) and Ming (1644 CE) dynasty.

There is strong evidence for a volcanic eruption and pre-existing socio-economic stressors acting in concert before the dynasty ultimately kneeled. For instance, volcanic eruptions lead to pronounced summer cooling, as the incoming solar radiation gets scattered by aerosols in the air.

Explosive volcanism has been considered a key driver for external climate forcing in recent climate research as well. A 2015 study, by comparing tree -ring records with mathematical models concluded that two large eruptions in 1257 and 1815 led to an extra tropical summer cooling of 0.8 to 1.3 deg C.

If the eruption happens in the sowing/harvesting season, it can have severe effects such as livestock death and accelerated land degradation. Volcanoes would, thus, have accentuated prevailing vulnerabilities like agricultural failures or fiscal instability or other political/economic factors.

Volcanic eruptions and the sudden abandonment of cities is not something seen only in Chinese history. Pompeii is an oft-cited, classic example: within a few hours of the volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius in August, 79 CE, the entire city was covered in volcanic debris and it lasted for centuries. It was not before the 1700s that archaeological excavations uncovered an entire city, with its building and entire population, frozen in time.

Similarly, in 630 CE, the Eastern Turkic Khanate, then the most powerful country in Northeast Asia, suddenly collapsed. A 2006 study argued that a volcanic eruption in 626 CE could have triggered a series of ‘severe disasters of snow and frost’ leading to widespread deaths and famine.

Another indicator of pre-existing vulnerabilities that the authors considered was warfare. Warfare, the researchers acknowledge, could be “a response to and an amplifier of such stress.”

By pulling up reconstructions of warfare events between 850 and 1911 CE, the authors found “an often-marked elevation of warfare in the decades immediately before collapse” as well as an increase in warfare in one or two years immediately after collapse.

However, the authors caution against jumping on causal inferences between volcanic eruptions and ‘collapse’. It is not as if the city always gets abandoned in entirety overnight every time there is an eruption. Some dynasties actually were fairly resilient and continued to survive for nearly ten years after an eruption, while others collapsed quickly.

Chaochao Gao, Associate Professor, Zhejiang University, China, who co-led the research, said in a release: “This study tells us how important it is to build a resilient society to cope with the natural hazards that we face, be they volcanically induced or otherwise.”

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

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Until now, no planet had been found orbiting a star more than three times the sun's mass.

One of the largest planets ever detected orbits at an enormous distance around two stars with a combined mass up to 10 times greater than our sun, an extreme celestial family that shatters assumptions about the type of places where planets can exist.

The planet, located about 325 light years from Earth, is a gas giant apparently similar in composition to Jupiter but about 11 times more massive, researchers said on Wednesday.

It belongs to a planetary class called “super-Jupiters” exceeding the mass of our solar system’s largest planet. It orbits a pair of stars gravitationally bound to one another, called a binary system. It has what might be the widest orbit of any known planet – about 100 times wider than Jupiter’s orbit around our sun and about 560 times wider than Earth’s.

Until now, no planet had been found orbiting a star more than three times the sun’s mass. Stars larger than that emit so much radiation that they were thought to torch the planetary formation process. This discovery dashes that view.

“Planet formation appears to be an incredibly diverse process. It has surpassed our imagination many times in the past, and will probably keep doing so in the future,” said astronomer Markus Janson of Stockholm University in Sweden, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

Since the discovery in the 1990s of the first planets beyond our solar system – so-called exoplanets – scientists have sought to learn whether or not our solar system represents standard “architecture.””From the trend seen so far, our solar system is not the most common type of planetary system architecture that exists,” said study co-author Gayathri Viswanath, a Stockholm University astronomy doctoral student.

“For instance, there are planetary systems with so-called ‘hot Jupiters’ where massive Jupiter-size planets orbit their host stars at a very close distance. A vast majority of the discovered planets also seem to have a size between that of Earth and Neptune, a size range in which our solar system has no planets,” Viswanath said.

The larger of the tandem stars in the b Centauri system in which the newly discovered planet resides has a mass around five to six times that of the sun and is more than three times hotter, unleashing large amounts of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.

It is a so-called B-type star, a category of extremely luminous blue stars. It is quite young in cosmic terms, at around 15 million years old. In comparison, the sun is roughly 4.5 billion years old. Less is known about the smaller of the tandem. It is estimated at anywhere from one-tenth to four times the sun’s mass. The two stars orbit relatively close to one another, within about the distance of the Earth from the sun. They can be seen with the naked eye from Earth in the constellation Centaurus.

The European Southern Observatory’s Chile-based Very Large Telescope captured an image of the planet, named b Centauri (AB)b. Like Jupiter, it is believed to be comprised mostly of hydrogen and helium.

Scientists had doubted that stars larger than three times the sun’s mass could host planets because they would present an unfriendly environment for planetary formation. Planets form from material coming together inside huge disks of swirling gas and dust surrounding newborn stars. Big stars, it was thought, give off so much high-energy radiation that this material might be evaporated. The newly identified planet coalesced so far from its stars that it may have avoided this cauldron. “The distance from the stars probably matters a lot, at least it did when the planet formed,” Janson said.

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One of the dinosaurs ran 31.7-44.6 kmph - among the highest speed ever estimated for a dinosaur.

It almost is not fair. Carnivorous dinosaurs were armed with menacing teeth inside muscular jaws, wielded dangerous claws on their hands and feet, and boasted keen vision and sense of smell. And, as new research confirms, some were pretty fast, too.

Two trackways of Cretaceous Period fossilized footprints from about 120 million years ago discovered in northern Spain’s La Rioja region show that the medium-sized meat-eating dinosaur species that made them could run at about 45 kph, scientists said on Thursday. This roughly matches the top speed achieved by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human being.

Two trackways located about 65 feet (20 meters) apart were discovered, one with seven footprints and the other with five. Each track – an impression of a three-toed foot with claws – measures around 30 cm long. They were made on the muddy surface of a lake plain in a region also populated by long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs, bipedal plant-eating dinosaurs, flying reptiles called pterosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles.

Speed only added to the arsenal of meat-eating dinosaurs like the species that left the footprints in Spain. “Their capacity to run very quickly and their maneuvering abilities surely allowed them to chase prey very efficiently. And of course I wouldn’t like to be caught by this guy on a riverbank,” said Pablo Navarro-Lorbes, a paleontology doctoral student at Universidad de La Rioja in Spain and lead author of the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The footprints bore characteristics showing they were made by a theropod, a group encompassing all the meat-eating dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex. Theropods were bipedal, with the largest perhaps 50 feet (15 meters) long.

The researchers believe the trackways were made by two different individuals of the same species. They suspect it was from one of two theropod families: the spinosaurs, many of which were fish-eaters, or carcharodontosaurs, known for shark-like teeth. The individuals were about 13-16 feet (4-5 meters) long and 7 feet (2 meters) tall, weighing 440-660 pounds (200-300 kg).

Running speed was calculated based on the relationship between the animal’s hip height – estimated from the footprint length – and stride length. The stride length from one of the trackways was 18.3 feet (5.6 meters), while the other was 17.2 feet (5.2 meters).

One of the dinosaurs ran 31.7-44.6 kmph – among the highest speed ever estimated for a dinosaur -and the other at 23.4-37.1 kmph. One trackway indicates a smooth increase in speed. The other suggests an animal maneuvering as it ran.

Universidad de La Rioja paleontologist and study co-author Angelica Torices said speed helped not only in hunting but in fleeing danger including “bigger theropods that could see them as their prey.”

Of the innumerable dinosaur tracks found worldwide, nearly all represent walking rather than running. The fastest estimated running speed based on footprints was a Jurassic Period theropod trackway in Utah at 55 kmph.

Scientists also have calculated dinosaur speeds based on biomechanical models. The fastest using this method was the Jurassic turkey-sized theropod Compsognathus at 65 kmph.

“There are several factors that dictate the running ability of a dinosaur,” Navarro-Lorbes said. “One of them is size. Some paleontologists think that theropods with sizes between 100 and 1,000 kilograms could have been some of the best dinosaur runners because of the relationship between their weight and muscular performance,” Navarro-Lorbes added, with elongated legs another key factor.

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By nixing barrels completely, they can avoid cutting down trees and the costs of storing barrels for years in climate-controlled conditions.

In a small lab in California’s Silicon Valley, Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron are making whiskey. There are no oak barrels stacked floor to ceiling. In fact, there’s hardly any wood at all. Instead, they use syringes, beakers and vials to find a more sustainable way to distill whiskey.

“This modern consumer – they tend to care about causes like climate change,” said Aaron, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Menlo Park-based Bespoken Spirits. The spirit spends three to five days in a keg-like metal barrel.

The company’s technology speeds up oxidation, thus changing the whiskey’s flavour and extracting the colour, smell and flavor profile from a piece of oak about the size of a pinky finger.

They char the oak in the lab before cutting it into small pieces known as microstaves, which constitute about 1/25,000th of a traditional barrel. Janousek, a material scientist and company co-founder, said this allows them to use 97% less wood.

By nixing barrels completely, they can avoid cutting down trees and the costs of storing barrels for years in climate-controlled conditions. Because of the short maturation time, Bespoken does not lose liquid to evaporation, known as the “angel’s share.” Aaron said this allows them to use 20% less water.

Throughout, the Bespoken team runs a sample in a gas chromatograph to determine its chemical fingerprint, allowing them to create a hyper-specific recipe and track flavors like vanilla. Those flavors are why Michael Kudra, principal bartender at Quince in San Francisco, prefers whiskey. At Reuters’ request, Kudra tasted the Bespoken Spirits whiskey.

“You definitely get alcohol straight off the nose… That caramel colour flavor comes right away, and then that alcohol starts burning your tongue,” Kudra said, adding that an egg white cocktail such as a whiskey sour could cut down on the high tones of alcohol and bring out the whiskey notes.

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SpaceX launched the spacecraft on its $214 million mission from Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s newest X-ray observatory rocketed into orbit Thursday to shed light on exploded stars, black holes and other violent high-energy events unfolding in the universe.

SpaceX launched the spacecraft on its $214 million mission from Kennedy Space Center. It’s called IXPE, short for Imaging X-ray Polarization Explorer.

Scientists said the observatory — actually three telescopes in one — will unveil the most dramatic and extreme parts of the universe as never before.

“IXPE is going to open a new window on the X-ray sky,” Brian Ramsey, NASA’s deputy principal scientist, said this week.

Operations should begin next month. NASA is partnering with the Italian Space Agency on the project.

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Wind and solar power are cheap, climate-friendly, and set to become mainstays of future energy supplies. But the energy generated varies greatly depending on the region. Which mix makes sense?

Written by Gero Rueter

How cheap is wind power?

Modern wind turbines are more efficient and generate up to 20 times more electricity than they did 25 years ago. They are taller, larger and have longer blades. According to the investment bank Lazard, generating wind power from new plants costs 72% less today than in 2009.

That’s made it one of the cheapest energy sources on the planet.

Electricity from windy regions on the coast now costs €0.04-0.05 ($0.05-0.06) per kilowatt hour (kWh), while in places with weaker wind it is €0.06-0.08, according to a study by the German-based research organization Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. For offshore plants in the sea, a kilowatt hour costs about €0.1 because they cost more to install and maintain.

By comparison, the price of photovoltaics have also fallen sharply — around 90% since 2009 — bringing electricity from a solar farm down to €0.02-0.06/kWh. But new power plants for other energy sources still cost more. A kilowatt hour of electricity from fossil gas costs around €0.11 cents, coal-fired electricity €0.16 and nuclear electricity €0.14-0.19.

Energy researchers assume that wind and solar power will become 20-50% cheaper by 2030 as the technology develops.

How much wind power for climate neutrality?

Experts say wind and solar energy could cover more than 95% of total global energy demand in the future. But depending on the region, different combinations make sense. This could include hydropower, batteries, electrolyzers to make hydrogen and synthetic fuels, as well as other storage and conversion technologies, said Christian Breyer, a solar economy professor from LUT University in Finland.

A study his team published in the journal Energy found it would be cheapest to generate about 76% percent of global energy demand with solar power and 20% with wind power. In regions with little sunshine, however, the share of wind power would be significantly higher: more than 90% in northern parts of Russia, 81% in the mid-west of the US, about 72% in northern China and about 50% in countries in central and northern Europe like Poland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and France. In Germany, the share of wind energy to cover the entire energy demand would be 31%.

In these regions, where the sun shines less brightly and winters can be grey, wind is often the cheaper alternative. “In Europe, wind power is therefore an absolutely central pillar of the energy supply,” said Breyer. “If we don’t have particularly good sunny days in Europe, we usually have very good windy days, so that goes well together.”

Which wind technology is best?

Wind turbines today are up to 180 meters high and have blades as long as 80 meters. On land, just one such turbine has an output of up to 7200 kilowatts and can generate as much as 29 million kWh of electricity per year — enough to cover the private electricity needs of 16,000 people in Germany and 140,000 people in India.

Wind turbines are particularly powerful in the sea where wind blows with greater force and reliability. Offshore turbines have an output of up to 10,000 kilowatts, and are expected to reach 15,000 kilowatts in a few years time. A single turbine at a good location could satisfy the private electricity needs of some 40,000 people in Germany or for 370,000 in India.

But the complexities and cost of laying down power cables on the seabed and maintaining offshore wind farms means the electricity they generate is twice as expensive as that from turbines on land. Nonetheless, offshore wind farms in densely populated regions of the world could play a useful role in a climate-neutral energy supply.

About 7% of global electricity demand is now met by wind power. Last year, new turbines with a capacity of 93 gigawatts (GW) were installed, and the total installed line in 2020 was 743GW. Offshore turbines account for 34GW, with most located in the waters off the UK (10GW), China (8GW) and Germany (8GW). One of the world’s first vast-scale offshore wind farms is the London Array off the Thames Estuary. Built in 2013, it has a capacity of 0.6GW from 175 turbines, and cost the equivalent of €2.5 billion. It satisfies the private electricity needs of 1.7 million Britons.

Could floating wind turbines help?

Up to now, offshore wind farms have mainly existed in shallow waters with a water depth of up to 50 meters. The turbines stand on a foundation in the seabed. But many coastal waters in the world are much deeper, making wind farms with foundations unfeasible.

For this reason, floating wind turbines are now also mounted on pontoons in harbors, then pulled into the sea and fixed to the seabed with long chains. The world’s first floating turbines were installed off the Scottish coast in 2017, and later off the coasts of Japan, France and Portugal. Today, all these turbines together have a total capacity of 0.1GW. The Global Offshore Wind Report expects an installed capacity of 6.3GW by 2030.

However, the strongest growth will continue to come from onshore wind turbines. According to the LUT study, for a climate-neutral energy supply — which includes not only energy for electricity but also for transport, heating and industry — the globally installed wind power capacity would have to increase tenfold to around 8039GW and quadruple to 244GW in Germany.

Using wind power to make e-fuels

Wind power is particularly cheap at windy locations. But if this electricity then has to be transported many hundreds of kilometers, the costs rise and can even double the price for the buyer. This is why transporting electricity long distances is often not worthwhile.

Still, generating electricity in remote regions can make sense if it is used directly for the production of so-called e-fuels. These are synthetic fuels that are to replace petroleum products such as paraffin, diesel and petrol in the future and special basic materials for the chemical industry.

