Monkeypox was first reported in 1958 in laboratory monkeys and the first human case was reported in 1970 in a nine-month-old baby in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nigeria reported its first case of monkeypox in humans in 1970 when one case was detected; there were two human cases of monkeypox in Nigeria in 1978. And after nearly four decades of not reporting any cases, monkeypox (West African clade) made a re-emergence in Nigeria in September 2017. From September 2017 to April 30, 2022, Nigeria has reported 558 cases, of which 231 have been laboratory confirmed. There have been dozens of confirmed cases each year in Nigeria since 2017 — 88 in 2017, 49 in 2018, 47 in 2019, eight in 2020, and 34 in 2021. There have been 15 confirmed cases between January 1 and April 30, 2022.
Based on epidemiological and clinical characteristics of 122 confirmed or probable cases of human monkeypox cases in Nigeria between September 22, 2017 and September 16, 2018, researchers found both primary zoonotic and human-to-human transmission. Two cases of healthcare-associated infection were recorded. Based on genome sequencing, the researchers found multiple introductions of the virus, and a single introduction along with human-to-human transmission in a prison facility. The results were published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Since the outbreak began in Nigeria in 2017 and prior to the latest outbreak in Europe and North America, there have been at least eight instances when monkeypox has been exported to countries outside Africa — the U.K., the U.S., Israel and Singapore. Like all diseases that are endemic only to Africa, the story repeats again. While efforts were made to prevent an outbreak in the non-endemic countries outside Africa, no serious international attempts were made to stop the outbreak in Nigeria nor study the virus characteristics.
According to Stat News, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the former director general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control had sought help to try to decipher what was going on with monkeypox but without success. While in 2003, the U.S. reported the first human case of monkeypox, the virus had only crossed the species barrier from rodents imported from Ghana to one person. Human-to-human transmission outside Africa was first reported in September 2018, when the monkeypox virus spread from a patient to a healthcare worker in the U.K.
The current outbreak in Europe and North America is the first instance when large-scale human-to-human transmission has been reported outside Africa. The index case was a U.K. resident, who travelled to Nigeria on April 20 and returned on May 3; he was diagnosed with monkeypox on May 6, 2022. It has since spread to 219 people as of May 25 across 20 countries.
The wealthy nations are now waking up to the reality of monkeypox crossing international borders and causing outbreaks in countries where it is not endemic.
“Attention is only paid when certain diseases hit high-income countries — exemplifying our collective failure to properly address ‘epidemic preparedness’ and ‘global health’. It also illustrates the double standard applied to how people’s health is valued between wealthy countries and the rest of the world,” Dr. Emmanuel Nakoune from Institut Pasteur Bangui, Central African Republic and Dr. Piero Olliaro from the Pandemic Sciences Institute, University of Oxford write in the BMJ.
There are no clear answers to how humans are infected as the host animal that behaves as a reservoir for the virus has not been identified in the wild. And how the virus spreads from animals to humans is not known.
Also, how many people, on average, will one infected person spread the virus to is unclear.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest to support that work until now — sadly,” Dr. Ihekweazu told Stat News. “It never really received the interest it needed to answer some of these questions.”
The current outbreak appears to have spread primarily among men who have sex with men. The virus is not transmitted through semen or vaginal fluids but the skin-to-skin contact during sex can result in virus spread.
The draft genome sequences first posted by researchers in Portugal and then Belgium indicate that the virus circulating in Europe and North America belongs to the West African clade, which causes mild infection.
Till date over 15 monkeypox genomes have been sequenced. But the monkeypox virus has a lower mutation rate (about two mutations a year) compared to nearly 25 mutations in a year in the case of SARS-CoV-2 virus.
This is because monkeypox is a DNA virus unlike the SARS-CoV-2, which is an RNA virus.
The low mutation rate in DNA viruses is largely due to the differences in mechanisms which create the mutation as also proof-reading mechanisms utilised by the viruses.
“The mutation rates of monkeypox are not well known, but generally other pox viruses have a much lower mutation rate. But almost all outbreaks have been due to spillovers from animals, while sustained human-to-human transmission and sequences from such events are not widely available to accurately estimate the rates,” says Dr. Vinod Scaria, a senior scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB).
Despite the low mutation rate, sequencing more genomes might be prudent particularly from a genetic epidemiology point of view.
According to Dr. Scaria, besides providing insights into emergence, genetic epidemiology helps in understanding evolution through surveillance and fine-trace contact networks.
“The former is still applicable, while even with the loss of resolution, the latter is still useful,” he says.
Though one extra mutation has been found in the sequenced genomes, there is a need for more genome sequences and epidemiological insights to conclusively establish what this mutation indeed means. It is unlikely that the mutation has made the virus more transmissive, despite a large number of cases being reported.
This is because two rave parties in Spain and Belgium have turned out to be super-spreader events, resulting in cases being reported from many countries. It is yet unclear if the virus has acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans.
“Many of the new cases seem to have come in people who do not have a travel history or known contact with one who has travelled. Still too early to state it is [due to] sustained human-to-human transmission,” Dr. Scaria says.
Few things are as shorn of complexity as the root canal treatment so much so that the basic principles of performing them have been unchanged from the times Romans inserted bronze wires into their teeth to treat the infection.
Once the shooting pain has been diagnosed as being due to a bacterial infection within the tooth, the dentist drills a hole, scoops out the infected pulp, disinfects the tooth and fills the space with an antibacterial sealant like bleach or hydrogen peroxide.
The hope is that the job is thorough and the vanquished bacteria doesn’t rejuvenate. Estimates from the United States suggest that of the 35 million dental procedures to treat a root canal, about 10% are failures.
A common cause of failure is that the underlying bacteria, usually Enterococcus faecalis, hasn’t been completely eliminated paving the way for reinfections that can necessitate extracting the tooth.
The quest to deliver enough antibacterial agent to the depths of the tooth has in recent years seen extremely sophisticated, complex, cutting-edge approaches that make the conventional RCT appear not just pre-Roman but even Stone Age.
Rather than the dentist’s drill, a fine beam of light pushes an antibacterial deep into the tooth’s passageway in this approach. Another is to use ultrasound waves to, again, make the antibacterial go deeper. Some early experiments with lasers attempted to do away with pushing antimicrobials altogether and use the heat from ultra-thin light beams to incinerate the bacteria.
But the equipment, expertise and the risk of harming healthy tissue makes these approaches a rarity, particularly in Indian dental clinics. But Theranautilus, a Bengaluru based start-up incubated at the Indian Institute of Science, aspires to go one up by employing nanotechnology. By deploying an army of so called ‘nanobots’, or tiny ‘robots’ that are helical crawlers made of silicon dioxide coated with iron, the aim is to have the bots move as close to where the bacteria abound.
The bots’ movement can be controlled using a device that generates a low intensity magnetic field. In their tests, Theranautilus scientists injected these nanobots into extracted tooth samples and tracked their movement via a microscope. By manipulating the frequency of the magnetic field, the nanobots could be made to move at will, and penetrate deep inside the dentinal tubules. The dentist can control the movement of billions of these nanobots, each no more than 300 nanometres (1,000 times thinner than hair) and take them to the site of the bacterial infection. Working in tandem, these nanobots can generate enough heat to kill the bacteria but not damage surrounding healthy tissue, said Shanmukh Srinivas, a dentist and co-founder of the company.
A research report by Theranautilus scientists in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials says that tests on mice revealed the use of nanobots as safe.
Mr. Srinivas said that the next step ahead will be to test the device in people via clinical trials and the company is in the process of tying up with hospitals for the same. “Were everything to go to plan, we expect that this treatment will be available at the clinic in four-five years,” he added.
Their research paper says that while nanobot-heat eliminated the bacteria, there was a possibility that some bacteria could remain and therefore the nanobots could even be used as drug delivery vehicles to transport antibacterial material.. The amount of silica in every dose of treatment was less than that in a pint of beer, according to Mr. Srinivas, and was extremely safe.
An international team of scientists has found a remarkable type of fossilisation that has remained almost entirely overlooked until now. The fossils are microscopic imprints, or ‘ghosts,’ of single-celled plankton, called coccolithophores, that lived in the seas millions of years ago, and their discovery is changing our understanding of how plankton in the oceans are affected by climate change.
Declines in the abundance of coccolith fossils have been documented from multiple past global warming events, suggesting that planktons were severely affected by climate change and ocean acidification. But a study found ( Science) new global records of abundant ghost fossils from three Jurassic and Cretaceous warming events (94, 120, and 183 million years ago), suggesting that coccolithophores were more resilient to past climate change than was previously thought.
Despite their microscopic size, coccolithophores can be hugely abundant in the present ocean, being visible from space as cloud-like blooms. After death, their calcareous exoskeletons sink to the seafloor, accumulating in vast numbers, and forming rocks such as chalk.
As more mud was gradually deposited on top, the resulting pressure squashed the coccolith plates and other organic remains together, and the hard coccoliths were pressed into the surfaces of pollen, spores, and other soft organic matter. Later, acidic waters within spaces in the rock dissolved away the coccoliths, leaving behind just their impressions — the ghosts.
“The ghost fossils show that nannoplankton was abundant, diverse, and thriving during past warming events in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, where previous records have assumed that plankton collapsed due to ocean acidification,” Prof. Richard Twitchett from Natural History Museum, London says in a release. “These fossils are rewriting our understanding of how the calcareous nannoplankton respond to warming events.”
The vertebral column is important to the structure of your body, allowing you to stand erect, and to do yoga. This flexibility comes from 33 interlocked vertebrae. It is a marvel of evolutionary and engineering design, seeing us humans through feats involving stress and strain. Olympic-grade javelin throwers, 20 years after retiring from the grind of training and competitions, have no more back-related problems than the rest of us ( Bone & Joint Journal).
A chiropractor will tell you that there are 364 joints in the vertebral column — there are many possible ways in which things could go wrong, resulting in back problems that cover the whole pain spectrum, from niggling to crippling.
An inflammation of the bones in the spine is called spondylitis. One severe, arthritic form of spondylitis is called ankylosing spondylitis (AS). The term ‘ankylosing’ refers to new bone formation leading to the cementing together of a set of adjacent vertebrae, usually in the lower back. Spondylitis is different from spondylosis, which is the wearing away of the vertebral column.
Ankylosing spondylitis is accompanied by the kind of lower back pain that worsens when you rest (which means the sufferer may wake up from sleep in pain). X-rays show clear signs of damage to the spine or to the joints that link the spine to the pelvis. Other parts of the body — the jaw, the ribcage, or even the heels — may hurt too. AS affects about 0.2% of the world’s population.
Your immune system responds to trouble — be it a bacterial infection or be it a fresh wound — by sending out inflammatory cells to the problematic site. This initiates an aggressive reaction aimed at overwhelming the bacteria, or starting the healing process. The acute response causes short-term pain and swelling, which subsides when the foreign invaders are overcome (or the wound is healed).
An important immune system component, the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex, helps distinguish self from non-self — normal proteins that are part of your body versus proteins that are from invasive organisms, or even damaged or deformed versions of your own normal proteins. The HLA complex achieves this by showing a particularly ‘foreign’-looking piece of a bacterial molecule (the antigen) to other immune system components that will hunt down anything resembling this piece. As an analogy, if there were a gang of thieves in your town who wear red-and-white checked shirts, the HLA complex shows this checked shirt to a police patrol.
The precise trigger for AS is not known. It has a genetic component, as it is known to run in families, but not everyone in these families is equally affected. Some variants of the HLA gene (e.g., HLA-B27) are predisposed to AS and other conditions that cause chronic inflammation of the joints of the spine. These variant HLA proteins are not ‘manufactured’ correctly, leading to a change in their shapes and contours such that they appear to be ‘foreign’.
Going back to our thieves analogy, this sentinel molecule itself appears to be wearing a similar checked shirt. The immune system decides that this HLA variant has to be disposed off by any means possible, including the destruction of cells that carry this protein. The consequences are disastrous — the immune system remains in the activated mode, even in the absence of real danger. The result is chronic inflammation.
Molecules that play key roles in maintaining healthy bone mass and in the repair of fractures are also involved in cementing vertebrae together in AS ( Science Advances).
The HLA-B27 variant is itself very polymorphic, meaning that it has many sub-variations. Probing into the perplexing differences in the severity of AS in people having the disease, the group of Manni Luthra-Guptasarma, working at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, has shown that mild forms of AS are caused by HLA variants that are easily cleared by the body’s machinery for breaking down worn out proteins. Other misshapen HLA variants accumulate as aggregated masses inside cells, and the body’s inability to clear them out results in severe forms of AS. ( Frontiers in Immunology).
Pain-relieving drugs, immune system-modifiers and sometimes surgery are used to manage this chronic affliction. Individual management strategies — exercise routines, firm and flat pillows, and the avoidance of ‘trigger’ foods such as artificial sweeteners, are of great help.
( The article was written in collaboration with Sushil Chandani who works in molecular modelling. email@example.com)
A bacteria have been discovered in Antarctica with genes that give them natural antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance and have the potential to spread out of the polar regions, according to scientists in Chile.
Andres Marcoleta, a researcher from the University of Chile who headed the study published in the Science of the Total Environment journal in March, said that these "superpowers" which evolved to resist extreme conditions are contained in mobile DNA fragments that can easily be transferred to other bacteria.
"We know that the soils of the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the polar areas most impacted by melting ice, host a great diversity of bacteria," Marcoleta said. "And that some of them constitute a potential source of ancestral genes that confer resistance to antibiotics."
Scientists from the University of Chile collected several samples from the Antarctic Peninsula from 2017 to 2019.
"It is worth asking whether climate change could have an impact on the occurrence of infectious diseases," Marcoleta said.
Researchers found that the Pseudomonas bacteria, one of the predominant bacteria groups in the Antarctic Peninsula, are not pathogenic but can be a source of 'resistance genes', which are not stopped by common disinfectants such as copper, chlorine or quaternary ammonium.
China released new details about the final stages of work on its Tiangong space station, an under-construction orbiter started after the US barred Beijing from participating in the International Space Station.
The Shenzhou XIV spacecraft, which will carry three astronauts in June for a six-month mission to Tiangong, was moved to the launchpad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia on Sunday, state media reported, with a launch scheduled “in the coming days.”