They are produced by electrolysis from electricity, water, CO2 and nitrogen from the air. The fuels can then be transported in tankers, pipelines or trains. The first commercial plant for production is currently being built in the south of Chile.

In a joint project there, companies like carmaker Porsche and Siemens Energy want to use the strong wind to generate cheap electricity to produce e-fuels, expecting around 550 million liters per year from 2026.

“With the project in Patagonia, you can see now what the global standard will be,” said Breyer. “In ten years, we’ll see dozens of projects like this a year springing up like mushrooms.”

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The researchers propose integrating sensors into the tiny robot to allow it to detect environmental conditions, such as pollutants in buildings.

Written by Sabrina Imbler

If a pancake could dream, it might long for legs so it could jump off your breakfast plate in pursuit of a better, unchewed life.

But legs, it turns out, are not necessary for something as flat as a flapjack to hop around. A group of scientists has designed a tortilla-shaped robot that can jump several times per second and higher than seven times its body height of half a centimeter. They report that the robot, which is the size of a squished tennis ball and weighs about the same as a paper clip, nimbly performs these feats without any semblance of feet. Their research was published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Shuguang Li, a roboticist at Harvard who was not involved with the research, called the new robot “a clever idea” and “an important contribution to the soft robotics field.”

Many terrestrial robots, meaning ones at home on the ground rather than in air or water, move by rolling or walking. But the ability to jump can help a terrestrial robot traverse new spaces and navigate rough terrain; sometimes it’s more efficient for a robot to jump over an obstacle than to go around it, Rui Chen, a researcher at Chongqing University in China and an author of the paper, wrote in an email.

Although jumping can offer some robots a competitive edge, engineering that ability has been a challenge for robotics researchers. Some soft robots that store energy can perform a single, impressive jump very infrequently. Some lightweight soft robots that do not store energy can hop about very frequently but cannot jump high or far enough to successfully cross an obstacle like a curb.

The ideal jumping robot would be able to frequently jump high and far. But “these two pursuits are contradictory,” Chen said. Jumping higher or farther requires more energy, and jumping more frequently requires that energy to be accumulated and released over a shorter period of time — a tall task for a tiny robot.

For inspiration, the researchers looked to gall midge larvae, maggots that miraculously hurl themselves across distances 30 times as long as their loglike bodies, which are one-tenth of an inch long. “Most creatures need feet to jump,” Chen said, adding that the larvae “can leap by the bending of their bodies.” The maggot squishes itself into the shape of a ring — sticking its head to its rear with special sticky hairs — and squeezes fluid toward one end of its body, making it rigid. The accumulation of fluid builds up pressure, and releasing the pressure sends the maggot soaring.

The robot’s disklike body does not resemble that of a gall midge larva, but it jumps like one. Its body is made of two plastic pouches printed with electrodes; the front pouch is filled with liquid and the rear is filled with the same volume of air. The robot uses static electricity to drive the flow of liquid to deform parts of its body, which causes the body to bend and generate force with the ground, resulting in a jump. And the air pouch mimics the function of an animal’s tail, helping the robot maintain a stable position while jumping and landing.

This design allows the robot to jump 7.68 times its body height and have a continuous jumping speed of six body lengths per second — a speed that Li called “very impressive.”

So the robot could jump rapidly and continuously. But could it cross obstacles? To find out, the researchers put the tiny robot through numerous tests perhaps as deserving of an inspirational movie montage as Sylvester Stallone’s training in “Rocky.”

The robot had to cross various gravel mounds, slopes and wires. It had to jump across a round step five millimeters tall and traverse an empty ring eight millimeters tall — monumental barriers for a four-millimeter-tall robot with a body like a pancake. The amateur acrobat passed all of these tests easily, if not gracefully.

The robot can also change directions on its own, around 138 degrees per second — the fastest turning speed of any soft jumping robot, Chen said. Much like a car, the robot can steer itself by continuously turning, according to Wenqi Hu, a senior research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, who was not involved with the research.

The robot relies on external power that is fed through electrical wires. The researchers would like to make the robot wireless in future iterations, but it will be a challenge to keep the robot tiny and lightweight, Chen said.

“I wonder if adding an onboard power source would be a challenge for this tiny soft jumper,” Li said.

The researchers propose integrating sensors into the tiny robot to allow it to detect environmental conditions, such as pollutants in buildings. Li suggested that the robot could eventually inspect hard-to-reach areas of large industrial machines or, if equipped with a small camera, be used on search-and-rescue missions for trapped people or animals, as it can travel through small spaces in disaster areas. And, he added, the robot is tiny and cheap. “It would probably cost only a few dollars to build one,” Li said.

Although the robot is currently confined to Earth, Hu suggested it might be right at home exploring another planet. “This type of task requires a simple but robust miniature robot design” that is lightweight enough to be carried to new worlds, Hu said, adding that the materials needed to build this robot would need to survive and function in extraterrestrial environments.

If this is true, the researchers’ robot might jump over dusty rocks and craters on the moon or Mars, going where no pancake has gone before.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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DSCOVR orbits about 1.5 million km above Earth and takes pictures of Earth every two hours

On December 4 was the only total solar eclipse of 2021 and the last eclipse of the year from Antarctica. The southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand saw partial phases of the eclipse.

If you have ever thought about seeing a total solar eclipse from space, NASA is here to help. The agency shared pictures taken during the eclipse on its Instagram page.

The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft captured the dark shadow of the Moon as it passed over Antarctica. NASA also shared images taken by Astronaut Kayla Barron from inside the International Space Station.

DSCOVR orbits about 1.5 million km above Earth and takes pictures of Earth every two hours. The spacecraft “monitors changes in the solar wind and provides space weather forecasts and alerts for solar storms that could temporarily disrupt power grids and GPS.” It can give warnings to forecasters 15 to 60 minutes before solar storms reach Earth. DSCOVR is a joint mission between NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Air Force (USAF).

On February 11, 2021, when the moon again passed DSCOVR and the Earth, EPIC captured the far side of the moon, which is never seen from Earth.

Last year, on June 21, DSCOVR EPIC captured the annular solar eclipse over Asia. Previously, it had captured the total solar eclipse over North America on August 21, 2017.

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The 300-megapixel image shows how our star looked at 2 pm on November 29th, from the photographer’s backyard.

A US-based astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy has shared a new series of sun photos titled “Fire and Fusion.” With over 26,000 likes on Instagram, the photos capture the streams of plasma rising from the Sun’s surface. You can buy the unframed print of the photo for $50 and it gives a look at some stunning details of the Sun.

The 300-megapixel image shows how our star looked at 2 pm on November 29 from the photographer’s backyard. He wrote on Instagram that he captured around 150,000 images using a modified telescope.

The composite image shows the “blinding bursts of energy stem from areas of heightened magnetic activity, pushing and pulling on the solar surface and creating fascinating patterns in the atmosphere,” he writes on his website.

The image has gone viral as amateur astrophotographers around the globe are amazed at the level of details he has captured from his backyard. The photo was able to capture sunspots and active regions called swirls or coronal loops. According to NASA, coronal loops are found around sunspots and in active regions.

Last year NASA released the first images from ESA/NASA’s Solar Orbiter, which included the closest pictures ever taken of the Sun. Solar Orbiter is an international collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA and was launched on February 9, 2020.

Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission said in a release that the “amazing images (from Solar Orbiter) will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.”

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The tycoon has also booked a flyby around the moon aboard Elon Musk’s Starship that is tentatively scheduled for 2023.

A Japanese billionaire and his producer rocketed to space Wednesday as the first self-paying space tourists in more than a decade.

Fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and producer Yozo Hirano, who plans to film his mission, blasted off for the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin.

The trio lifted off as scheduled at 12:38 pm (01:08 pm IST) aboard Soyuz MS-20 from the Russia-leaded Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.

Maezawa and Hirano are scheduled to spend 12 days in space. The two will be the first self-paying tourists to visit the space station since 2009. The price of the trip hasn’t been disclosed.

“I would like to look at the Earth from space. I would like to experience the opportunity to feel weightlessness,” Maezawa said during a pre-flight news conference on Tuesday. “And I also have a personal expectation: I’m curious how the space will change me, how I will change after this space flight.”

A company that organized the flight said Maezawa compiled a list of 100 things to do in space after asking the public for ideas. The list includes “simple things about daily life to maybe some other fun activities, to more serious questions as well,” Space Adventures President Tom Shelley said.

“His intention is to try to share the experience of what it means to be in space with the general public,” Shelley told The Associated Press earlier this year.

Maezawa made his fortune in retail fashion, launching Japan’s largest online fashion mall, Zozotown. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $2 billion.

The tycoon has also booked a flyby around the moon aboard Elon Musk’s Starship that is tentatively scheduled for 2023. He’ll be joined on that trip by eight contest winners.

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The billionaire, who sold his online fashion business Zozo to SoftBank in 2019, is searching for eight people who will join him in his moon voyage in 2023

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa said he could barely contain his excitement a day ahead of blasting off to the International Space Station in a prelude to a more ambitious trip around the moon with Elon Musk’s SpaceX planned in 2023.

The 46-year-old fashion magnate and art collector has been training at a space centre outside Moscow in recent months before becoming the first space tourist to travel to the ISS in more than a decade.

Maezawa will travel aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, which will launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, accompanied by his assistant Yozo Hirano, who will document the journey, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin.

Speaking from Baikonur ahead of his 12-day space journey, Maezawa said flying into space had been a childhood dream. “I’m excited. I feel like an elementary school student about to go on a outing,” Maezawa said at a news conference. “I didn’t think I would be able to go to space. I used to like the starry sky and heavenly bodies. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and to finally fulfil my dream.”

The billionaire has been chronicling his preparations, including demonstrating his space suit and riding a centrifuge, in social media posts, with plans to post more from space.

During his 100 days in training, Maezawa said he had enjoyed parabolic flight, where weightlessness is induced for short periods on an adapted plane, but found training in a spinning chair tough.

The entrepreneur, who was wearing a blue flight suit with a badge reading “world peace”, said he had struggled to learn Russian to communicate with his trainers and looked forward to eating sushi when he returns to Earth.

Maezawa will become the first private passenger on the SpaceX moon trip, as commercial firms including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin usher in a new age of space travel for wealthy clients.

The billionaire, who sold his online fashion business Zozo to SoftBank in 2019, is searching for eight people who will join him in his moon voyage in 2023, requiring applicants to pass medical tests and an interview.

Maezawa has become a household name in Japan through his penchant for private jets and supercars, cash giveaways to Twitter followers and celebrity girlfriends in a country known for its conformist, corporate culture.

Maezawa will be the first Japanese private citizen in space since TV journalist Toyohiro Akiyama visited the Mir space station in 1990.

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Medicago will imminently seek regulatory approval for the world's first plant-based COVID-19 vaccine from Health Canada as part of its rolling submission.

Canadian drug developer Medicago’s plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate, enhanced by GlaxoSmithKline’s booster, was 75.3 per cent effective against the Delta variant of the virus in a late stage study, the two companies said on Tuesday.

They said the vaccine’s overall efficacy rate against all variants of the coronavirus was 71 per cent, except Omicron, which was not in circulation when the study was underway.

“These are encouraging results given data were obtained in an environment with no ancestral virus circulating. The global COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to show new facets with the current dominance of the Delta variant, upcoming Omicron, and other variants likely to follow,” GSK Chief Global Health Officer Thomas Breuer said in a statement.

Last week, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said though the focus is on Omicron, 99.9 per cent cases in the United States were due to the Delta variant. “Delta continues to drive cases across the country, especially in those who are unvaccinated.”

Medicago will imminently seek regulatory approval for the world’s first plant-based COVID-19 vaccine from Health Canada as part of its rolling submission.

The Canadian health regulator in April accepted Medicago’s application for a real-time review of the only home-grown COVID-19 vaccine to reach the most advanced level of trials.

Medicago, which uses GSK’s adjuvant to boost the efficacy of its vaccine, started the late-stage study in March with over 24,000 participants aged 18 years or above in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

The vaccine uses a technology known as virus-like particles, which mimic the structure of the coronavirus, but contain no genetic material from it.

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In an interview with, Dr Anil Menon, who likes to be called an aerospace medicine doctor, speaks about the future of aerospace medicine, his work at SpaceX and his love for Indian food.

Indian-origin Dr Anil Menon, SpaceX’s first flight surgeon, will be among the new recruits who will report for duty in January 2022 for NASA’s 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class which will train for the agency’s future missions.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Ukrainian and Indian immigrants, Dr Menon has a Bachelor’s Degree in Neurobiology and a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. He did his Doctor of Medicine in Emergency Medicine and then in Aerospace Medicine. Dr Menon started as a NASA flight surgeon in 2014 before moving to SpaceX in 2018 to serve as the lead flight surgeon.

In an interview with, Dr. Menon, who likes to be called an aerospace medicine doctor, speaks about the future of aerospace medicine, his work at SpaceX and his love for Indian food.


You were selected from over 12,000 applicants. Did this news come as a surprise to you?

Dr Anil Menon: It came as a big surprise, surprises are good. You can never be too confident with 12,000 people applying for 10 jobs. There are definitely a lot of qualified people. So I was very excited, overjoyed, and happy about the opportunity. I was in California and got a call and the person started talking about the Dragon capsule because I was working at SpaceX at the time. I thought it was a business call. And halfway through it, it turned out to be a joke. The Chief of the Astronaut Office said “I’m just kidding, do you want to be an astronaut?’’ and I said, “Sign me up”.

And at that moment, my wife walked into the room and just started crying. Because she could just see the joy on my face. So it was a great moment for both of us.

Why did you study both medicine and engineering?

I think that working in space and working at NASA, it’s really good to combine engineering with some of the sciences. So for the Dragon vehicle, there are several engineering questions but also need medical approaches. For example, in the health stabilisation system, you need to know the percentage of oxygen and other such parameters. So it’s important to know the language of engineers and doctors.

You were the crew flight surgeon for the International Space Station? What was that role like?

A crew flight surgeon is a doctor that takes care of astronauts in space travel. When there, I talk to them just like how I am talking to you now via video call. They are in space and I am on the ground. If they experience stomach pain or get a rash, they don’t have a doctor around. And I help out.

So you are a space doctor?

It’s really interesting to take care of people in space. If we have to set up a sustainable Moon presence and send people to Mars, we need more such doctors around.

Aerospace medicine is the most rapidly expanding field in medicine. It’s very exciting and there are limitless opportunities in that field, just like radiology or dermatology or any other field.
When I started at NASA, there were just 20 doctors there. Then one job opened up at SpaceX, and I was lucky to get that. But over the last three years, I have worked with hundreds of medical students, paramedics, nurses, and this will continue on into the future.

You were SpaceX’s first flight surgeon. Tell us about that experience.

When I went to SpaceX, we worked on the Dragon capsule to get NASA astronauts up to space. And as a doctor, I would take care of them on launch. And then I would be the first person to put them in, and the first person to pull them out of the capsule.
And now as a NASA astronaut candidate, I’ll have that opportunity to actually flip roles and fly with them.

On India and Indian food

When people are in space, food tastes different because your nose gets stuffy because the fluid starts floating up there. So I have heard from a lot of astronauts that Indian food is their favourite food because it’s spicier. It’s a medical fact.