Following that mission, China will launch one of the station’s lab components in July and the second in October, the official China Daily reported on Sunday.
“After the space labs, the Tianzhou 5 cargo craft and the Shenzhou XV crew are scheduled to arrive at the massive orbiting outpost around the end of the year,” according to the China Daily report.
Last week, China released a new, high-definition image of Tiangong, which is in orbit around 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the Earth.
Once Tiangong is complete, China will be the only country to operate a space station of its own, adding to other accomplishments such as landing on Mars last year and on the far side of the moon in 2019.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has increased efforts to match the US as the dominant power in space, teaming up with Russia on a proposed lunar research station and opposing the Washington-backed Artemis Accords, which are intended to help govern future space activity such as mining on the moon.
Chinese state media has criticized the accords as an effort to create a space-based NATO.
So far, though, the US is winning more countries over to its vision for space. Colombia became the 19th country to endorse its vision for space governance, signing the accords on May 10.
While China has released images of the station in the past, the new picture offers online viewers a better chance to hone in on specific parts. It provides a closer look at details such as the green stripes wrapping around several cylinders, the orange and black solar panels and the Chinese flags on the exterior.
The cabin will have capacity for six people, who’ll be able to occupy more than 110 cubic meters of activity space, according to the People’s Daily. There will also be two exit hatches for astronauts, and one for cargo.
Zhurong, the rover that China landed on Mars last year, has temporarily gone into dormancy because of a dust storm, according to state media, citing the China National Space Administration, which predicted the rover would resume operations around December.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured images of two spiral galaxies, which are collectively known as Arp 303. Individually, they are called IC 563 (bottom) and IC 564 (top) are more than 275 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Sextans.
The image used data from two separate Hubble observations of Arp 303. The first observation used data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3 to study the pair’s star-forming regions in infrared light. Galaxies like IC 563 and IC 564 are very bright at infrared light wavelengths and they host many bright star-forming regions.
The second observation used Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to take quick looks at bright interesting galaxies across the sky. These new observations filled gaps in Hubble’s archive as it looks for promising candidates that Hubble, the James Webb Telescope, and other telescopes could study further.
Stars are formed from the clouds of dust and gas scattered throughout most galaxies. Turbulence within these clouds gives rise to “knots” with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. As these clouds collapse, the material at their centre begins to heat up.
This hot core at the heart of the collapsing clouds is called a protostar, and will eventually become a star. Computer models of star formation predict that the spinning clouds of collapsing gas and dust may break up into two or three blobs. This could explain why a majority of the stars in the Milky Way are paired or in groups of multiple stars.
NASA has published dramatic footage of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter completing its record-breaking 25th flight where the helicopter covered a distance of 704 metres at a speed of 5.5 metres per second, marking the rotorcraft’s longest and fastest flight to date. The video was taken on April 8 during the flight but was only released by the space agency on May 27.
Ingenuity is a small solar-powered helicopter that landed on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021, along with the Perseverance Rover. It completed the world’s first powered extraterrestrial flight on April 19 when it took off, hovered and landed for a flight duration of 39.1 seconds.
“For our record-breaking flight, Ingenuity’s downward-looking navigation camera provided us with a breathtaking sense of what it would feel like gliding 33 feet above the surface of Mars at 12 miles per hour,” said Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in a press statement.
The video clip starts about one second into the flight. The rotorcraft reaches an altitude of 10 metres and heads southwest, accelerating to its maximum speed in less than three seconds. It first flew over a group of sand ripples and some rock fields. Towards the end, a flat and featureless terrain appears, providing a good landing spot for Ingenuity. The approximately 162 seconds long flight footage was sped up about five times, reducing the video’s length to less than 35 seconds.
The rotorcraft’s navigation camera has been programmed to deactivate whenever the rotorcraft is within 1 metre of the surface. This is to ensure that any dust kicked up during takeoff and landing doesn’t interfere with the navigation system as it tracks geographical features on the ground.
Earlier this month, NASA had announced that it had momentarily lost contact with the helicopter after it entered a low-power state. It later got back in contact after getting adequate energy from its solar array; helping it charge its six lithium-ion batteries.
There is something exciting and calming about staring at the night sky and seeing the cosmos in its star-studded glory. But many of us who live in metropolitan areas with constant light and air pollution would count ourselves lucky if we were able to even see the north start, forget all the constellations of stars out there.
But thanks to the wonders of technology, there are many stargazing apps that will allow you to view and understand where constellations are parked in the night sky. Here, we have put together a list of some of the best stargazing apps that you can use.
Think of Google Sky as the stellar analogue to Google Maps. With Google Sky, you can observe space using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Digitized Sky Survey.
You can access Google Maps through both your personal computer and through your mobile phone, either on the browser or using the applications for either. Google Maps will give you a view of space unobstructed by pollution, clouds or anything else. The app for Google Sky is now known as Sky Map after it was donated and made open source by Google.
The Star Tracker app can show you over 88 constellations and over 8,000 space objects as well as the sun, moon and planets all in real-time. The Star Tracker app is available on both iOS and Android and has an AR mode that indicates the positions of all celestial objects. The app is free but there is an ad-free version and a full version that has more features.
With the Skyview app, you can just point your mobile device at the sky to begin identifying galaxies, stars, constellations, planets and even the International Space Station. Available on both iOS and Android with both free and paid versions, the app has a night more and an AR feature, allowing you to use it at all times.
It also has a Sky Path feature that lets users track objects in space to see their location at particular dates and times. It also has time travel option that will let users know how the sky looked like in the past and how it will look in the future
The Skysafari astronomy app lets users hold their phones to the sky to identify planets, constellations, stars and satellites. Just like Skyview, Skysafari can also be used for seeing how the sky might have looked like in the distant past or the far future.
Users can also simulate meteor showers, eclipses and other celestial events like approaching comets. It has a constellation illustration feature that will illustrate constellations if you can’t visualise them properly. The app also comes with a lot of mythological and scientific information along with mythological information.
Though not strictly a stargazing app in the same vein as the others on the list, no stargazer’s technology toolkit is complete without the space agency’s official app. Apart from viewing the thousands of images in NASA’s photo gallery, you can also live stream NASA events like rocket launches and eclipses through NASA TV.
The app also has a lot of information about NASA missions, celestial bodies, upcoming sightings and other space-related news.
About a quarter of the world’s internet users live in countries with internet infrastructure that are more susceptible to targeted attacks than previously thought, according to a large scale study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego. The computer scientists surveyed a total of 75 countries. The study was presented at the Passive and Active Measurement Conference 2022 held online.
“We wanted to study the topology of the Internet to find weak links that, if compromised, would expose an entire nation’s traffic. But a large portion of the Internet doesn’t function with peering agreements for network connectivity,” said Alexander Gamero-Garrido, the paper’s first author, in a press statement.
Depending on the country you are in, the structure of the internet can differ dramatically. In some places like the United States, a large number of internet service providers (ISPs) compete and offer services to a large number of users. These ISPs have networks that are directly connected to one another and exchange content; a process called direct peering.
But the study found that in some countries, many of whom are in the global south, internet users rely on just a few ISPs for internet access. And in some of these countries, one ISP serves a large majority of users. These providers often rely on a limited number of companies to get access to the global internet and internet traffic from other countries.
This could mean that attackers would only need to target one or few of these companies, called transit autonomous systems, to cripple an entire nation’s internet access. In countries like Cuba and Sierra Leone, one transit autonomous system provider provides a connection for almost all the users in the country; presenting a worst-case scenario.
The cosmos is as beautiful as it is mysterious. Every once in a while, the universe puts on a show for us humans here on Earth to enjoy. Sometimes, it is an eclipse, sometimes it is a meteor shower. But no matter what event, it is an occasion that you should not miss. Here, we have put together a list of celestial events that we can look forward to seeing in 2022.
After the partial eclipse visible in certain parts of South America on April 30 this year, there is only one more solar eclipse left for us to witness: a partial one that will happen on October 25 and will be visible in Europe, Northeast Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, including India. The greatest part of the eclipse will be visible to viewers in India so save the date on your calendar.
The total lunar eclipse that occurred on May 16 this year will not be the only one this year: another total lunar eclipse is predicted to happen once again on November 8 this year. However, just like the previous full lunar eclipse, it is unlikely that this one would be visible from India. But just like the one in May, the lunar eclipse in November will also presumably be live-streamed by multiple sources, allowing you to catch a glimpse.
Fortunately, spectacular meteor showers are more common than lunar and solar eclipses. But there is one downside to trying to witness one of them: It is next to impossible to spot one if you live in a crowded city. If you want to witness a meteor shower by yourself, you need to go far away from all the light pollution in the city so that the stars and meteors are clearly visible.
The Perseids meteor shower is one of the brightest meteor showers that happen every year. They typically occur between July 17 and August 24 and tend to peak around August 9-13. The Perseids shower is made out of space debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle and inamed after the Perseus constellation because the shower will seem to come in the sky from the same direction where the constellation is.
The Perseids are usually sought after by astronomers and stargazers because it is often possible to see 60 to 100 meteors in an hour from a dark place during its peak. According to current predictions, the best time to watch the meteor shower would be during the night between August 12 and 13.
The Draconid meteor shower is one of the two meteor showers to happen during the month of April and is scheduled to occur between October 6 to October 10. Stargazers might be able to spot up to 10 meteors per hour during its peak between October 8 and October 9.
The Orionids meteor shower is the second shower that will occur during October and will be active between October 2 and November 7 with its peak between October 21 and October 22. The Orionids shower is created by the dust from the Halley comet. During its peak, stargazers might be able to see up to 20 meteors per hour.
The Leonids meteor shower happens due to the space debris left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which takes around 33 years to orbit around the sun. The Leonids shower will be active between November 6 and November 30, with the peak occurring between November 17 and November 18, when stargazers could see as many as 10 meteors per hour.
The Geminids shower is considered to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers to happen in the year and will happen between December 4 and December 20. Its peak is predicted to happen between December 14 and December 15 when stargazers could witness as many as 150 meteors per hour.
Unlike most showers which are associated to a meteor, the Geminid shower is caused by an asteroid: the 3200 Phaethon, which takes about 1.4 years to orbit the sun.
The Neolithic (~10000 BCE), human history witnessed a watershed: a transition from a nomadic lifestyle involving hunting-and-gathering to settled agriculture. The region where this took place – stretching all the way from Egypt in the East to Iraq in the West – is known as the ‘Fertile Crescent.’ This shift paved the way for humans to colonise every habitable continent on earth. Slowly, these farming communities would make their way across geographical corridors to Europe and Asia and, in another two to three thousand years, nearly all parts of the Old World would have been introduced to agriculture.
But, who were these first farmers? A study published in Cell this week, led by a team of geneticists from Switzerland and Germany, tries to answer that question by tapping into ancient genomes taken from archaeological remains found in Neolithic Europe and South-West Asia. In particular, the archaeological remains consisted of 15 Neolithic individuals (13 farmers, two hunter-gatherers) from as far as Luxembourg in the West and Iran in the East. This was supplemented by previously ten (six farmers, four hunter gatherer) published genomes.
Previous ancient DNA studies have largely maintained that European early farmers and European hunter gatherers were genetically distinct, at least in the early stages of agriculture, and mixed only later on. According to these studies, farmers that inhabited continental Europe ~9 kya (thousand years ago) came from the Aegean basin (primarily Greece and North Turkey). The DNA of these early Aegean farmers bore significant similarity with those of Central Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and South Levant (essentially present day Jordan, Israel, Lebanon).
Previous studies have also noted a genetic similarity between Epipalaeolithic (a transitionary period between Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, ~20-10 kya) and Neolithic people in Turkey, suggesting little to no gene flow in terms of migrations, etc.
Speaking on the connect between Aegean farmers and those from central Anatolia, Daniel Wegmann, one of the corresponding authors of the study told indianexpress.com, “the theory of a common origin appears to be the most likely. But of course other theories might also be plausible. We currently lack a high quality genome from the Southern Levant and could not test these hypotheses to the degree we would like to.”
Marchi et al.’s (2022) work has resulted in four main findings. For ease of interpretation, it identifies three metapopulations: Western, Central and Eastern. The Western metapopulation gave rise to the cluster of European hunter gatherers, which are genetically different from modern Europeans. The Central metapopulation gave rise to the cluster of western (from Europe and present-day Turkey) early farmers. Eastern metapopulation gave rise to the cluster consisting of early farmers of Iran and the hunter-gatherers of Caucasus.
The study found that European hunter gatherers had a much lower genetic diversity due to a population bottleneck imposed at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). LGM was a period between 26-20 kya when ice sheets were at their greatest extent. After the genetic bottleneck imposed by the Last Glacial Maxima, the European hunter gatherers split into two subgroups ~23 kya. This is a departure from earlier studies that maintained the low genetic diversity among European hunter gatherers was a consequence of small population size.
Instead, Marchi et al. (2022) find that the effective population size (i e roughly speaking, the number of individuals in a population that contributes to the genetic composition of the next generation through reproduction) was actually higher among European hunter gatherers than in contemporary early farmers.
The other major finding of the group was that the Western and Eastern metapopulations had diverged from each other at around 25.6 kya, long before the Neolithic. The Central and Eastern metapopulations had diverged around 13.6 kya. However, this date is still far later than what had been arrived at earlier. Previous studies had maintained that the ancestors of European hunter-gatherers and those of Iranian early farmers at 46-77 kya. This, Marchi et al. (2022) argue, is due to the possibility of population bottlenecks having been overlooked.
Later, populations from North Turkey and North Greece diverged ~9.1-9.3 kya, around the same time as the Aegean peninsula was being colonised by early neolithic farmers. Both the Turkish and the Aegean populations show different levels of recent gene flow from the western metapopulations, suggesting that their interactions with contemporary hunter gatherers were not entirely uniform.
While at LGM, the Eastern and Western metapopulations diverged because they were stranded in pockets not covered by ice sheets, they were able to spread beyond these refugia after these ice sheets receded. The period from ~14-12 kya is known as an ‘interstadial,’ when temperatures were relatively warmer compared to the periods before and after. Around 14.2 kya, the central hunter-gatherer metapopulations came in contact with populations ancestral to both the hunter-gatherers in Caucasus and early farmers in western Europe. Based on the information we have on the glacial extent, the study argues that these ‘admixtures’ likely took place in Southeast Turkey and Northern Levant.