As someone from India, I’m happy to represent the larger world. My Achan (father) is from the Malabar region and I took my wife to Kerala three years ago, we went to Cochin, Alleppey, and crossed over to Tamil Nadu. I wanted to show my wife what a fantastic place Kerala is and she loved it.

Kerala has a special spot in my heart. The people are so welcoming but they are a bit amazed when they hear my accent. They are so warm and inviting. Spending time in India really helped set me up for this job, because it is those same skills that I’ll need to apply as an astronaut in the future. India is such a diverse multicultural place, every single state with a different language, different culture and there is so much history.

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They have also found several ploughed-out burial mounds in nearby fields.

Norwegian archaeologists said Monday they have found a cluster of longhouses, including one of the largest in Scandinavia, using ground-penetrating radar in the southeastern part of the country — in an area that researchers believe was a central place in the late Nordic Iron Age.

The longhouses — long and narrow, single-room buildings — were found in Gjellestad, 86 kilometers (53 miles) southeast of Oslo near where a Viking-era ship was found in 2018 close to the Swedish border.

“We have found several buildings, all typical Iron Age longhouses, north of the Gjellestad ship. The most striking discovery is a 60-meter (197-foot) long and 15-meter (49-foot) wide longhouse, a size that makes it one of the largest we know of in Scandinavia,” archaeologist Lars Gustavsen at Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research said in a statement.

The importance of Gjellestad during that time period wasn’t immediately known. But the body, known by its Norwegian acronym NIKU, said it was working on finding that out.

This autumn, archaeologists covered 40 hectares (about 100 acres) south, east and north of where the Gjellestad ship was found with the radar system, and one of the next steps are archaeological excavations, NIKU said.

The surveys are the first part of a research project called “Viking Nativity: Gjellestad Across Borders” where archaeologists, historians and Viking age specialists have examined the development of the area during the Nordic Iron Age that began at around 500 B.C. and lasted until approximately A.D. 800 and the beginning of the Viking Age.

“We do not know how old the houses are or what function they had. Archaeological excavations and dating will help us get an answer to this,” said Sigrid Mannsaaker Gundersen, another archaeologist.

They have also found several ploughed-out burial mounds in nearby fields.

“We are not surprised to have found these burial mounds, as we already know there are several others in the surrounding area,” Gustavsen said. “ Still, these are important to know about to get a more complete picture of Gjellestad and its surroundings.”

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Born to Ukrainian and Indian immigrants, Dr Menon started as a NASA flight surgeon in 2014.

NASA on Monday announced the 10 new astronaut candidates chosen from over 12,000 applicants to represent the US and work for NASA’s future missions.

Indian-origin Anil Menon is among the new recruits who will report for duty in January 2022 to complete two years of initial astronaut training. Born to Ukrainian and Indian immigrants, he started as a NASA flight surgeon in 2014 and has supported four long-duration crew members on the International Space Station as the deputy crew surgeon.

In 2018, he joined SpaceX and helped prepare for the company’s first human flights. He served as the lead flight surgeon for five launches. He has published several scientific papers on emergency medicine and space medicine.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson introduced the members of the 2021 astronaut class, the first new class in four years at a special event at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Today we welcome 10 new explorers, 10 members of the Artemis generation, NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class,” Nelson said. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum – out of many, one.” The full biographies of the astronauts can be read here.

According to the release, the astronaut candidate training will fall into five major categories:

*operating and maintaining the International Space Station’s complex systems
*training for spacewalks
*developing complex robotics skills
*safely operating a T-38 training jet
*Russian language skills training

“Each of you has amazing backgrounds,” Pam Melroy, former NASA astronaut, and NASA’s deputy administrator told the candidates. “You bring diversity in so many forms to our astronaut corps and you stepped up to one of the highest and most exciting forms of public service.”

The other nine astronaut candidates are

US Air Force Maj. Nichole Ayers
US Air Force Maj. Marcos Berríos
US Marine Corps Maj. (retired.) Luke Delaney
US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Wittner
US Navy Lt. Deniz Burnham
US Navy Cmdr. Jack Hathaway
Christopher Williams
Christina Birch
Andre Douglas

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At the current rate of deployment, 700 million tonnes of CO2 storage capacity will be added by 2050 -- 10% of what is required.

Written by Kian Mintz-Woo

The recent Glasgow climate pact committed 197 countries to ‘phas[ing] down unabated coal’. Unabated coal refers to when power stations or factories burn coal without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated.

Because the world has made such little progress in eliminating coal, oil and fossil gas, climate modellers foresee some use of carbon capture and storage as necessary to reach zero emissions in enough time to avert catastrophic warming.

The technology to capture carbon is in development, but one burning question remains: where on Earth should we store all that carbon?

Different methods of carbon capture will take place at different sites. Some involve absorbing emissions immediately after burning fossil fuels in chimneys and smokestacks where the CO2 is highly concentrated. Other methods capture carbon directly from the air, either by using chemical reactions that bind the carbon using lots of energy or by growing carbon-hungry plants which can be burned for energy and the resulting emissions subsequently captured.

In new research, myself and environmental engineer Joe Lane at Princeton University in the US argued that, regardless of the method, leaving decisions about where to store carbon to commercial entities would mean avoiding an important moral dilemma.

Funding for carbon capture and storage is insufficient. At the current rate of deployment, 700 million tonnes of CO2 storage capacity will be added by 2050 — 10% of what is required. Countries would have to massively ramp up investment to be compliant with the Paris agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Some of this money would be public funding, and people would reasonably expect it to fund projects which are morally sound. On the one hand, it might be deemed important to develop storage sites with the best prospects for storing lots of greenhouse gas for the longest duration. This argument maintains that the most important consideration for deploying carbon capture and storage is making the largest possible contribution to arresting climate change.

To give carbon storage sites the greatest chance of success, it makes sense to develop them in places where the geology has been thoroughly explored and where there is lots of relevant expertise. This would imply pumping carbon into underground storage sites in northern Europe, the Middle East and the US, where companies have spent centuries looking for and extracting fossil fuels.

Storing carbon is roughly the reverse of extracting it from the ground, and there is an opportunity for workers in the oil and gas industry to lend their skills and expertise to this endeavour.

On the other hand, it might be important to develop storage sites in economies where the current and future demand for carbon capture and storage is greatest. These competing aims pull in different directions. The regions with the best prospects are not often those with the greatest expected need. Developing storage sites in economies where expected demand for carbon capture is highest overwhelmingly favours developing regions of Asia.

In India and China, for instance, coal power stations and cement plants are expensive to decommission and will need lots of carbon capture and storage capacity to decarbonise. If developing regions are expected to decarbonise without sufficient support to roll out carbon capture and storage, it could mean they have to throttle development to reduce emissions.

There are no easy answers in this debate. Increasing carbon capture and storage capacity as quickly as possible could benefit future generations by reducing the severity of climate change. So, you could argue that developing the most promising sites in Europe is the best way forward.

But directing investment for storage facilities from wealthy countries to developing regions could help address the debt the former owes the latter for causing the brunt of the climate crisis. World leaders should recognise this moral dilemma and consider the choices with urgency. The need to remove and safely store carbon becomes more severe by the day. Given the time and costs involved in developing storage sites, and the real possibility that the storage sites may not be sufficient for the carbon countries emit, this is a question which cannot be delayed.

– The author is Lecturer in Philosophy, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork Cork (Ireland).

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Egyptian fruit bats are attached to their mothers continuously for the first three weeks of life.

Written by Elizabeth Preston

A person trying to learn their way around a new neighborhood might spend time studying a map. You would probably not benefit from being carried rapidly through the air, upside-down in the dark.

Yet that’s how some baby bats learn to navigate, according to a study published last month in Current Biology. As their mothers tote them on nightly trips between caves and certain trees, the bat pups gain the skills they need to get around when they grow up.

Mothers of many bat species carry their young while flying, said Aya Goldshtein, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany. Egyptian fruit bats, for example, are attached to their mothers continuously for the first three weeks of life. While a mother searches for food, her pup clings to her body with two feet and its jaw, latching its teeth around her nipple. Mothers can still be seen flying with older pups that weigh 40 per cent of what they do.

It hadn’t been clear why the moms go to this length, instead of leaving pups in the cave where they roost, as some other species do. Goldshtein worked with Lee Harten, a behavioral ecologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where both she and Goldshtein were graduate students at the time in the lab of Yossi Yovel, a study co-author, to make sense of this maternal mystery.

The researchers captured Egyptian fruit bat mothers and pups from a cave just outside Tel Aviv. They attached a tag holding a radio transmitter and miniature GPS device to each bat’s fur that would drop off after a couple of weeks. Then, the researchers brought the bats back to their cave.

To track the bats, Harten held an antenna while standing on the roof of a 10-story building with a view of the cave. She directed Goldshtein, who was on foot or in a car with her own antenna, to follow the radio signals of bat pairs as they flew out at night. But again and again, there was a problem: The pup’s movement would suddenly stop, while the mother’s signal disappeared.

“At the beginning we thought that we were doing our job wrong, and just losing the bats,” Harten said.

They needed the GPS data for better answers. That meant finding the GPS devices themselves — a challenge, because there was no way to control where the tags fell off the bats. They sometimes landed in roads or bushes; rats dragged them into their burrows. The scientists had to knock on doors and ask people to let them search their property.

“You just need to have a lot of charm,” Goldshtein said.

It was more than a year into their project before they had enough data to realize their early results were no mistake. The signals of mother and baby bats had diverged because the mothers were carefully ditching their babies in trees while they searched for food.

“We couldn’t imagine that the mother would just leave a pup on a tree,” Goldshtein said.

Over five years of field work, they discerned a clear picture of what was going on. When Egyptian fruit bats pups are a few weeks old, mothers carry them from the cave at the start of the night, as usual, then fly to a tree and leave them — sort of like day care drop-off, without supervision. The mother returns throughout the night, perhaps to nurse and warm up the pup. When she’s done foraging, she carries the pup home.

The mother uses the same tree, or a few trees, over and over. As the pup gets older and heavier, the mother shifts to a drop-off tree closer to the cave.

Then, when the pup is around 10 weeks old, the mother leaves the cave, alone. The young bat emerges from the cave for its first solo trip — and, although there are thousands of trees nearby, flies straight to its most recent drop-off site. As it grows older, the pup uses the drop-off tree as a starting point for its own exploration.

“We were amazed to see these results,” Goldshtein said.

Somehow, while hanging from their mothers’ bellies, baby bats learn their way around. The authors don’t know exactly how this learning happens. They think it may be by sight, although Egyptian fruit bats can echolocate using clicks of their tongue.

Mirjam Knörnschild, a behavioral ecologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin who studies bats, said that the authors had done a “great job” uncovering the poorly understood interactions between mother bats and pups.

“The results strongly suggest that mothers actively help their pups with orientation,” she said.

Knörnschild was surprised that pups can memorize these routes while being carried upside-down and while never flying the routes themselves.

“Personally,” she said, “I find it astonishing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The company said that Ameca is the world’s most advanced human shaped robot and represents the forefront of human-robotics technology.

Engineered Arts, a UK-based manufacturer of humanoid entertainment robots, recently posted a video of one of its new creations. Named Ameca, the robot can be seen making various facial expressions including surprise, confusion, and amusement.

The company said that Ameca is the world’s most advanced human-shaped robot and represents the forefront of human-robotics technology.

“Ameca is the perfect humanoid robot platform for human-robot interaction,” it said, adding that “Ameca is the perfect platform to develop interaction between us humans and any metaverse or digital realm.”

But Ameca is different from Boston Dynamics’ robots. It cannot walk, dance or backflip. “There are many hurdles to overcome before Ameca can walk. Walking is a difficult task for a robot, and although we have done research into it, we have not created a full walking humanoid. However, Ameca is a modular robot, we plan on upgrading its abilities over time so one-day Ameca will walk,” Engineered Arts said on its website.

The company has also developed another realistic robot named Mesmer which can display a wide range of human emotions. The company says that “Mesmer robot is designed and built from 3D in-house scans of real people, allowing us to imitate human bone structure, skin texture, and expressions convincingly.”

In a video posted on December 4, Mesmer smiles, yawns, and even winks at the camera. The company says that Mesmer can help “make robot-human conversation as natural as a chat between friends.” The robot which is taught to make automatic eye contact can be remotely controlled.

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The scientists observed that the gum largely prevented the viruses or viral particles from entering cells, either by blocking the ACE2 receptor on the cells or by binding directly to the spike protein.

Scientists are developing a chewing gum laced with a plant-grown protein that serves as a “trap” for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, reducing viral load in saliva and potentially lowering transmission. The researchers noted that people who are fully vaccinated can still become infected with SARS-CoV-2 and can carry a viral load similar to those who are unvaccinated.

“SARS-CoV-2 replicates in the salivary glands, and we know that when someone who is infected sneezes, coughs, or speaks some of that virus can be expelled and reach others,” said Henry Daniell at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. “This gum offers an opportunity to neutralise the virus in the saliva, giving us a simple way to possibly cut down on a source of disease transmission,” said Daniell, who led the study published in the journal Molecular Therapy.

Prior to the pandemic, Daniell had been studying the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) protein in the context of treating hypertension. His lab had grown this protein, as well as many others that may have therapeutic potential, using a patented plant-based production system. This system has the potential to avoid the usual obstacles to protein drug synthesis: an expensive production and purification process, the researchers said.

The receptor for ACE2 on human cells also happens to bind the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which the virus uses to infect the cells, they said. Previous research has shown that injections of ACE2 can reduce viral load in people with severe infections.

Another line of work by Daniell and colleague Hyun Koo has involved research to develop a chewing gum infused with plant-grown proteins to disrupt dental plaque. Pairing his insights about ACE2 with this technology, Daniell wondered if such a gum, infused with plant-grown ACE2 proteins, could neutralise SARS-CoV-2 in the oral cavity.

To test the chewing gum, the team grew ACE2 in plants, paired with another compound that enables the protein to cross mucosal barriers and facilitates binding. The researchers incorporated the resulting plant material into cinnamon-flavoured gum tablets.

Incubating samples obtained from nasopharyngeal swabs from COVID-positive patients with the gum, they showed that the ACE2 present could neutralise SARS-CoV-2 viruses. They then modified viruses, less-pathogenic than SARS-CoV-2, to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

The scientists observed that the gum largely prevented the viruses or viral particles from entering cells, either by blocking the ACE2 receptor on the cells or by binding directly to the spike protein.

Finally, the team exposed saliva samples from COVID-19 patients to the ACE2 gum and found that levels of viral RNA fell so dramatically to be almost undetectable.

The research team is currently working towards obtaining permission to conduct a clinical trial to evaluate whether the approach is safe and effective when tested in people infected with SARS-CoV-2. If the clinical trials prove the gum is safe and effective, it could be given to patients whose infection status is unknown, to reduce the likelihood of passing the virus to caregivers, the researchers added.

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The International Astronomical Union lists over 1,500 potential hazardous asteroids.

On December 11, a large asteroid – about 330 metres in diameter – will safely fly past our planet. Named “4660 Nereus”, the near-earth asteroid is a frequent visitor to near-Earth space. The last time it whizzed past us was on March 22, 2011, and the next visit is expected on March 2, 2031.

Despite the sensational news headlines, 4660 Nereus will skim by at a safe distance of over three million kilometers. This is almost ten times the distance between Earth and the Moon.