It is, however, difficult to identify when and where exactly central Turkish and Aegean early farmer populations differentiated because not only did the ancestors of western early farmers expand further West but there were multiple ‘admixture events’ as well during the interstadial. It could be that they were part of the same ‘expansion wave,’ for the early farmers in the Aegean Peninsula and Central Turkey share similar genetic signatures. It could also be that Turkish and Aegean populations had already mixed before the transition to agriculture, or that hunter-gatherer populations from the Fertile Crescent had moved into the area.
The study, overall, challenges the current idea that all early farmers in Europe owe their cultural and biological origins to the first farmers in Fertile Crescent. The picture is, in fact, far more complex, with western early farmers experiencing multiple ‘admixture’ events with European hunter gatherers and farming populations in southwest Asia. In a press release issued by the University of Bern, Laurent Excoffer, one of the corresponding authors, clarifies that ‘spatial and temporal gaps remain, and this does not imply the end of studies on the evolution of humans in this area’.
The author is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and a freelance science communicator. He tweets at @critvik
While the Moon could be considered geologically dead today, that wasn’t the case in the past. Billions of years ago, many volcanic eruptions happened on the surface of the moon, blanketing many parts of its surface with hot lava. After cooling down over the years, this created the dark blotches or maria, giving the moon its appearance today.
But new research from CU Boulder suggests that volcanoes may have left another lasting impact on the lunar surface: sheets of ice that are sometimes hundreds of metres thick. The research has been documented in an article titled, “Polar Ice Accumulation from Volcanically Induced Transient Atmospheres on the Moon,” published in The Planetary Science Journal.
The researchers used computer simulations to recreate conditions on the moon long before complex life evolved on Earth. They discovered that ancient volcanoes on the satellite spewed massive amounts of water vapour which later settled on the surface, eventually forming stores of ice.
According to the researchers, if humans had been alive at the time, we would have been able to see a sliver of that frost near the border between day and night on the moon’s surface. This research adds to a body of evidence that suggests that the moon may have a lot more water than scientists earlier believed. A 2020 study estimated that nearly 15,000 square kilometres on the moon’s surface could be capable of trapping and storing ice; mostly near the north and south poles.
Volcanoes could be a big source of that water. More than 2 to 4 billion years ago, tens of thousands of volcanoes could have erupted across the lunar surface, generating huge rivers and lakes of lava.
Recent research shows that these volcanoes probably ejected massive clouds mostly made up of carbon monoxide and water vapour. These clouds then swirled around above the mean, creating a thin and momentary atmosphere.
To test this hypothesis, researchers at CU Boulder tried to create a model of the lunar surface billions of years ago. The researchers estimated that the moon experienced one eruption every 22,000 years, on average, at its peak. They then tracked how gases from these eruptions may have moved around the moon, escaping into space over time.
They then discovered that roughly 41 per cent of the water from volcanoes may have condensed onto the moon as ice. The researchers calculated that around 8 quadrillion pounds of volcanic water could have condensed as ice during the period.
During future missions to the Moon, astronauts could perhaps tap into these water resources for their consumption purpose instead of going through the expensive procedure of transporting it on rockets from Earth. But these reserves might not necessarily be easy to find. Most of the ice has probably accumulated near the moon’s poles and may even be buried under several metres of lunar soil or regolith.
Light that we can see is a type of electromagnetic radiation. The whole electromagnetic spectrum consists of waves of different wavelength ranging from the very long-wavelength radio waves to the short wavelength gamma radiation. In decreasing order of wavelength these are radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays. In this, what we call light encompasses the triad of infrared, visible and ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet light, or UV light, is light of wavelengths sorter than we can see as humans (10 nanometres to 400 nanometres). UV light is further subdivided based on its properties as we humans experiences it into several types. Among these are UV-A light whose wavelength spans the range 315-400 nanometres; UV-B light, spanning 280-315 nanometres; and UV-C, spanning 100-280 nanometres. Among these UV-B light is interesting because it is in the range that our bodies are sensitive to. As the light from the Sun passes through the atmosphere, the mixture of ozone, water vapour, oxygen and carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere absorbs all of UV-C and most of UV-B light. UV-A filters through.
Fortunately, or perhaps of the way we have evolved, UV-A is the least harmful of these types of radiation. UV-C is quite harmful but is entirely filtered out by the ozone layer. UV-B penetrates the skin to a short extent, causes delayed sunburn and also helps in synthesis of vitamin D. When exposed to sunlight, a compound called 7-dehydroxycholesterol (7-DHC) which is also known as provitamin D 3, is converted into previtamin D 3. This in turn isomerises into Vitamin D 3. The previtamin D 3 and Vitamin D 3 absorb UVB light and produce substances useful for the body. For this reason, Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin.
Vitamin D is known to help in regulating calcium and phosphate metabolism. Thus, deficiency of vitamin D can lead to illnesses such as soft bones in children and osteoporosis in adults, among others. Vitamin D supplements and sensible exposure to sunlight can help avoid these conditions.
Money spiders, commonly found in European meadows, have been reported for the first time in the country from the Muthanga range of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. The species is called so as it is “believed to bring luck” to the person who comes in contact with it.
Researchers of Christ College, Irinjalakuda, Thrissur, have discovered the spider that belongs to the family of dwarf spiders ( Linyphiidae) under the genus Prosoponoides. It has been given the name Prosoponoides biflectogynus.
“Only six species of spiders belonging to this genus have been identified from across the world so far. It is the first report of this genus from India and hence no extensive studies have been conducted on this species of spiders in the country,” said Dr. Sudhikumar A.V., Head, Department of Zoology, Christ College.
The research team includes Athira Jose and Vishnu Haridas, research scholars of the Centre for Animal Taxonomy and Ecology (CATE), Christ College.
They have also discovered ant-mimicking spiders, belonging to the group of jumping spiders, from the Mananthavady range. They belong to the family of Salticidae.
The male and the female money spiders are typically 3 mm and 4 mm long respectively. Both sexes are dark brown and have irregular silver patches and black spots on elliptical abdomen. There are numerous fine black spines on their olive green legs. Eight dark eyes are arranged in two rows.
Females build triangular webs in between dry tree twigs and feed on small insects, while males prefer to hide beneath dry leaves. Two or more male spiders can be found in the web of a single female.
The ant-mimicking spider has been named Toxeus alboclavus. Researchers collected this species of jumping spiders from among leaf litters.
“They perfectly mimic ants by lifting their front pair of legs while walking as a mechanism to escape from potential predators. Only three species of this genus have been reported from India, and this is the first species reported from the Western Ghats,” noted Dr. Sudhikumar.
The male and the female spiders of this species grow up to 4 mm and 6 mm long respectively. A pair of white stripes on the dark brown abdomen of females makes them distinct from other spiders of this group. The male of the species are characterised by a brown cephalic region and black thorax with white hairs. The forward-projecting fangs have a characteristic shape of an antler. Long spines are present on the base of each leg.
The study was funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the University Grants Commission (UGC). The findings were published in the British scientific journals Peckhamia and Arachnology.
The story so far: On May 13, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully tested the HS200 solid rocket booster, an integral part of its upcoming manned mission in space, called Gaganyaan.