Why is it called an apollo asteroid?

Near-Earth asteroids (those whose orbits are near that of Earth) are classified as:

*Atiras: NEAs whose orbits are entirely within the orbit of the Earth
*Atens: Earth-crossing NEAs with axes smaller than that of Earth’s
*Apollos: Earth-crossing NEAs with axes larger than Earth’s
*Amors: Earth-approaching NEAs with orbits exterior to Earth’s but interior to Mars’

4660 Nereus will cross our Earth’s orbit but at a safe distance.

Then why is it a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid(PHA)?

Any near-Earth asteroid that comes near Earth at a distance below 0.05 astronomical units or 7.5 million km is termed as a potentially hazardous asteroid.

The International Astronomical Union lists over 1,500 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Close approaches

On December 11, five other near-earth objects are said to make close approaches. According to NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, NEOs named 2021 WV1, 2021 WJ3, 2021 XD2, 2021 XG, 2021 WV1 will fly by our planet. 2021 XG is an Aten, while the other four are Apollos.

Today’s treats

On December 6, six near-earth objects — 2021 VX7, 2021 WE1, 2021 WM2, 2021 XT1, 2021 WL2, 2021 XE – will make close approaches.

Last month NASA launched the world’s first planetary defense system to deflect an asteroid. Named DART, the mission will target a small moonlet called Dimorphos and collide with it at a speed of about 6.6 kilometres per second or 24,000 kilometres per hour. The collision is expected to take place next year between September 26 and October 1.

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The new CEO of Twitter takes over at a time when the social media platform is negotiating the free-speech line with governments around the world, including in India. The Sunday Express traces Parag Agrawal’s journey from IIT Bombay to Stanford University to Silicon Valley and finally, Twitter. Jayprakash S Naidu & Ravish Tiwari

The world is watching us now, even more than they have before,” Parag Agrawal wrote in a note to the staff of Twitter on November 29, the day he was named Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the microblogging platform.

As Agrawal, 37, takes over from Jack Dorsey — the embattled founder of an embattled company that has struggled to keep pace with contemporaries such as Facebook — the IIT Bombay (IIT-B) alumnus will be acutely aware of the spotlight he finds himself in as Twitter negotiates the free-speech line with governments around the world, including in India.

While this is probably the first time Agrawal has stepped into the media glare, he has been a key force at Twitter as Dorsey himself acknowledged. “(Parag) has been my choice for some time given how deeply he understands the company and its needs. Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around…. My trust in him as CEO is bone deep,” Dorsey wrote, announcing Agrawal’s appointment and his own stepping down.

Parag, who joined Twitter as an engineer in 2011 and went on to become the San Fransisco-based company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), has been responsible for driving most of the path-breaking projects at the company, the most crucial being the successful monestisation of the company’s advertisement-based revenue models. Under Agrawal, the ads team used machine-learning to analyse data and target advertisements to users.

He has also worked to accelerate user growth by improving ‘Home timeline’ relevance, reworking the company’s technical strategy, and overseeing machine learning and AI across the platform. In 2019, Dorsey leaned on Agrawal to launch Bluesky, an ambitious Twitter-funded initiative to create a decentralised social media, where users can apply their own algorithms to moderate and promote content.

While the industry and the media reacted with surprise and curiosity at Agrawal’s appointment, with Twitter’s India timelines flooded by a rush of memes on “Agarwal ji ka beta”, his friends and teachers say they are not surprised at the meteoric rise of this “brilliant”, “focused”, “creative” mind — traits that seem to have led him all the way to Silicon Valley and onwards to Twitter.

His wife Vineeta Agrawala, who holds a B.S. in biophysics from Stanford University and has MD and PhD degrees from Harvard Medical School/MIT, is a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. The couple have a three-year-old son.

News of Agrawal’s appointment brought in a rush of memories for Praveen Tyagi, 47, who coached Agrawal for his Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) — from the time Agrawal and his friends fell off a cycle they were “riding triple” while on their way to class, to when the boys would escort him to the gate when a back pain left him using crutches, to the gold medal Agrawal won at the International Physics Olympiad.

“Parag was a bright student… got a high JEE rank. He would have ranked better but I remember, during his examination, he asked for supplement sheets and due to a misunderstanding on the part of the examiner, he lost valuable time,” said Tyagi.

Dr Jennifer Widom, professor at Stanford University who guided Agrawal through his PhD thesis on ‘Incorporating Uncertainty in Data Management and Integration’, says his analytical skills and ability to collaborate will help him in his new role at Twitter.

“Parag is incredibly smart and creative. As a PhD student, he was equally adept with theoretical concepts as building software systems. He was also a wonderful sounding board and collaborator with other students and their research, very generous with his time. He is also analytical, curious, and patient — all of which will help in his new role,” she told The Sunday Express, signing off with an advice to the new Twitter CEO: “Don’t lose your fun-loving, light-hearted, down-to-earth personality. You kept it during many challenging years as CTO and I’m counting on you to keep it as CEO as well.”

Supratim Biswas, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-B, who taught Agrawal, said in a recent video address, “Parag is from the 2001 batch and graduated from our department in 2005. We all know we only get the toppers from all over India into our department, and to top within that itself, requires special calibre and Parag definitely had it. He was extremely bright, focused, and hence it is no wonder that at such a young age he has earned this distinction. He was also honoured with the Young Alumnus Award from the institute three years ago, so he was in the news as far as the department is concerned.”

Anand Kumar, now principal of Atomic Energy Junior College in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs of Anushakti Nagar where Agrawal studied, said, “From what I have heard from his teachers, he was very intelligent, focused, creative and always to the point. We were very excited (about the appointment)… He will be a talking point when we give speeches in our college to inspire our students.”

Prof Subhasis Chaudhuri, Director of IIT Bombay, said, “The significance of a university is often judged by the collective achievements of its alumni… Parag Agrawal is one such alumnus that IIT-B is proud of.”

Agrawal’s contemporaries at Stanford University and earlier at IIT-B, where he spent hours hanging out with friends near Vihar Lake, behind the institute’s Hostel No. 4, too talk of him as a man who learned fast.

Devdatta Gangal of Facebook Reality Labs recently wrote a post on Agrawal, his Computer Science contemporary at IIT-B, and how their friendship was cemented during Gangal’s frequent visits to Stanford, where his wife studied, and later after he moved to Silicon Valley. “The living room of Parag’s home at 50 Dudley Ln, Stanford, was our unofficial ‘Community Center’ and we have spent hours chatting, playing games, cooking, eating, celebrating Diwali etc, and crashing there. And using it as a base for various treks, hikes, and weekend ski trips to Tahoe,” he wrote, before listing Agrawal’s winning traits — that he is well-read, logical, hyper-efficient, has clarity of thought, and that he loves Twitter.

“Parag is deeply knowledgeable about almost every topic he cares about. And there are many — sports, finance, Indian and American politics, travel, and unsurprisingly consumer electronics and tech. If there is something he doesn’t know, he is quick to say ‘jyada idea nahi’, ‘I haven’t followed it recently’, and follows up with ‘bata what’s the deal with XYZ’, with the right set of questions to get informed on it. Maybe this is what Jack Dorsey meant when he wrote about Parag’s curiosity,” wrote Gangal.

Vijay Krishnan, CTO of the Silicon Valley-based, who graduated from IIT- B and Stanford University, said, “My first overlap with Parag at IIT-B was when we were in a geometric algorithms elective course. It was taught by a professor trying to solve the ‘P vs NP’ problem, which is one of the toughest open problems in Computer Science. Only students who did extremely well in other mathematics and algorithms classes at IIT would opt for it. I vividly remember that Parag seemed to easily understand the material while most others found it hard and would lean on him for questions and clarifications after the class.”

But one of the biggest challenges awaits Agrawal back in India, where Twitter is increasingly finds itself caught in the free speech vs censorship debate.

While tensions between the company and the government, which peaked earlier this year, have eased considerably, Agrawal’s appointment, say officials of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, is expected to douse the fire further.

“The ministry is much more than just about social media intermediaries or Internet regulation. We are hopeful that with this (appointment), things will be more positive in coming times,” said the official. Twitter India refused to comment on Agrawal’s appointment or his role in the company.

Like the current crop of Indian-American tech bosses — among them IBM Chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna; Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella; Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai; and Adobe Chairman, president and CEO Shantanu Narayen — Agrawal too will have to be “smart and clever in his meetings and dealings with the Indian government”, said an industry executive who has worked in the Silicon Valley.

However, as CEO of the company, Twitter’s India operations will only be a small part of what Agrawal surveys. He will be watched for how he steers the company and its policies while focusing on the company’s financial performance and technological innovations.

A big test will also be how he navigates hot-button issues — including “misinformation” on the platform — in a highly polarised political environment. Across the world, while some want Twitter to do more to address misinformation and hate speech on the platform, others have accused it of censorship.

Agrawal got a taste of what awaits him when, soon after his appointment as CEO, an old tweet of his was dug out by conservatives who accused him of racial bias.

A relatively more innocuous tweet of his is from 2018, when an employee of the platform had quoted him as saying, “For most problems you encounter someone else has encountered a similar problem and has probably built a solution that you can re-use, modify or be inspired by. So try to be lazy and make use of those solutions.”

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High current surges, if unchecked, cause heating of the wires and perhaps melting and consequent short-circuits and fire accidents

Researchers from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur have come up with an innovation that can help protect power grids against sudden, unexpected current surges. An innovative variation of the superconducting fault current limiter (SFCL), this smart SFCL not only shields the grid from large current surges and consequent fire accidents, it can also sense when the current surges will happen and warn the system about it.

Power grids need protection from sudden surges in the current (fault current) that arise due to short-circuits, sudden overdrawing of power or excess power generated due to a falling demand. These surges cause heating of the wires and perhaps melting and consequent short-circuits and fire accidents. Earlier this used to be controlled by using circuit breakers, which would cut off the current in the event of a surge. These suffered from the limitation that if the response time to the current surge was too large, they would fail to be effective. Also, once the circuit was broken to avert the accident, the switch had to be manually turned on once again, and this could lead to longer power cuts.

Using superconductors

In the last decade, mainly in developed countries, a new way to tackle this situation is being explored – using superconducting fault current limiters (SFCL).

This device uses a superconductor, which allows a dissipationless passage of current under normal circumstances, as it offers zero resistance to current flow in the superconducting state. However, if the current flowing through it increases beyond a threshold value, as during a fault, its resistance increases sharply. “The operation of a SFCL is very rapid and automatic. Once the fault current reduces and the current flow returns to below the threshold value, the resistance of the SFCL also automatically goes down to zero,” explains Satyajit Banerjee, Professor from the Department of Physics at IIT Kanpur and an expert on superconductivity.

Over a period of about three years, Prof. Banerjee and his PhD scholars have developed this “smart” SFCL device which deploys an array of Hall sensors around a basic SFCL. The array of Hall sensors placed around the SFCL constantly “measure and monitor as well as map” the current flowing inside the superconductor.

“This sensor circuitry we have incorporated also serves the purpose of monitoring the current flow in the SFCL, which, in turn can be used to detect the initial stages of the current surge during the appearance of a fault,” says Prof Banerjee. He further explains that this can help the detection of a fault situation even while it is developing and therefore, before the large surge fully sets in, one can take pre-emptive action to intentionally switch the SFCL into a high resistive state and limit the increase in fault current and also divert the excess current through a lower resistance path.

There is also another aspect of smartness to the device. All SFCLs are susceptible to internal thermal instabilities. The prototype they have developed is able to sense this too. This is an added advantage.

Lower cost

The imported SFCL devices cost around a million Euros. The prototype “smart” SFCL developed by Prof. Banerjee’s group cuts this cost by 50%-60%. However, he is not at the moment thinking of taking this to the industry. “Scaling up of these technologies cannot be a one man show… Such a thing can happen only with a match of efforts from the Industry and innovations by the academia. The future of the innovation is that it has to be implemented with current state-of-the-art developments in SFCLs to make them more powerful,” he opines.

Handling larger currents

Some interesting further innovations that his group is aiming for are in developing high temperature superconducting materials which have larger critical currents, as this will allow the SFCL to operate up to higher currents.

“Another important area in this direction is to use our sensor array to enhance its sensitivity further so that we can pinpoint the location of a instability developing in the superconductor in space and time and study its evolution,” says Prof. Banerjee. Though this is a challenging area and a “non-trivial task,” it is absolutely essential in order to develop more reliable, intelligent and efficient SFCLs.

Research led by York University has shown that a species of honey-producing bee called the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) most likely originated in Asia, settling the hotly debated topic for decades. Until recently, it was believed that these bees had originated in Africa.

The study (Science Advances) found that the western honey bees expanded independently from Asia into Africa and Europe creating seven separate geographically and genetically distinct evolutionary lineages traceable back to Western Asia, a York University release says.

The research team sequenced 251 genomes from 18 subspecies from the honey bee’s native range and reconstructed the origin and pattern of dispersal of honey bees. The team found that an Asian origin – likely Western Asia – was strongly supported by genetics.

The study highlights several “hot spots” in the bee genome that allowed honey bees to adapt to new geographic areas. While the bee genome has more than 12,000 genes, only 145 of them had repeated signatures of adaptation associated with the formation of all major honey bee lineages found today, the release says.

The sequencing of these bees also led to the discovery of two distinct lineages, one in Egypt and another in Madagascar.

The researchers hope their study finally lays to the rest the question of where the western honey bee came from so future research can further explore how they adapted to different climates and geographic areas.

The western honey bee is used for crop pollination and honey production throughout most of the world, and has a remarkable capacity for surviving in vastly different environments – from tropical rainforest, to arid environments, to temperate regions with cold winters. It is native to Africa, Europe and Asia.

The rare adverse effect can follow vaccination using chimpanzee adenovirus Y25, human adenovirus type 26, and human adenovirus type 5

A multi-institutional study published on December 1 in the journal Science Advances has revealed for the first time the mechanism responsible for blood clots arising from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) following vaccination with AstraZeneca vaccine. Thrombocytopenia syndrome causes low platelet count. A low number of platelets – blood cells that help prevent blood loss when vessels are damaged – can result in no symptoms or can lead to an increased risk of bleeding or, in some cases, clotting.

Rare adverse effect

Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome is a very rare serious adverse effect following vaccination using chimpanzee adenovirus Y25 (ChAdOx1), human adenovirus type 26 (HAdV-D26), and human adenovirus type 5 (HAdV-C5).

In June 2021, scientists from Germany and Norway reported that antibodies that activated the platelets, a blood component involved in clotting, were seen in young people who developed the clots after vaccination with AstraZeneca vaccine. But the precise mechanism behind it was not known then.

AstraZeneca vaccine and the Indian counterpart Covishield use the chimpanzee adenovirus Y25, while Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the human adenovirus type 26. The Sputnik vaccine uses both human adenovirus type 26 and human adenovirus type 5 as vectors to ferry the spike protein into certain cells. The researchers found that all three adenoviruses used in a few COVID-19 vaccines as vectors bind to platelet factor 4 (PF4). They found that adenoviruses form stable complexes with PF4.

Misplaced immunity

According to an Arizona University release, in very rare cases, the viral vector may enter the bloodstream and bind to PF4, where the immune system then views this complex as foreign. The scientists believe this misplaced immunity could result in the release of antibodies against PF4, which bind to and activate platelets, causing them to cluster together and triggering blood clots in a very small number of people after the vaccine is administered.

They used state-of-the-art computational simulations to demonstrate an electrostatic interaction mechanism between platelet factor 4 (PF4) and the viral vector used in the AstraZeneca vaccine. They determined the structure of the viral vector used in AstraZeneca vaccine to carry out the computational simulation. In addition, the researchers also confirmed it through in vitro studies involving cell-based experiments and surface plasmon resonance.

“Vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT) only happens in extremely rare cases because a chain of complex events needs to take place to trigger this ultra-rare side-effect. Our data confirms PF4 (platelet factor 4) can bind to adenoviruses, an important step in unravelling the mechanism underlying VITT. Establishing a mechanism could help to prevent and treat this disorder,” Dr. Alan Parker, an expert in the use of adenoviruses for medical applications from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, said in the release.

“We hope our findings can be used to better understand the rare side-effects of these new vaccines – and potentially to design new and improved vaccines to turn the tide on this global pandemic,” he added.

The scientists believe that the specific interaction between the fibre knob protein of the adenovirus and platelet factor 4 (PF4), and the manner the complex is presented to the immune system might prompt the immune system to see it as foreign and release of antibodies against this complex.

Electrostatics in action

One of the ways the fibre knob protein of the adenovirus and platelet factor 4 tightly bind is through electrostatic interactions. The group showed that the fibre knob protein is mostly electronegative across approximately 90% of its surface, interrupted in interhexon spaces, where the surface potential rises. On the other hand, the platelet factor 4 (PF4) has a strong electropositive surface potential. This makes the fibre knob protein attract other positively charged molecules, particularly the platelet factor 4 (PF4) to its surface.

They found that the human adenovirus type 26 (HAdV-D26) has an overall electronegative surface potential but less strong than chimpanzee adenovirus used in AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We demonstrate that this interaction is not specific to chimpanzee adenovirus Y25 (ChAdOx1) fibre knob protein and that platelet factor 4 forms interactions with Ad5 and Ad26 with similar affinity. We also observed that heparin reduces the ability of platelet factor 4 (PF4) to associate with chimpanzee adenovirus fibre knob protein,” they write.

The human adenovirus type 26 has also been implicated in TTS at a similar frequency to chimpanzee adenovirus Y25 (ChAdOx1) on a per dose basis. Using a previously published model of Ad26, the researchers performed simulations for ChAdOx1 and observed that platelet factor 4 (PF4) contacted Ad26 less frequently than ChAdOx1. But further studies are needed with Ad26 before reaching any conclusions, they note.

Using heparin

“Current clinical guidance from the World Health Organization advises against the use of heparin in the treatment of TTS. Although our data suggest that heparin may inhibit the proposed interaction between ChAdOx1 and PF4, it does not provide any insights as to the effect of heparin on patients after they develop symptoms or its behaviour in the wider biological context. Therefore, it is important to continue to adhere to current clinical guidance pending further studies on the role of heparin in TTS,” they write.

“With a better understanding of the mechanism by which PF4 and adenoviruses interact there is an opportunity to engineer the shell of the vaccine, the capsid, to prevent this interaction with PF4. Modifying ChAdOx1 to reduce the negative charge may reduce the chance of causing thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome,” Dr. Alexander T. Baker from Arizona University says in the release.

It was termed a VOC three days after genome sequence data was posted

On November 26, the World Health Organization designated the newly identified SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.529 with a whooping 32 mutations in the spike protein alone a variant of concern and named it ‘Omicron’, making it the 13th lineage to receive a Greek letter under its nomenclature system.

The Greek letter nomenclature of variants was introduced by the WHO in 2021 as a uniform system of naming variants of interest and concern. This nomenclature system unifies the different systems of nomenclature that have existed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These largely include the scientific names assigned by GISAID, the largest open-access global database of genome sequences and related data of SARS-CoV-2, Nextstrain, which provides a phylogenetic context of the genome sequences available in the public domain, and Pango, a network of researchers for dynamically identifying and naming lineages of SARS-CoV-2.

Bypassing stages

With the designation of Omicron as a variant under monitoring and further as a vaariant of concern (VOC) within a short span of two days, the WHO bypassed the stage of initially designating it as a variant of interest (VOI), which is a significant departure from the precedence followed for other variants of concern in the past.

For context, while the designation of Delta took about six weeks from the reporting of the lineage to the Pango network to the designation of the lineage as a VOC, Omicron was designated within a week of detection of the lineage (B.1.1.529). Delta, in contrast, was first designated a VOI in April this year and was further upgraded to a VOC on May 11, taking into consideration the emerging evidence on the transmissibility, epidemiological correlations from India as well as experimental evidence from across the globe. Omicron, in contrast, was designated as a variant under monitoring on November 24 and was classified as a VOC two days later.

The rapid pace at which WHO designated Omicron a VOC was a decision that did not come out of haste but was based on concrete scientific evidence which came early from Africa, although further efforts for evaluating the variant shall continue to gain more evidence. The timely detection of Omicron is predominantly attributable to the routine genome sequencing efforts of Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA), an elaborate genomic and epidemiological surveillance network in South Africa comprising over 10 laboratories and academic institutions having a rich experience of having dealt with previous waves of COVID-19, including the detection of the VOC Beta late in 2020. The wider reach of sequencing technologies and open-access databases including GISAID and NCBI, which make genome sequencing data publicly available for research and interpretation, has also created a near real-time system for data generation, data sharing and interpretation. Along with these factors, the prompt detection of Omicron and many more new lineages in recent months is also attributed to the large number of researchers who collaborate online and sift through emerging genome sequences of the virus and keep a constant lookout for clusters of interest.

Three factors

Typically, a variant is designated a VOC if it has evidence that supports one of the three possible factors – increase in transmissibility or a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation, or decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures including vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

The early evidence for Omicron suggested a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, along with possible increase in transmissibility and decreased effectiveness of vaccines. The detection of the variant epidemiologically coincided with an outbreak and a further uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in Gauteng, South Africa, which was previously affected by the Delta wave and was expected to have high community immunity. There were multiple instances of fully vaccinated cases, including where a booster dose had been received. This suggested that the variant poses a higher risk of reinfection and vaccination breakthrough.

In contrast with the previous VOCs, a significant corpus of datasets having functional annotations of mutations in the virus based on evidence gathered from in-depth experiments from across the world is now available to help gain a deeper understanding of mutations in the context of transmission, immune escape and impact on current diagnostic tools and therapeutics.

Of the 32 mutations identified in the Spike protein, a significant large number were associated with immune escape, cell entry as well as better binding to the human receptor proteins. Early structural analysis was also suggestive of better binding to the host receptors, which provided added confidence in the preliminary assessments. The early reports of a number of Omicron cases from different countries in Europe also suggested that the variant was indeed spreading fast. Apart from this, scientific evidence gathered, lessons learnt and wisdom gained while dealing with the previously designated VOCs – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta also helped in the assessment.

Convergence of evidence

The rapid designation of Omicron as a VOC is therefore the convergence of a number of factors, scientific evidence of all the above-mentioned factors. A cluster of genome sequencing originating from Botswana, South Africa, as well as a traveller from Hong Kong, all met the eyes of researchers in South Africa, which led to the designation of the cluster as the lineage B.1.1.529 by the Pango network.

While a part of the world prepares itself to combat the new variant with booster doses of vaccines and augmented healthcare preparedness, it is a grim reality that a large number in another part of the world are yet to receive their first dose of vaccine. The emergence of Omicron is thus a reminder that the virus will continue to evolve and prevail as long as a large part of the population lacks vaccines. The world should be reminded of the researchers in Africa, where under 7% of the population is currently vaccinated, who worked in not the best of infrastructure, funding and support systems that the world can offer, but have faithfully contributed to presenting with evidence that allows the world to be better prepared to handle the next wave.

It is thus a shame that the healthcare workers in Africa would have to grapple with an upcoming wave of infection without access to vaccines, therapeutics and support essential for combating the new variant. With the emergence of Omicron as a variant of concern, that we may lose many of our brave African frontline warriors, for want of vaccines to the very threat they helped alert the world should indeed be a concern.

(The authors are researchers at CSIR-IGIB, New Delhi.)

Along with Prof. Srivastava, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, the two other awardees are Adam Marcus and Daniel Spielman

Eminent Indian-American mathematician Nikhil Srivastava, has been jointly selected for the inaugural $5,000 Ciprian Foias Prize for the "highly original work" in Operator Theory by the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

Along with Prof. Srivastava, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, the two other awardees are Adam Marcus and Daniel Spielman.

Mr Marcus holds the Chair of Combinatorial Analysis at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Mr Spielman is Sterling Professor of Computer Science, a professor of statistics and data science, and a professor of mathematics.

The award recognises their "highly original work" that introduced and developed methods for understanding the characteristic polynomial of matrices, namely the iterative sparsification method (also in collaboration with Batson) and the method of interlacing polynomials, according to a media release.

"Together, these ideas provided a powerful toolkit with many applications, notably in the trio's breakthrough paper "Interlacing families II: mixed characteristic polynomials and the Kadison–Singer problem” (Annals of Mathematics, 2015), which solves the famous “paving problem'' in operator theory, formulated by Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer in 1959,” AMS said.

In a joint statement, the three awardees said they wish to accept it on behalf of the many people whose work contributed to the resolution of the Kadison–Singer problem.

"Our involvement was the final chapter of an amazing story we hope will inspire similar solutions to difficult problems in the future,” they said.

The prize will be presented to Professor Srivastava and his colleagues on January 5 next year at the 2022 Joint Mathematics Meeting in Seattle, described as "the largest mathematics gathering in the world."

The Ciprian Foias Prize is the third major prize won by Prof. Srivastava, who earlier jointly won the George Polya Prize in 2014, and the Held prize in 2021.

The prize was established in 2020 in memory of Ciprian Foias, an influential scholar in Operator Theory and fluid mechanics. The current prize amount is $5,000 and the prize is awarded every three years.

The closest relatives of the Chocolate-bordered Flitter are in southeastern China

When Sonam Wangchuk Lepcha, from Dzongu in north Sikkim, started watching butterflies and taking pictures of them, he was not taken very seriously by the people around him. But now his hobby has led to the discovery of a new butterfly species, whose closest relatives are in southeastern China, close to Hong Kong.

Since 2016, Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha has been in the habit of photographing butterflies and sending their pictures to entomologists based at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, to identify and upload them on to the ‘Butterflies of India’ website they maintain. In 2020, he contributed the picture of a golden yellow butterfly with brown borders and spots.

All the observations submitted to this website are reviewed by an expert panel, including Krushnamegh Kunte of the NCBS, who counts lepidoptera or butterflies as one of his main research interests. “While reviewing Sonam’s image, I realised that this was a species previously unknown in India and that, in fact, this may be a new species,” says Dr. Kunte.

His group requested Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha to get permission from the Sikkim Forest Department to study the butterfly, and they then examined it more thoroughly.

‘Chocolate-bordered Flitter’

The new species of butterfly, now named the Chocolate-bordered Flitter, also carries the scientific name Zographetus dzonguensis, after Dzongu in north Sikkim, the place where it was discovered. Its closest relatives are Zographetus pangi in Guangdong, and Zographetus hainanensis in Hainan, both in southeastern China, close to Hong Kong, says Dr. Kunte.

The physical appearance of the species differ slightly and the internal structures of the males also differ slightly. The details were published in a paper in Zootaxa on December 1.

“We have not done genetic studies yet but we hope to do them next year, once we are fully functional as the pandemic winds down,” Dr. Kunte adds.

Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha, an author of the paper, recalls that on May 5, 2016 as he was on the way to Namprickdang, he was struck by the number of different species of butterflies he observed and tried counting them — on that evening itself, he had counted 50 different species of butterfly in that region. Since then, he has photographed more than 350 different butterflies from the Dzongu region.

“I got to hear that Lepchas from Sikkim and Darjeeling were great butterfly catchers and good at naming them in our own language, but we have forgotten all the Lepcha names for butterflies now,” Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha said in a message to The Hindu. The common Lepcha name for butterflies is thamblyok.

Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha mentions a place of historical interest near Dzongu called Blykovoo, which means “the land of butterflies”.

Attesting to the rich butterfly population in Dzongu, Dr. Kunte says that he himself had rediscovered a lost species of butterfly there in 2008, not far from the region where Mr. Wangchuk Lepcha sighted the Chocolate-bordered Flitter. “That species was the Scarce Jester (Symbrenthia silana). It’s legally protected in India under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which also protects iconic animals such as the Asian elephant and snow leopard,” adds Dr. Kunte.

It's the first time a spacewalk has been canceled because of threat from space junk

NASA called off a spacewalk on Tuesday because of menacing space junk that could puncture an astronaut's suit or damage the International Space Station.

Two U.S. astronauts were set to replace a bad antenna outside of the space station. But late on Monday night, Mission Control learned that a piece of orbiting debris might come dangerously close. There wasn’t enough time to assess the threat so station managers delayed the spacewalk until Thursday.

It's the first time a spacewalk has been canceled because of threat from space junk.

The space station and its crew of seven have been at increased risk from space junk since Russia destroyed a satellite in a missile test two weeks ago.

Explained | Russian ASAT test and its implications

It wasn't immediately clear whether the object of concern was part of the Russian satellite wreckage. During a news conference on Monday, NASA officials said the November 15 missile test resulted in at least 1,700 satellite pieces big enough to track, and thousands more too small to be observed from the ground but still able to pierce a spacewalker's suit.

NASA officials said astronauts Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron faced a 7% greater risk of a spacewalk puncture because of the Russian-generated debris. But they said it was still within acceptable limits based on previous experience.

Mr. Marshburn and Ms. Barron arrived at the space station earlier this month.

As the world tunes in to watch the last solar eclipse of 2021, we catch up via email with the man working behind the scenes of Facebook's 'Solar Eclipse Chasers' group.

The Solar Eclipse Chasers group on Facebook has had a busy week. First, there were discussions about travel plans and the best spots to catch the December 4 solar eclipse. Then there were enthusiasts reminiscing and sharing photographs about their past eclipse-chasing experiences.

A couple of umbraphiles (people who love eclipses), who made it to Punta Arenas in Chile, took to the group to share exquisite photographs and offered to meet up with other enthusiasts in the area. Another group member shared photographs of the eclipse stamps issued by the Chilean postal company.

On the day of the eclipse, the online and on-location eclipse watchers convened together in the virtual space to debate the merits of NASA’s live feed vs that of Lindblad’s or share disappointing photographs of fog-covered Amundsen Bay in Antarctica (“Life of an eclipse chaser. Win some, lose some,” wrote a user in response).

When he started the group in 2010, UK-based Ian (who goes by his first name) envisioned it as a space where he can keep in touch with his travelling companions from Polynesia’s Easter Island. Over a decade later, the group has over 8,200 members and is a space for eclipse chasers to make plans and share information, experiences and photos. As the world tunes in to watch the last solar eclipse of 2021, we catch up via email with the man working behind the scenes.

How did you get interested in solar eclipses?

I saw my first total solar eclipse in the United Kingdom in 1999. However, the weather wasn’t kind that time. So on the summer solstice in 2001, I saw my second total eclipse in Madagascar. This time, the conditions were perfect and I was hooked. After this, I then decided that it was a nice way to travel because it means that you let the eclipse decide where you are going.