This rocket booster is used for the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III), which will be a part of the Gaganyaan mission. The successful completion of the test marks a major milestone for the human space flight mission as the first stage of the launch vehicle is tested for its performance for the full duration, according to a statement by ISRO.
ISRO’s upcoming missions this year focus on manned space travel (Gaganyaan), studying the sun (Aditya L-1) and soft-landing on the moon (Chandrayaan-3). Apart from these three missions, several satellite launches (both domestic and foreign) are also scheduled by ISRO throughout the year.
India’s crewed mission in space — Gaganyaan — is scheduled to undertake its unmanned flights in the second half of 2022. The project will demonstrate ISRO’s capability for human spaceflight to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and safe return to the Earth. Gaganyaan comprises two unmanned missions and one manned mission, as approved by the Centre. The manned mission is expected to take up to seven days.
The mission will also lay the foundation for a sustained Indian human space exploration programme. With its manned space mission in 2023, India aims to become the fourth nation to send humans to space after US, Russia and China. India also aims to set up its own space station for conducting research on fundamental, applied and engineering sciences after the completion of Gaganyaan.
In response to a Parliamentary query, the Centre revealed that a new training centre for astronauts has been constructed at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC)—ISRO’s nerve centre in Bengaluru.
Shortlisted astronauts are currently being trained for the mission. Further, rehearsals for crew recovery operations and detailed operational requirements for nominal missions have been finalised. Conceptual designs for microgravity experiments are under review.
For the Gaganyaan mission, ISRO has indigenously developed new technologies including a human-rated launch vehicle, crew escape systems, a habitable orbital module, and a life support system. The designing of all systems and sub-systems has been completed, and the realisation of each system is at different stages of progress. The construction of the integration facility for the orbital module has almost been completed.
In August 2021, ISRO completed a long-duration qualification test for the human-rated cryogenic engine and the first phase testing of the Vikas Engine for the core L110 liquid stage of the human-rated Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk-III) vehicle. With the completion of this test, the engine qualification requirements of the mission were successfully completed.
ISRO has also received inputs for the mission from Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos, as well as the French government’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES.)
The entire Gaganyaan programme is estimated to cost approximately Rs 9,023 crores. Apart from ISRO, the Indian Armed Forces, Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO), Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, Shipping Corporation of India, National Institute of Oceanography, National Institute of Ocean Technology, Indian Meteorological Department, CSIR Labs and several academic institutes and industry partners are a part of the project. While Gaganyaan’s unmanned flight was to take place in 2021, the onset of COVID-19 pushed it to 2022.
India’s first mission to study the Sun, Aditya L-1 aims to place a 400kg satellite in the halo orbit around the Lagrangian point 1 (L1) of the Sun-Earth system to continuously view the sun without any eclipses. While initially only one payload — the Visible Emission Line Coronagraph (VELC) — was planned, the satellite is now scheduled to carry six payloads to the halo orbit around L1, located at a distance of 1.5 million km from Earth.
The payloads of Aditya L-1 comprise:
Visible Emission Line Coronagraph (VELC): Developed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), VELC will engage in imaging and study of the magnetic field and other parameters of the solar corona— the outer layers of the sun extending to thousands of kilometres above the disc (photosphere).
Solar Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (SUIT): Created by the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA), the SUIT will image the spatially resolved solar photosphere and chromosphere in the ultraviolet (200-400 nm) band. It will also measure solar irradiance and its variations.
Aditya Solar wind Particle Experiment (ASPEX): Designed and developed by the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), the ASPEX will study solar wind properties, its distribution and its spectral characteristics.
Plasma Analyser Package for Aditya (PAPA): Jointly developed by the Space Physics Laboratory (SPL) and VSSC, the PAPA will analyse the composition of solar wind and its energy distribution.
Solar Low Energy X-ray Spectrometer (SoLEXS): Created by the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC), the SoLEXS will monitor X-ray flares in the sun’s corona to study its heating mechanism.
High Energy L1 Orbiting X-ray Spectrometer (HEL1OS): A joint venture by ISAC, Udaipur Solar Observatory (USO) and PRL, the HEL1OS will observe dynamic events in the solar corona and estimate the energy used to accelerate particles during eruptive events, such as flares and coronal mass ejections.
Magnetometer: Jointly developed by ISAC and the Laboratory for Electro-optic Systems (LEOS), the magnetometer will measure the magnitude and nature of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field – the solar magnetic field emanating from the solar corona and spanning the solar system.
While this mission was to be launched in 2019-2020, it has now been pushed to 2022.
ISRO aims to launch Chandrayaan-3 in an attempt to ‘soft land’ on the moon, after Chandrayaan-2 hard-landed on the lunar surface in 2019.
The Centre informed Parliament that based on the learnings from Chandrayaan-2 and suggestions from a national level committee, special testing of many hardware components has been successfully completed. The launch of Chandrayaan-3 is scheduled for August 2022.
On July 22, 2019, Chandrayaan-2’s rocket successfully lifted off with the Vikram Lander and Pragyan rover housed in it. The lander was scheduled to ‘soft-land’ (i.e. landing of spacecraft on the lunar surface intact without crashing) on September 7, 2019, near the lunar south pole, 71 degrees to the south of the equator and 22.8 degrees east. Two hours after its landing, the hatch was scheduled to open, lowering the ramp and allowing the rover to roll out. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to explore the south lunar surface 500m at a time and send its results to the lander which would be in communication with the orbiting satellite (Chandrayaan-1).
However, on September 7, 2019, after the Vikram Lander began its landing sequence, there was a large deviation in the altitude and velocity during the ‘pipe breaking phase.’ While the lander descended from 30 km to 2km smoothly, it lost communication with ISRO’s Deep Space Antenna and fell to the surface of the moon —a hard landing. The crashed lander with the rover stuck inside was was located by NASA on December 3, 2019.
While the three missions listed above are major projects for ISRO in 2022 , the space agency has also scheduled several satellite launches this year.
These include — two Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) missions , one commercial and one for launching the EOS-06 earth observation satellite; two developmental flights of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV); and one Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) mission for launching the NVS-01 navigation satellite.
ISRO has also scheduled one communication satellite mission (GSAT-24) and one Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – Mark III (GSLV Mk-III) mission – both for commercial customers.
Li, J., Scarano, A., Gonzalez, N.M. et al. Biofortified tomatoes provide a new route to vitamin D sufficiency. Nat. Plants (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-022-01154-6
Reading the pages of the World Sustainable Development Goals 2 (SDG2) — Eradicating Hunger — is depressing to say the least. According to the estimates made in 2020, nearly 690 million people, who make up close to 8.9% of the world’s population, are hungry. This number has increased by 60 million in the preceding five years. The index which was initially decreasing has started to rise since 2015. This does not portend well for the SDG2 which has as its target zero hunger by 2030, and the guess is, if this trend continues, that the world will have 840 million people affected by hunger by 2030.
There are various ramifications to hunger, and an important part of it is micronutrient malnutrition. This is a term used for diseases caused by deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the diet. This is particularly a problem in developing countries and the number of those suffering from this so-called invisible hunger is huge. Some methods of combating this are to provide micronutrient supplements in the form of tablets or capsules and to fortify food products such as flour or salt by enhancing micronutrients in them. There is also the route of genetically modifying plants to produce biofortified leaves and fruit which can be consumed to alleviate micronutrient hunger.