How did the idea to start a Facebook group come about?

I started the Facebook group to keep in contact with my travelling companions who I joined to view the Solar Eclipse on Easter Island in July 2010. We were a group of people who chased the eclipse to one of the most remote parts of the planet.

How has the group evolved over the years?

Through the years, people started joining and it naturally grew to be a global hub for interested people. A large number of people joined around the August 2017 solar eclipse. [The total solar eclipse was nicknamed the ‘Great American Eclipse’ because it was visible all along North America in a path spanning from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina].

Following that as well, there is a steady flow of posts and photos, and the group became too big for me to administer all by myself. So I nominated a handful of key members to help out and smoothen the admission process. Nowadays, you can find some of the most interesting eclipse conversations, trip planning and spectacular photography in this space.

Have you had member meetings in person?

For now, my interaction with the group is purely online. I enjoy the group experience, but I haven’t planned on meeting anyone from it in person. Maybe in the future I will.

What is your favourite eclipse-related experience?

The experience in Madagascar was important because it kicked off a new hobby and replaced my usual summer activity that year. I also fell in love with Madagascar. The 2010 eclipse was special too. Standing on a volcano on Easter Island and watching the shadow of the moon approach across the Pacific Ocean was a very special experience. I had wanted to visit Easter Island all my life, so it was a dream come true.

There is much that I love about eclipse watching. I love watching everyone get ready for the process, setting up complex cameras and anticipating the first contact. The wonderment of the eclipse can not be described and I hope that those who can’t catch one in person can enjoy the photos shared on the Facebook group.

Weather permitting, a view of the total solar eclipse from Union Glacier, Antarctica, will be streamed on NASA’s YouTube channel and on

The only total solar eclipse of 2021 will take place today and if you can travel to Antarctica, you may be able to witness the celestial event. Sky gazers in the southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand can see partial phases of the eclipse. The December 4 eclipse will not be visible from India.

Here is a timetable of the December 4 eclipse, according to (All times local)

LocationPartial eclipse beginsMaximum eclipsePartial eclipse ends% of sun covered
Emperor Point, Antarctica3:42 am4:35 am5:28 am100%
Palmer Station, Antarctica3:34 am4:23 am5:12 am94%
Cabo Kempe, Argentinabelow the horizon4:42 am4:59 am25%
Cape Town, South Africa7:42 am8:19 am8:58 am12%

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes in between the Sun and the Earth. Though the Sun is approximately 400 times larger than the moon, it is also 400 times further away. As such, the Sun and moon look similar in disk size and the latter covers the Sun causing the eclipse.

This total solar eclipse comes two weeks after the partial lunar eclipse of November 19.

Live Stream

Weather permitting, a view of the total solar eclipse from Union Glacier, Antarctica, will be streamed on NASA’s YouTube channel and on

The live stream starts at 1:30 am EST. (12:00 pm IST)
Totality begins at 2:44 am EST. (01:14 pm IST)
The stream ends at 3:37 am EST. (02:07 pm IST)

Eye safety during a total solar eclipse
*Do not look directly at the sun – even if the sun is partly covered.
*Wear special eclipse glasses at all times
*Use alternate indirect methods to see the sun such as pinhole box and projection method
*You can view the eclipse via a telescope with a solar filter or solar telescopes.

The study showed blastoids reliably replicated key phases of early embryo development.

Scientists are using human stem cells to create a structure that mimics a pre-embryo and can serve as a research alternative to a real one.

They say these “blastoids” provide an efficient, ethical way to study human development and pursue biomedical discoveries in fertility and contraception.

The latest effort was detailed Thursday in the journal Nature. The structures aren’t embryos, but scientists nevertheless didn’t let them grow past two weeks in deference to longstanding ethical guidelines.

A blastoid is a model for a blastocyst, a ball of cells that form within a week of fertilization and are about the width of a hair. Nicolas Rivron, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of the Nature paper, said the models are “a fantastic alternative” to human embryos for research, partly because donated embryos are hard to obtain and manipulate in the lab.

“It is extremely difficult to use such human embryos to discover any molecules, genes, principles that might allow us to better understand development and also make biomedical discoveries,” Rivron said.

But lab-created stand-ins can be made, altered and studied in big numbers, and would complement embryonic research, he said.

“This unleashes the potential for scientific and biomedical discoveries,” he said. For example, what researchers learn studying blastoids could be used to develop contraceptives that don’t include hormones.

It’s not the first time scientists have created a human blastoid, noted Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, an expert in stem cell biology at the University of Cambridge who wasn’t involved in the latest study. But “every single step is significant,” improving efficiency as researchers try to master the model, she said.

To create the blastoids, Rivron and his colleagues used two different types of stem cells: either embryonic stem cells from previously established cell lines or stem cells reprogrammed from adult cells, such as skin cells. No new embryonic cell lines were made for the research.

In the future, the stem cells reprogrammed from adult cells are likely to become the new standard in research, he said, but established embryonic cell lines are necessary now because they “are still the ultimate reference.” He said blastocysts were cultured separately to compare them side-by-side with lab-created structures.

The study showed blastoids reliably replicated key phases of early embryo development. When they were placed in contact with cells from the lining of the uterus that had been stimulated with hormones, about half attached and started to grow in the same way blastocysts would.

Rivron said researchers stopped their growth after 13 days and analyzed the cells. At that point, he said, the collection of cells didn’t reflect a 13-day-old embryo; they weren’t growing enough or organizing as well.

He said ethical concerns also came into play: For decades, a “14-day rule” on growing embryos in the lab has guided researchers. Earlier this year, the International Society for Stem Cell Research recommended relaxing the rule under limited circumstances.

Rivron, part of the working group that updated the society’s guidelines, said blastoids aren’t subject to the same rule, but he pointed out the guidelines say they should never be transferred into an animal or human.

“It is very clear that blastoids are not embryos…and if they are not, then why would we apply the 14-days rule to these structures?” he said. Nevertheless, they decided to stop “for the sake of transparency and for making sure things are very well understood by the public.”

Dr. Barbara Golder, editor-in-chief of The Linacre Quarterly, the journal of the Catholic Medical Association, said the development of blastoids shows “how science goes forward.” But, she said, it’s problematic that embryonic cell lines remain the standard in science.

“The ethical problems will exist as long as there’s a connection to the stem cells that are derived from an aborted fetus and as long as we have to correlate one set of stem cell lines against ones that are embryonic stem-cell derived,” she said.

GJ 367b orbits its star once every 7.7 hours, placing it in a category of "ultra-short period" exoplanets that travel around their home stars in less than 24 hours.

Scientists have spotted one of the smallest planets ever discovered outside our solar system, a scorching-hot world a bit larger than Mars and just about as dense as pure iron zooming around its home star every eight hours.

The researchers said on Thursday they managed to detect the planet, located a relatively close 31 light years from Earth, and discern some of its important traits, illustrating the improvements in recent years in the ability to characterize smaller-sized planets beyond our solar system.

Scientists are eager to find exoplanets, as these alien worlds are known, that might harbor life. The newly discovered one, called GJ 367b, certainly could not, possessing ferocious surface temperatures and perhaps a molten lava surface on the side facing its star, they said. But other small exoplanets found and studied using the same methods might emerge as good candidates for nurturing extraterrestrial life.

A quarter century after the first exoplanet discoveries, scientists have turned toward characterizing them more precisely to gain a deeper understanding of their variety, from large gas giants akin to Jupiter to smaller rocky Earth-like planets where life might thrive.

“Gas giants such as Jupiter, as we know it, are not habitable because they have more extreme temperatures, weather, pressures and a lack of essential building blocks to support life,” said astronomer Kristine Lam of the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

“Unlike gas giants, small terrestrial worlds like Earth are more temperate and consist of important ingredients, such as liquid water and oxygen, to harbor life forms. Although not all terrestrial exoplanets are habitable, searching for smaller worlds and identifying the type of planets they are can help us understand how planets were formed, what makes a planet habitable and if our solar system is unique,” Lam added.

GJ 367b is the smallest exoplanet to be so precisely characterized. It has a diameter of about 9,000 km – compared to Earth’s 12,700 km and the 6,800 km of Mars. Its mass is 55% that of Earth and it is more dense – near that of pure iron.

The researchers calculated that 86% of GJ 367b is composed of iron, with an interior structure resembling Mercury, the closest planet to our sun. They are wondering whether the planet lost an outer mantle that once encased its core.

“Perhaps like Mercury, GJ 367b could have experienced an episode of giant impact which stripped away the mantle, leaving behind a large iron core. Or maybe the exoplanet is a remnant of a Neptune or super-Earth sized gaseous planet, where the atmosphere of the planet has completely blown away as the planet is blasted by a large amount of radiation from the star,” Lam said.

It orbits very close to a red dwarf star that is smaller, cooler and less luminous than our sun – more than 99% closer than Earth’s distance to the sun, according to astronomer and study co-author Szilard Csizmadia, also of the DLR’s Institute of Planetary Research.

GJ 367b orbits its star once every 7.7 hours, placing it in a category of “ultra-short period” exoplanets that travel around their home stars in less than 24 hours.

One side of GJ 367b probably faces its star at all times, with surface temperatures up to about 1,500 degrees Celsius. “This temperature is high enough to evaporate any atmosphere that GJ 367b might have had in the past, as well as melting any silicate rocks and metallic iron on the planet,” Lam said.

The Ganges river delta is a good example of a system where a combination of migration-enhancing and migration-dampening factors balance each other out.

In order to understand how their course may change in future, a new study has examined 48 river delta systems across the world from a variety of climatic and socioeconomic contexts.

As river deltas sustain the economies of millions of people, it becomes necessary to document the changes delta systems have undergone in the recent past. This data can help governments manage population density and plan future city development.

The researchers identified four aspects that determine the movement and migration of river delta systems:
*the interplay between the effects of rivers, tides, and waves
*the amount of sediment that the channel carries (aka sediment flux)
*the frequency and magnitude of floods that occur
*the average size of the channel.

Also, high tides increase the input of the saline seawater in the delta and interact with the river discharge. The researchers hypothesised that increases in the sediment flux will cause greater changes in the delta channel and, thereby, cause it to migrate more.

The study found that all deltas exhibiting large migration rates, in excess of three metres per year, are dominated by river action rather than tides.

During high tides, there is increased input of seawater in the delta and the sediment that has already flowed out of the channel is pushed back into the delta, ‘acting as a stabilising force’. However, there are deltas that have a low migration rate but are dominated by river discharge.

What would explain this anomaly?

The reason could lie in the sediment being transported by the river (fluvial sediment flux), the study argues. Merely because the delta is river-dominated and has a significant tendency to change its channel does not necessarily mean it will do so, the paper cautions.

Sediment flux is a key driver for channel migration, as the course of the water naturally changes when sediment gets deposited/discharged at the mouth of the delta.

An oft-overlooked, but obvious factor is the biome classification. River deltas in frigid zones of the Earth will naturally have permafrost balance out all ingredients for a high migration rate.
The combined effects of all these factors, especially flood forcing, were also considered. The juxtaposition of all these shows that when there is high sediment flux, high flood frequency, and high degrees of river forcing, the systems have the highest rates of channel migration.

The Godavari river, India, and the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas in China are prime examples. At the other end of the spectrum are deltas with low flood frequency, low sediment flux, and even low river forcing. They naturally tend to have lower rates of channel migration; examples include the Vistula, Poland; Ebro, Spain; Rhine, Germany and Tone, Japan.

The Ganges river delta is a good example of a system where a combination of migration-enhancing and migration-dampening factors balance each other out. The river has a large volume, large levels of sediment flux, and high flood frequency; but, experiences almost fifty percent tidal forcing, acting as a stabiliser.

Since many of these delta systems sustain human economies, what role would human activities play?

It is natural that humans would like to encumber the natural ‘baseline’ migration patterns of a river delta in order to protect adjacent infrastructure. The Mississippi River delta exemplifies this. It has all the ingredients for a high migration rate: strong river forcing, high flood frequency, high sediment flux, and yet has a median migration rate of less than a meter per year, thanks to an intricate system of man-made levees.

This might not necessarily be a good thing for the delta system, however.

In a contemporary study on the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system titled ‘Stable ≠ Sustainable’, published this year, the team argued that the inherent mobility of the delta system is key to its sustainability.

This, they admit, can nonetheless be either mischaracterised by human communities as ‘degradation’ or simply detrimental to long-term economies. In fact, this may just be a reflection of the delta’s normal life.

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

One of the most visible examples of global warming’s seabird toll was the die-off of tens of thousands of common murres along the West Coast in the mid-2010s.

The warming of the planet is taking a deadly toll on seabirds that are suffering population declines from starvation, inability to reproduce, heat waves and extreme weather.

Climate-related losses have hit albatrosses off the Hawaiian islands, northern gannets near the British Isles and puffins off the Maine coast. Some birds are less able to build nests and raise young as sea levels rise, while others are unable to find fish to eat as the ocean heats up, researchers have found.

Common murres and Cassin’s auklets that live off the West Coast have also died in large numbers from conditions scientists directly tied to global warming.

With less food, rising seas that encroach on islands where birds roost and increasingly frequent hurricanes that wipe away nests, many seabirds have been producing fewer chicks, researchers say.

And tern species that live off New England have died during increasing rain and hailstorms scientists link to climate change. Some species, including endangered roseate terns, also can’t fledge chicks because more frequent severe weather kills their young, said Linda Welch, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The warming world is increasingly inhospitable to many seabirds, Welch said. “In the last couple years, they’ve experienced widespread nesting failure,” she said. “I definitely think there’s large ramifications of what we’re seeing.”

It’s difficult to precisely determine the population loss to wide-ranging seabirds and how much is attributable to climate change. But one estimate by researchers from University of British Columbia stated that seabird populations have fallen 70 per cent since the mid-20th century.

Reproductive success also decreased over the last half century for fish-eating seabirds, especially those that live north of the equator, according to a study earlier this year in the journal Science.

Researchers from the University of Washington and other institutions who studied dozens of worldwide seabird species found some were having success breeding at only 10 per cent of historical levels. They also found that in the southern hemisphere, difficulty finding fish has prevented species such as the Magellanic penguin from successfully feeding chicks.

Worldwide, seabirds are in jeopardy largely because of warming ocean temperatures, scientists say. Over the past five decades, more than 90 per cent of the extra heat on the planet from global warming has been absorbed by the ocean, according to US government scientists.

Warming seas, coupled with die-off events that kill thousands of birds by starvation, are making it harder for some species to maintain stable populations, said P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington biology professor and an author of the Science study.

The seabirds, such as penguins that have declined by nearly three-quarters in South Africa since 1991, are a harbinger of what will happen to wildlife with global warming, Boersma said. “These ecosystem sentinels are important because they’re not only enjoyable for us to be able to see them, but they’re important as a signal that we’ve gone too far,” she said.

One of the most serious threats to seabirds is a reduction of plankton and small fish in cold northern waters. Forage fish and plankton loss has led to mass die-offs of birds such as the Cassin’s auklets that washed up by the tens of thousands on the Pacific Coast in recent years.

One of the most visible examples of global warming’s seabird toll was the die-off of tens of thousands of common murres along the West Coast in the mid-2010s. Nearly 8,000 dead birds washed up on a single beach near Chugach National Forest in Alaska.