In this line, a paper in Nature Plants by Jie Li et al tries to address vitamin D deficiency by genetically modifying tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) plants so that the fruit contains a significant amount of provitamin D 3 which is a precursor from which humans can make vitamin D. Provitamin D 3 has the chemical name 7-dehydrocholesterol, or 7-DHC for short. Humans can synthesise Vitamin D from 7-DHC when they are exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. Vitamin D is needed for a process known as calcium homeostasis which is the maintenance of constant concentration of calcium ions in the body. This is needed for, among other things, bone development and strength, and its deficiency is a cause of conditions such as rickets and osteoporosis.
Other diseases that are associated with vitamin D deficiency are cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Vitamin D 3 is present in fish and dairy products. Vegetarian diets are particularly deficient in Vitamin D.
The recommended intake of vitamin D is 15 microgram per day for children and 20 microgram per day for elders. This can be given through supplements or a careful exposure to sunlight, but there are various caveats for the latter. It is in this context that the work of J. Li et al is significant. The authors of the paper, published in Nature Plants, tweaked a recently discovered pathway in tomato plants to produce cholesterol and a substance called steroidal glycoalkaloid (SGA for short) using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool. This inhibits the conversion of 7-DHC to cholesterol and instead the former accumulates in the leaves, green and ripe fruits.
Usually, in untreated tomato plants, 7-DHC is present in leaves and to a lower extent in green fruit, but not in ripe fruit — which is the most consumed of the lot. The researchers showed that in their modified plants, the suppression of the activity of a particular gene, “led to substantial increases of 7-DHC levels in leaves and green fruit,” and, according to the paper, while levels of 7-DHC were lower in ripe fruits of the mutant, they remained high enough that if converted to Vitamin D 3 by shining UVB light, the amount in one tomato would be equivalent to that in two eggs or 28 grams of tuna, both of which are recommended sources of vitamin D. In addition, the researchers report that the mutants showed a reduction in their leaves of a substance called alpha-tomatine, and they comment that this may even be beneficial because of alpha-tomatine’s reported toxicant or antinutritional activity. Surprisingly, the cholesterol levels in both fruit and leaves of the mutants was higher that of the wild-type. This was despite having blocked the conversion of 7-DHC to cholesterol.
Prof P. V. Shivaprasad, whose group in National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, studies the effect of small RNA biogenesis in establishment of epigenetics (epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes in the way your genes work), and who is not involved in this work comments that while the study throws open a welcome new angle to increase vitamin D intake, it needs better understanding. Alpha-tomatine is believed to have a role in the plant’s resistance to viral, fungal, insect and herbivoral attacks. Thereby it is important in safeguarding the plant and its self-preservation, and the reduction of alpha-tomatine in the mutants may not necessarily be a good thing. The unexplained levels of cholesterol are also surprising and need to be explained. So, while this experiment is an important one and promises to be fruitful in replenishing vegetarian diets with vitamin D, it needs further scrutiny and a deeper look.
The origin debate on novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is yet to be settled. Most indications suggest that the virus jumped across the species barrier from bats to humans either directly or through an intermediate host. There is another view that the virus might have escaped or leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.
Such lab leaks had indeed happened in the past. In 2004, two researchers in a virology lab in Beijing working on the 2002 SARS virus were independently infected. The virus was transmitted to seven people in all but the outbreak was contained soon enough. A section of scientists and others believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might have followed the same course but went on to cause the pandemic.
While irrefutable evidence in support of a natural origin is lacking as scientists have so far not been able to identify bats harbouring viruses very similar to the novel coronavirus to establish that the virus had indeed jumped directly from bats to humans. Nor have they been able to conclusively identify the intermediate host from where the virus jumped to humans and began spreading among people.
While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is quite similar to the RATG13 coronavirus found in horseshoe bats, the genome of the two viruses have only 96% similarity. So the virus, if it had jumped from bats to humans, is yet to be identified in bats. Pangolin has been suggested as a potential intermediate host that could have harboured the coronavirus before it made the giant leap to spread among humans. Many studies have found similarity between the coronavirus in pangolin and SARS-CoV-2 virus in terms of genome sequences. A study published recently in the journal iScience evaluated the biological characteristics of the pangolin coronavirus. The researchers from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology studied the pathogenicity and transmissibility of pangolin coronavirus by infecting Syrian golden hamsters and compared it with hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2.
They found that the pangolin coronavirus was not only able to effectively infect hamsters but also cause the similar kind of responses in tissues as the novel coronavirus. Though both viruses seem to have the same affinity for the receptors, the pangolin coronavirus was able to efficiently replicate in the respiratory system and brain, much like the SARS-CoV-2. However, the scientists were not able to find infectious pangolin coronavirus in organs other than the respiratory system and brain, which is different from hamsters infected by SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Hamsters infected with pangolin coronavirus did not suffer substantial loss of body, while hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2 did show a slight reduction in body weight in the first five days of infection and then regained weight.
Alveolar wall thickening of lungs of hamsters infected with pangolin coronavirus was “widespread” whereas the alveolar wall thickening in hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2 was severe. There were other differences in pathogenesis too. In all, pangolin coronavirus produced moderate disease in hamsters and was less virulent than SARS-CoV-2.
There were differences in the way the viruses replicated — SARS-CoV-2 replicated way higher in the hamsters than the pangolin coronavirus could. Viral shedding by hamsters infected with pangolin coronavirus lasted for three days, while hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed virus for five days.
The most important difference was in the route of transmission. While pangolin coronavirus did not spread via aerosols but only through contact transmission, SARS-CoV-2 showed an “efficient contact transmissibility and an efficient aerosol transmissibility with a transmission efficiency of 100%”, the authors write. One reason for lack of aerosol transmission in the case of pangolin coronavirus could be because of the less viral aerosols produced by the infected hamsters. The second likely reason could be the larger size of the viral particles exhaled by hamsters infected with pangolin coronavirus. In contrast, SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters produced significantly higher amounts of viral aerosols, they found. Also, the amount of virus particles exhaled per minute by hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2 was nearly 2.5 times more than hamsters infected with pangolin coronavirus.
Based on the study, the researchers conclude that the infection characteristics of pangolin coronavirus and SARS-CoV-2 are similar though the pathogenicity and transmissibility are much more in hamsters infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus. Though pangolin coronavirus spread from one hamster to another only through direct contact and not through aerosol, the “public health risk of pangolin coronavirus being potential candidates for global dissemination could not be ignored”, they write. They also caution that “continual monitoring of the mutation and evolution of pangolin coronavirus should be implemented in the future, and the illegal wildlife trade of pangolins should be effectively controlled”.
The study does not conclusively show that pangolins could have been the intermediate host. But the possibility of pangolin coronavirus crossing the species barrier at a future date and infecting humans cannot be ruled out.
New research led by the University of Cambridge has found an unusual pocket of rock at the boundary layer with Earth's core, some 3,000 km beneath the surface. The enigmatic area of rock, which is located almost directly beneath the Hawaiian Islands, is one of several ultra-low velocity zones, which are so-called because earthquake waves slow to a crawl as they pass through them.