Scientists later determined that warming waters deprived the birds of the abundant sardines and anchovies they gorge on, and the birds starved. The deaths came amid a marine heat wave known as “the blob.”

Thousands of miles away in the North Sea, a similar problem has forced northern gannets to search farther away for food, leaving chicks unattended and vulnerable to predators, University of Leeds researchers have found.

Rising sea levels are another concern. Albatross colonies in the central Pacific and Hawaiian islands depend on low-lying areas that face inundation and bigger storms, said Don Lyons, director of conservation science at Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute.

“People are really concerned about a couple decades out,” Lyons said.

Maine’s iconic seabird, the Atlantic puffin, suffered one of their worst years for reproduction in decades this summer due to a decline in the availability of the small fish they eat.

The Gulf of Maine, where puffins nest on tiny islands, is warming faster than most of the world’s oceans, and that has cut into forage fish populations, scientists say. Poor reproduction, which has persisted for several years among the puffins, is a “severe warning” about the future of the seabirds, Lyons said.

“Seabirds are one of the most visible indicators of the health of our oceans,” said Shaye Wolf climate science director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “These escalations of seabird die offs are big red flags that the rising temperature of the ocean is wreaking havoc.”

The trio of awards are emblematic of the US space agency's efforts to tap private companies to enable an American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.

NASA announced on Thursday it has awarded $415.6 million to billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, stalwart contractor Northrop Grumman Corp and venture-backed Nanoracks to develop privately-owned and operated commercial space stations.

The trio of awards are emblematic of the US space agency’s efforts to tap private companies to enable an American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit (LEO) as the iconic International Space Station potentially retires at the end of the decade.

NASA awarded $130 million to Blue Origin to help develop its Orbital Reef space station, unveiled some five weeks ago, in partnership with Sierra Space and Boeing Co. Blue aims to launch the spacecraft in the second half of this decade.

Blue Origin sees Orbital Reef as a hub for commercial industries such as manufacturing, entertainment, sports, gaming and adventure travel. It’s also aimed to be a home for crewed and cargo missions by Boeing’s Starliner capsule and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane.

“No one knows how commercial LEO markets will develop, but we intend to find out,” Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin, said in a statement.

Houston-based Nanoracks won the largest award, at $160 million, for the Starlab space station it is building with Lockheed Martin Corp and Voyager Space. With operations set to begin in 2027, Starlab will feature a large inflatable habitat, a metallic docking node, a robotic arm for cargo and payloads and a research laboratory.

“This opportunity opens far-reaching possibilities for critical research and commercial industrial activity in LEO,” Nanoracks Chief Executive Amela Wilson said.

NASA also awarded $125.6 million to defense and space contractor Northrop Grumman Corporation. “Our station will enable … sustainable commercial-based missions where NASA does not bear all the costs, but serves as one of many customers,” said Northrop Grumman vice president for civil and commercial space Steve Krein.

Ajay Talwar, an astrophotographer and Vice President of the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi shares his tips on how to capture a total solar eclipse.

On December 4, a total solar eclipse, the last of the year, will be visible from Antarctica. The southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand can also see partial phases of the eclipse but it won’t be visible from India.

Meanwhile, Ajay Talwar, an astrophotographer and Vice President of the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi in an interview with shared tips on how to capture a total solar eclipse.

On October 24, 1995, he shot his first total solar eclipse from Barkakana in Jharkhand and in 2006, he travelled to Turkey to capture it again. On August 21, 2017, he was in Idaho, US to take a snap of the total solar eclipse dubbed the ‘Great American Eclipse.’

Is there an ideal focal length to capture the solar eclipse?

If you want to click a photo of the Sun with good details, then the focal length of the lens or the telescope should be more than 1,000 mm. During a total solar eclipse, the action is not on the Sun but around the Sun. The sun is covered and you can see the Corona or the Sun’s atmosphere which can extend up to two or four solar radii. The question is till where do you want to actually capture the Corona. If you want to capture the innermost Corona, you need a focal length of 1,000 mm. If you want to progressively capture the outer parts of the Corona, you can go lower to 800 mm, 500 mm or even down to 200 mm.

What is the ideal range of exposure?

The human eye can see Corona from the brightest to the dimmest. But the camera is not able to capture all of this brightness range because the equipment’s dynamic range is limited, compared to the human eye. So all exposure settings are good to capture a total solar eclipse.

With less exposure, the inner Corona will be properly exposed and if given more exposure, the outer or outermost Corona will be properly captured. Astrophotographers use a range of exposures starting from 1/100th of a second depending on their focal length.

The secret to good astrophotography is planning and preparation. What are your planning tips?

I arrive at the exact location about three days before the eclipse and carry out a full rehearsal. For the June 21, 2020 eclipse, my wife and I traveled across Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan before finally picking a small resort in Sirsa as the perfect spot to shoot the Annular Solar Eclipse.

We usually programme all our exposures beforehand. All the equipment are controlled by a computer, even our cameras. At what exposures the photo should be taken and at what particular time, down to a second, are all programmed.

The most important thing is you should watch this grand spectacle with your eyes and if you are busy photographing, you might not be able to experience it. So we automate all our cameras and immerse ourselves in the view.

The study determined that the various Laetoli tracks were created by two different hominin species.

Five fossil footprints left in volcanic ash 3.66 million years ago in Tanzania are giving scientists new insight on a landmark in human evolution – upright walking -while showing that its origins are more complicated than previously known.

Researchers said on Wednesday a thorough new examination of the tracks, nearly half a century after their initial discovery, has shown that they were made not by a bear, as once believed, but by a hominin – in other words, a species in the human lineage – and possibly a previously unknown one. They display a curious gait, adding to the mystery.

Bipedalism – walking on two feet – is a hallmark of humankind, but scientists are still putting together the puzzle pieces on how and when it began.

The trackway was found in 1976 at a site called Laetoli – a stark landscape northwest of the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania – about a mile (1.6 km) from two sets of fossil footprints found two years later. Those found in 1978 have been attributed to Australopithecus afarensis, a hominin exemplified by the famous skeleton discovered in Ethiopia dubbed ‘Lucy.’ A trackway of five fossilised footprints dating from 3.66 million years ago, attributed in a new study in the journal Nature to a species in the human evolutionary lineage, is seen in this handout photograph taken at a site called Laetoli in northern Tanzania June 25, 2019 alongside a topographic depiction of the footprints highlighting their depth. (Handout via REUTERS)

The study determined that the various Laetoli tracks – made within days, hours or possibly minutes of one another in the same ash layer – were created by two different hominin species.

Paleoanthropologist Ellie McNutt of Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature, noted that the Laetoli trackways represent the oldest unequivocal evidence of bipedal locomotion in the human fossil record.

“There were at least two hominins walking in different ways on differently shaped feet at this time in our evolutionary history, showing that the acquisition of human-like walking was less linear than many imagine,” said Dartmouth College paleoanthropologist and study co-author Jeremy DeSilva. “In other words, throughout our history, there were different evolutionary experiments in how to be a biped.”

The footprints found in 1976 and re-excavated in 2019 bore different traits than those found in 1978, in particular a gait called cross-stepping.

“The trackway consists of five consecutive bipedal footprints. But the left foot is crossing over the right, and vice versa. We aren’t sure what this means yet,” DeSilva said. “Cross-stepping sometimes occurs in humans when we are walking on uneven ground. Perhaps that explains this odd gait. Or perhaps just this individual hominin walked in a peculiar manner. Or maybe an unknown species of hominin was adapted to walk in this way,” DeSilva added.

Based on the footprints, the researchers estimate that the individual that made them was only a bit taller than 3 feet (1 meter), walked with a prominent heel strike, and had a big toe that stuck out to the side slightly, though not as much as in a chimpanzee.

DeSilva said scientists can only speculate about other aspects of this hominin’s appearance and behavior and whether it was one already identified – such as Kenyanthropus platyops or Australopithecus deyiremeda – or a previously unknown one. The human lineage diverged from the chimpanzee lineage about 6 million to 7 million years ago.

A key moment came when our ancestors adopted erect walking on two feet, perhaps adapting to life on the African savanna. Bipedalism required anatomical changes, particularly in the feet, legs, hips and spine, that evolved long before our species, Homo sapiens, appeared more than 300,000 years ago.

The Laetoli site is a grassland, with acacia trees dotting the landscape and giraffes and zebras plentiful. When the footprints were made, it was a hazardous neighborhood for a little hominin, with ancestors of modern hyenas, lions, and leopards, as well as now-extinct saber-toothed cats, on the prowl. “Ancestors of a lot of the same animals that live there now lived at Laetoli millions of years ago including, of course, humans,” DeSilva said.

The animal, which they named Stegouros elengassen, offers new clues about where these tank-like dinosaurs came from — and features a bizarre, bony tail shaped like a club that was wielded by Aztec warriors.

Written by Asher Elbein

It’s not every day you find a dinosaur that defended itself from predators with a completely unique weapon.

In a study published Wednesday in Nature, Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a new species of ankylosaur, a family of dinosaurs known for their heavy armor, from subantarctic Chile. The animal, which they named Stegouros elengassen, offers new clues about where these tank-like dinosaurs came from — and features a bizarre, bony tail shaped like a club that was wielded by Aztec warriors.

“It’s lacking most of the traits we’d expect from an ankylosaur and has a completely different tail weapon which shows there’s something very idiosyncratic happening here in South America,” said Alexander Vargas, a professor at the University of Chile and a co-author on the study.

A diverse collection of ankylosaurs once roamed in great numbers across Laurasia — the northern supercontinent that once contained North America and Asia. Even in a group of animals famous for its inventive approach to defense, the ankylosaur family stands out. Splitting from their closest relatives, the stegosaurs, in the mid-Jurassic, ankylosaurs developed hides covered in bone deposits called osteoderms, which formed lattices of tooth-breaking armor. The most famous species of ankylosaur evolved shin-shattering tail clubs like the maces of ancient warriors.

But their relatives from the southern continent of Gondwana — now South America and Antarctica — are less well studied, Vargas said. Since these are believed to include the earliest members of the group, the origins and early evolution of the family has been an enduring mystery.

In February 2018, a team of paleontologists from the University of Texas stumbled across a set of bones in the frigid, wind-blasted valley of Río Las Chinas, in the far south of Chile. Despite its forbidding nature, the site is a beacon for paleontologists: Vargas has spent the past decade working there with researchers including Marcelo Leppe from the Chilean Antarctic Institute, dating rocks and looking for fossil hot spots.

There were only five days left in the field season when the Texas paleontologists alerted Vargas and Leppe to the find. Working at night under very cold conditions, they hauled the block of fossils downhill to the campsite. One person sprained an ankle and another broke a rib. Many people came close to hypothermia.

But what came out of the block was worth it. Preparation revealed an unusually complete ankylosaur: 80 per cent of a skeleton, including a largely articulated back half, as well as vertebrae, shoulders, forelimbs and scraps of skull.

In life, Stegouros would have been about 6 feet long, with a proportionally large head, slender limbs and a strange short tail, tipped with seven pairs of flattened, bony osteoderms that form a single structure.

That tail weapon — which Vargas compared to a macuahuitl, the obsidian-studded bladed club of Mesoamerican warriors — seems to have evolved independently of other ankylosaurs. Early ankylosaurs from the north have no tail clubs, and later ones developed them through the evolution of stiffened vertebrae, forming the “handle” of the blunt tail club.

But the tail club of Stegouros is stiffened through osteoderms fusing over the vertebrae, forming the distinctive wedged shape. The fused osteoderms may have been covered in sharp sheaths of keratin, the material that covers horns and claws, said James Kirkland, state paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey who was not involved in the study. A blow from the tail would have been like being “whacked in the shins by a battle ax,” he said.

Victoria Arbour, paleontology curator at Canada’s Royal British Columbia Museum, said the tail resembled those of giant extinct armadillos called glyptodonts.

“It’s another interesting example of the evolution of bony tail weapons, which have only evolved a couple of times ever but seem to have evolved multiple times in ankylosaurs,” she said.

By crunching anatomical data, Vargas and his colleagues concluded that Stegouros was closely related to southern ankylosaurs found in Antarctica and Australia.

After the final separation of Laurasia and Gondwana in the late Jurassic, Vargas said, the two northern and southern ankylosaurs pursued different evolutionary trajectories, suggesting the possibility that an entire lineage of strange ankylosaurs in Gondwana are waiting to be discovered.

Kirkland agrees that Stegouros is closely related to Antarctica’s Antarctopelta, and suggests it may even be the same animal. But it’s possible that Gondwana hosted multiple lineages of ankylosaur, including some more closely related to northern animals.

“It’s not often that a new ‘family’ of dinosaurs is discovered,” Kirkland said. “The record of armored dinosaurs in the Southern Hemisphere has been pretty poor, and this beast hints at what we have been missing.”

Stegouros also represents a breakthrough for Chilean paleontology, Vargas said. Paleontologists are discussing and debating how to make their field less dependent on North American and European institutions. The paper, led by Chilean paleontologists and published in Nature, a top journal, was funded by Chilean grants rather than outside institutions.

“This is very rare for Chilean science,” Vargas said. “And it’s just the beginning. In terms of academic achievement, the fossil record of Chile is tremendously important.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

An anti-satellite missile test conducted without warning by Russia generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit, forcing the seven ISS crew members to take shelter in their docked spaceships.

Two NASA astronauts were set to embark on a spacewalk on Thursday to replace a faulty antenna on the International Space Station (ISS), after a 48-hour delay prompted by an orbital debris alert later deemed to be of no concern.

NASA TV planned live coverage of the 6-1/2-hour spacewalk, scheduled to begin at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time (1740 IST) as astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron exit an airlock of the orbiting research lab some 402 km above Earth.

The outing is the fifth spacewalk for Marshburn, 61, a medical doctor and former flight surgeon with two previous trips to orbit, and a first for Barron, 34, a U.S. Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer on her debut spaceflight for NASA.

Their objective is to remove a defective S-band radio communications antenna assembly, now more than 20 years old, and replace it with a spare stowed outside the space station.

The space station is equipped with other antennae that can perform the same functions, but installing a replacement system ensures an ideal level of communications redundancy, NASA said.

Marshburn will work with Barron while positioned at the end of a robotic arm maneuvered from inside by German astronaut Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency, with help from NASA crewmate Raja Chari. The four arrived at the space station November 11 in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, joining two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, already aboard the orbiting outpost.

Four days later, an anti-satellite missile test conducted without warning by Russia generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit, forcing the seven ISS crew members to take shelter in their docked spaceships to allow for a quick getaway until the immediate danger passed, NASA said.

The residual cloud of debris from the blasted satellite has dispersed since then, according to Dana Weigel, NASA deputy manager of the ISS program. But NASA calculates that remaining fragments continue to pose a “slightly elevated” background risk to the space station as a whole, and a 7 per cent higher risk of puncturing spacewalkers’ suits, as compared to before Russia’s missile test, Weigel told reporters on Monday.

Nevertheless, NASA determined those risk levels, while heightened, fell within tolerable boundaries and moved ahead with preparations to conduct the spacewalk as originally planned on Tuesday. Hours before the operation was to begin, NASA received an alert from US military space trackers warning of a newly detected debris-collision threat, prompting mission control to delay the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) mission.

On Tuesday afternoon, NASA said its evaluation concluded the debris in question – its origin left unclear – posed no risk to spacewalkers or the station after all, and the antenna replacement was rescheduled for Thursday morning.

Thursday’s exercise marks the 245th spacewalk in support of assembly and upkeep of the space station, which this month surpassed 21 years of continuous human presence, NASA said. A NASA spokesman, Gary Jordan, said this week’s spacewalk postponement was believed to be the station’s first ever caused by a debris alert.

Environmental degradation has exacerbated the drought’s effects. Sandstorms fueled by deforestation have ruined cropland and pastures. An outbreak of locusts threatens further destruction.

Written by Raymond Zhong

Back-to-back years of little precipitation in the Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar have ruined harvests and caused hundreds of thousands of people to face uncertainty about their next meals. Aid groups say the situation there is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe.

But human-induced climate change does not appear to be the driving cause, a team of climate scientists said on Wednesday.

Rainfall in the hard-hit south of Madagascar naturally fluctuates quite a lot, the researchers said, and they did not find that a warming climate was making prolonged droughts significantly more likely.

Even so, they emphasised the island should still aim to bolster its ability to cope with dry spells. Scientists convened by the United Nations have determined that droughts in Madagascar as a whole will likely increase if global average temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius — a higher level of warming than the 1.2 degrees that was considered in the new analysis.

Average global temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. Scientists have said that nations need to try to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the threshold beyond which they say the likelihood of catastrophic fires, floods, drought, heat waves and other disasters significantly increases. Current policies put the planet on pace for roughly 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

“What it shows is that the current climate variability is already resulting in severe humanitarian suffering,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center and one of the 20 scientists involved in the Madagascar study. “In these sorts of places, anything that climate change would make worse would become a really big additional problem really quickly.”

Madagascar, a large island off Africa’s eastern coast, is known for its sandy beaches, emerald waters and ring-tailed lemurs. But low rainfall since 2019 in the nation’s southwestern end — which is known as Le Grand Sud, or the Deep South — has left that part of the island in a dire state.

More than 1.3 million people, or nearly half the Grand Sud’s population, are experiencing high levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Half a million children under the age of 5 are at risk of severe malnutrition.

The climate researchers estimated that such a long dry spell had a 1-in-135 chance of occurring in any given year in that part of Madagascar.

Environmental degradation has exacerbated the drought’s effects. Sandstorms fueled by deforestation have ruined cropland and pastures. An outbreak of locusts threatens further destruction.

Residents of the Grand Sud have been forced to eat grass, leaves and even clay to survive, the United Nations World Food Program has found. Children have quit school to help their families forage for food. Amnesty International has collected testimonies suggesting that some people have died of hunger.

The analysis of the drought was conducted by an international scientific collaboration called the World Weather Attribution initiative, which specialises in pinpointing the links between climate change and individual weather events. The group performs such analyses with a speed that is unusual in the scientific publishing world: It aims to present sound science to the public while events are still fresh in people’s minds.

The team’s Madagascar study has not been peer reviewed, though it relies on peer-reviewed methods. Essentially, the approach is to use computer simulations to compare the existing world, in which humans have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to a hypothetical one without that activity.

It may seem counterintuitive that global warming does not contribute to a clear increase in the likelihood of drought. Scientists have found, however, that the relationship is not so simple. Climate change generally causes more intense rain events, but it also shifts rainfall patterns.

“Drought has so many dimensions,” van Aalst said. “It’s not as straightforward as just, how much average annual rainfall do you get? The question is also, do you get it nicely distributed, or do you just get it in massive amounts at once? Do you get it in the right seasons?”

“We have to be a bit careful,” he added, “drawing too straight a line from purely our precipitation observations or projections to what people in the end suffer from.”

World Weather Attribution has linked other extreme weather events to human-caused climate change in recent years. The group found that this summer’s extraordinary heat wave in the Pacific Northwest almost certainly would not have occurred without it.

For climate scientists, “droughts are a combination of factors that’s much more difficult to deal with” than, say, heat waves, said Piotr Wolski of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“We have this predominant narrative these days that droughts are driven largely by anthropogenic climate change,” said Wolski, who also worked on the Madagascar study. “It’s not a bad narrative, because they are — it’s just not everywhere and not in every single case.”

In Madagascar, livelihoods are easily destabilised by wild swings in precipitation, said Daniel Osgood, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University who was not involved in the study.

Osgood is working on a project to provide affordable drought insurance to growers in Madagascar. The goal is to help them become more resilient to the economic shocks that weather can bring about. “It’s not how much you eat on average,” he said. “It’s how much you eat every night that really makes a difference.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

The ornament was found at the Stajnia Cave in Poland and radiocarbon dating revealed its age.

A study by an international team of researchers has now reported the oldest known ivory pendant from Eurasia. The ornament was found at the Stajnia Cave in Poland and radiocarbon dating revealed that it was 41,500 years old.

The Stajnia Cave is a natural shelter and the site has been studied since 2006. During the excavations, a series of Neanderthal remains — animal bones and other artefacts — have been discovered. The findings were published last week in Scientific Reports.

In 2010, excavators found two fragments of an ornate ivory pendant and an awl fragment. The pendant has an oval shape with rounded margins. It also has two drilled holes and decorations on it with patterns of sequential punctures.

“Whether the Stajnia pendant’s looping curve indicates a lunar analemma or kill scores will remain an open question. However, it is fascinating that similar decorations appeared independently across Europe,” said co-author Adam Nadachowski from the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals Polish Academy of Sciences.

The largest piece of the pendant is 4.5 cm long and 1.5 cm wide while the awl measures 68.33 mm in length. The team used digital methodologies such as micro-tomographic scans and 3D reconstruction.

“Through 3D modelling techniques, the finds were virtually reconstructed and the pendant was appropriately restored, allowing detailed measurements and supporting the description of the decorations,” notes co-author Stefano Benazzi, director of the Osteoarchaeology and Paleoanthropology Laboratory (BONES Lab) at the Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Bologna.

Mass spectrometry analysis revealed that the pendant was made from mammoth ivory and the awl from a horse bone.

Also read: Ancient Egyptians wore jewellery made from meteorites

“This piece of jewellery shows the great creativity and extraordinary manual skills of members of the group of Homo sapiens that occupied the site,” said co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wroclaw University.

Co-author Andrea Picin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig added that the ages of the ivory pendant and the bone awl finally demonstrate that the dispersal of Homo sapiens in Poland took place as early as in Central and Western Europe.

The bandage is being tested on patients with chronic venous ulcers, or leg ulcers caused by circulation problems in veins.

Researchers in Singapore have developed a smart bandage to enable patients to have chronic wounds monitored remotely via an app on a mobile device, potentially saving them visits to the doctor.

A research team at the National University of Singapore has created a wearable sensor attached to a transparent bandage to track progress in healing, using information like temperature, bacteria type, and levels of pH and inflammation.

“Traditionally when someone has a wound or ulcer, if it’s infected, the only way to examine it is through looking at the wound itself, through visual inspection,” said Chwee Teck Lim, lead researcher at the university’s department of biomedical engineering.

“If the clinician wants to have further information then they will obtain the wound fluid and send to the lab for further testing,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is use our smart bandage to cut the number of hours or days to just a few minutes.”

The “VeCare” technology will enable patients to convalesce more at home and visit a doctor only if necessary. The bandage is being tested on patients with chronic venous ulcers, or leg ulcers caused by circulation problems in veins.

Data collection by researchers on the wounds has so far been effective, according to Lim, who said the smart bandage could potentially be used for other wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers.

The world-first map will be used to identify sites with the potential to store more CO2, and withstand changes brought about by global heating.

Scientists unveiled plans on Tuesday to map the world’s huge underground webs of fungi for the first time, to identify hotspots that could better protect natural ecosystems and store carbon dioxide to help tackle climate change.

Underground fungal networks underpin the health of plants, trees and broader ecosystems by creating thread-like webs in soil that suck in CO2 and transport nutrients like phosphorus to plants.

The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks on Thursday said it would collect 10,000 samples over the next 18 months from around the world, using machine learning to seek out the most biodiverse hotspots and map global fungal networks.

“When something obvious like a coral reef dies, people notice – but these guys are really invisible ecosystem engineers, so their losses are largely undocumented,” SPUN co-founder Toby Kiers, a professor at Amsterdam’s VU university, told Reuters. “That’s really where we’re trying to step in.”

Fungal networks, which store billions of tonnes of CO2, are under threat from factors including fertiliser use in agriculture, urbanisation and climate change, according to SPUN, a non-profit network whose members include scientists from the United States, Germany and Britain.

The world-first map will be used to identify sites with the potential to store more CO2, and withstand changes brought about by global heating. SPUN said it would also identify at-risk areas and work to improve conservation of below-ground biodiversity hotspots.

The project is backed by a $3.5 million donation from the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust. Fungal networks are an “invaluable ally” in the fight against climate change, Jeremy Grantham said. “And yet these carbon sinks are poorly understood.”

A process called Atlantification is part of the reason the Arctic is warming faster than any other ocean.

Written by Sabrina Imbler

Arctic. Atlantic. Long ago, the two oceans existed in harmony, with warm and salty Atlantic waters gently flowing into the Arctic. The layered nature of the Arctic — sea ice on top, cool freshwater in the middle, and warm, salty water at the bottom — helped hold the boundary between the polar ocean and the warmer Atlantic.

But everything changed when the larger ocean began flowing faster than the polar ocean could accommodate, weakening the distinction between the layers and transforming Arctic waters into something closer to the Atlantic. This process, called Atlantification, is part of the reason the Arctic is warming faster than any other ocean.

“It’s not a new invasion of the Arctic,” said Yueng-Djern Lenn, a physical oceanographer at Bangor University in Wales. “What’s new is that the properties of the Arctic are changing.”

Satellites offer some of the clearest measurements of changes in the Arctic Ocean and sea ice. But their records only go back around 40 years, obscuring how the climate of the ocean may have changed in prior decades.

“To go back, we need a sort of time machine,” said Tommaso Tesi, a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences-CNR, Italy.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Tesi and colleagues were able to turn back time with yardlong sediment cores taken from the seafloor, which archived 800 years of historical changes in Arctic waters. Their analysis found Atlantification started at the beginning of the 20th century — decades before the process had been documented by satellite imagery. The Arctic has warmed by around 2 degrees Celsius since 1900. But this early Atlantification did not appear in existing historical climate models, a discrepancy the authors say may reveal gaps in those estimates.

“It’s a bit unsettling because we rely on these models for future climate predictions,” Tesi said.

Mohamed Ezat, a researcher at the Tromso campus of the Arctic University of Norway and who was not involved with the research, called the findings “remarkable.”

“Information on long-term past changes in Arctic Ocean hydrography are needed, and long overdue,” Ezat wrote in an email.

In 2017, the researchers extracted a sediment core from the seafloor of Kongsfjorden, a glacial fjord in the east end of the Fram Strait, a gateway between the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard and Greenland, where Arctic and Atlantic waters mingle.

The researchers sliced up the core at regular intervals and dried those layers. Then came the painstaking process of sifting out and identifying the samples’ foraminifera — single-celled organisms that build intricate shells around themselves using minerals in the ocean.

When foraminifera die, their shells drift to the seafloor and accumulate in layers of sediment. The creatures are crucial clues in sediment samples; by identifying which foraminifera are present in a sample and analyzing the chemistry of their shells, scientists can glean the properties of past oceans.

The team’s original idea was to reconstruct the oceanographic conditions of a region that contained both Arctic and Atlantic waters, going back 1,000 to 2,000 years. But, in the slices of the core dating back to the early 20th century, the researchers noticed a sudden, massive increase in the concentration of foraminifera that prefer salty environments — a sign of Atlantification, far earlier than anyone had documented.

“It was quite a lot of surprises in one study,” said Francesco Muschitiello, an oceanographer at the University of Cambridge and an author on the paper.

The sheer amount of sediment was so high that the researchers could assemble a chronology of past climate down to five- or 10-year increments. Additionally, a molecular biomarker could pinpoint a specific year, 1916, when coal mining began in Kongsfjorden. Since the foraminiferal shift occurred just before this marker, the researchers estimate Atlantification began around 1907, give or take a decade.

When the researchers compared the data from their paleoclimate model with others to see if they overlapped, they found existing climate models had no sign of this early Atlantification. The researchers suggest a number of possible reasons behind this absence, such as an underestimation of the role of freshwater mixing in the Arctic or the region’s sensitivity to warming.

Lenn, who was not involved with the research, sees a difference between this early Atlantification and the present, rapid Atlantification, which is largely driven by melting Arctic sea ice. “It’s too soon after the start of the Industrial Revolution for us to have accumulated excess heat in the planetary system for it to be anthropogenic at that point,” Lenn said.

The authors are not sure of the precise reasons behind the early Atlantification. If human influences are the cause, then “the whole system is much more sensitive to greenhouse gases than we previously thought,” Muschitiello said.

In another possibility, earlier natural warming may have made the Arctic Ocean much more sensitive to the accelerated Atlantification of recent decades. “Could it be that we destabilized a system that was already shifting?” Tesi said.

This is the maddening mystery of any paleoclimate model. “None of us were there,” Lenn said, laughing.

Although this is true of humans, it is not true of corals in the Fram Strait. The long-lived animals record changes in climate and other parameters, making them excellent sentinels of climate history. Tesi hopes to study the strait’s cold-living corals next, to see what insight they may offer into the Atlantic’s usurpation of the Arctic.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

On December 4, a total solar eclipse will be visible from Antarctica. The southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand can also see partial phases of the eclipse. It will not be visible from India.

On February 16, 1980, India witnessed the first total solar eclipse of the century and this created a great buzz among scientists and skygazers. As a young student, Arvind Paranjpye, now Director of Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai, along with his friends had set out to capture the event. “We went to a small village named Shiggaon, situated near the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. Carrying our instruments up to a small hill, we tried to capture the eclipse using polaroid light. We set up a small temporary darkroom and developed the film there.”

He has been an eclipse chaser since then and has seen four other total solar eclipses – India (1995), Iran (1999), Zambia (2001), and the US (2017). He says each eclipse has its unique charm.

On December 4, a total solar eclipse will be visible from Antarctica but Paranjpe will unfortunately miss the event.

The southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand can also see partial phases of the eclipse. It will not be visible from India.

When asked what his favourite moment while seeing an eclipse was, he says: “Just before the eclipse you see the shadow of the moon coming towards you at a high speed. If you are on a mountain, you can see from the distant horizon on the west, the shadow approaching you in just four to five seconds. This is an interesting sight but can creep you out.”

“Though I travelled to China in 2009 to witness the total solar eclipse, the area was completely covered by clouds and I experienced a night darker than the darkest nights and was left with a spooky feeling.”

He adds that another beautiful phenomenon called shadow bands or wavy lines of moving light and dark can be seen before and after a total solar eclipse. “I think the myth associated with snakes and solar eclipses must have originated after people saw shadows moving like snakes and engulfing them,” he chuckles.

For astrophysicists, solar eclipses provide a rare chance to study the solar corona or the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere. “There are still many unanswered questions about the solar corona. Why does it have such a high temperature of over 5500 degrees Celsius? Most researchers study the Sun’s corona in different wavelengths during an eclipse.”