The research ( Nature Communications) reveals the complex internal variability of one of these pockets in detail, shedding light on the landscape of Earth's deep interior and the processes operating within it.
Earth's interior is layered like an onion: at the centre sits the iron-nickel core, surrounded by a thick layer known as the mantle, and on top of that a thin outer shell — the crust we live on. Although the mantle is solid rock, it is hot enough to flow extremely slowly. These internal convection currents feed heat to the surface, driving the movement of tectonic plates and fuelling volcanic eruptions.
Scientists use seismic waves from earthquakes to see beneath Earth's surface — the echoes and shadows of these waves revealing radar-like images of deep interior topography. But until recently, images of the structures at the core-mantle boundary have been grainy and difficult to interpret.
The researchers used the latest numerical modelling methods to reveal kilometre-scale structures at the core-mantle boundary. They observed a 40% reduction in the speed of seismic waves travelling at the base of the ultra-low velocity zone beneath Hawaii. According to the authors, this supports existing proposals that the zone contains much more iron than the surrounding rocks -- meaning it is denser and more sluggish.
A substance found in fruits and vegetables can neutralise the venom of a poisonous pit viper common in much of South America, Brazilian researchers have discovered.
In Brazil, the Bothrops jararaca, also called "yarara," is responsible for most of the country's 26,000 recorded snake bites each year, according to the online Reptile Database.
The study, conducted by Sao Paulo's Butantan Institute and published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, found that a modified version of the compound rutin, the water soluble succinyl rutin, can delay the effect of a poisonous bite.
The finding could complement standard treatment with anti-bothropic serum, offering an emergency fix for those bitten in remote locations where immediate access to medical services is impossible.
Marcelo Santoro, who coordinated the research, said the serum treats the main effects of the snakebite.
"In this sense, rutin would serve as an adjuvant; not to replace the serum, but to delay the effects of poisoning, controlling bleeding and inflammation," he said.
Researchers from the National Institute of Health Doutor Ricardo Jorge (INSA), Lisbon, Portugal have shared the draft genome sequence of the monkeypox virus that is rapidly spreading in many European countries. The draft sequence has been posted at the virolgical.org site.
The released draft genome sequence covers about 92% of the reference sequence. The sample was obtained from a swab collected on May 4 from skin lesions from a male patient in Portugal. As on May 19, Portugal had reported over 20 laboratory-confirmed cases of monkeypox.
Researchers from Belgium — the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, and the University of Antwerp, Antwerp — too have shared a draft genome sequence of monkeypox at the virolgical.org site. The researchers were able to reconstruct 98.9% of the genome.
The genome was sequenced from a sample collected from a person in Belgium. The 30-year-old male in Belgium has a travel history to Lisbon, Portugal.
In the month of May 2022, many cases of monkeypox have been reported from at least 11 countries and there were about 80 confirmed cases, and 50 pending investigations, the WHO tweeted on May 20.
According to the New Scientist, 127 cases have been identified by May 21. The cases are mainly from Europe — Portugal, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Sweden, Belgium — and the U.S.
Monkeypox is not endemic in Europe or the U.S. but is endemic in a few Central and West African countries. The virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials.
Based on rapid phylogenetic analysis of the draft genome, the researchers have found that the virus now spreading outside Africa belongs to the West African clade. According to the New Scientist, the virus belonging to the West African clade is mild in nature.
“The phylogenetic analysis of the draft genome indicates that the 2022 virus belongs to the West African clade and is most closely related to viruses associated with the exportation of monkeypox virus from Nigeria to several countries in 2018 and 2019, namely the United Kingdom, Israel and Singapore,” write the Portuguese researchers.
And the genome sequenced from the male in Belgium appears to be closely related to the genome shared by the researchers from Portugal. “Preliminary phylogenetic analysis clearly shows that the obtained genome belongs to the West African clade of MPXV [monkeypox] and is most closely related to the recently uploaded genome from the outbreak in Portugal providing further evidence of substantial community spread in Europe,” the researchers from Belgium write. The increased number of cases from multiple countries have raised concerns about enhanced human-to-human transmission of the virus. Evidence about increased human-to-human transmission, which is possible only if the virus has undergone any changes to make it easily transmissible among humans, will come from detailed genome sequence analysis.
According to the New Scientist, establishing increased transmissibility of the virus that is currently circulating in Europe, the U.S. and Canada will take time as monkeypox has a “large [around 200,000 DNA letters long] and complex genome”. The current outbreak outside Africa is the most widespread and also the largest till date.
According to Nature News, monkeypox has been detected in people who have not come in contact with those with monkeypox infection, which suggests that the virus might been spreading silently. In a statement issued on May 20, the WHO regional director for Europe too said that the “geographically dispersed nature of the cases across Europe and beyond, suggests that transmission may have been ongoing for some time”. Also, except in one case, there has been no travel history to areas in West or Central Africa where the monkeypox virus is endemic.
Monkeypox usually causes very visible skin lesions and hence cannot go unnoticed. The silent spread, if true, might mean that the virus is able to also spread without causing symptoms in some infected people. If monkeypox can indeed spread asymptomatically then it would make it harder to track the virus, Andrea McCollum, an epidemiologist at CDC Atlanta told Nature News.
“As more samples are sequenced, it should become clear whether, as suspected, a single variant of monkeypox is responsible for all the cases in the latest outbreak,” the New Scientist notes.
Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the leading cause of death among adults in India. One of the major drivers of heart attack and stroke is untreated high blood pressure or hypertension. Hypertension is a silent killer as most patients do not have any symptoms.
India has more than 200 million people with hypertension, and only 14.5% of individuals with hypertension are on treatment. Unlike many other diseases, hypertension is easy to diagnose and can be treated with low-cost generic drugs.
India Hypertension Control Initiative (IHCI) is a multi-partner initiative involving the Indian Council of Medical Research, WHO-India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and State governments to improve blood pressure control for people with hypertension. The project initiated in 26 districts in 2018 has expanded to more than 100 districts by 2022. More than two million patients were started on treatment and tracked to see whether they achieved BP control.
The project demonstrated that blood pressure treatment and control are feasible in primary care settings in diverse health systems across various States in India. Before IHCI, many patients travelled to higher-level facilities such as community health centres (block level) or district hospitals in the public sector for hypertension treatment. Over three years, all levels of health staff at the primary health centres and health wellness centres were trained to provide treatment and follow-up services for hypertension.
Nearly half (47%) of the patients under care achieved blood pressure control. The BP control among people enrolled in treatment was 48% at primary health centres and 55% at the health wellness centres. The most encouraging finding was that BP control in the primary care facilities was higher when compared with hospitals. The availability of medications in the peripheral facilities made it easier for the patient to continue treatment, thus improving BP control.
The project was built on five scalable strategies: First, a simple treatment protocol with three drugs was selected in consultation with the experts and non-communicable disease programme managers. Second, the supply chain was strengthened to ensure the availability of adequate antihypertensive drugs. Third, patient-centric approaches were followed, such as refills for at least 30 days and assigning the patients to the closest primary health centre or health wellness centre to make follow-up easier. Fourth, the focus was on building capacity of all health staff and sharing tasks such as BP measurement, documentation, and follow-up. Finally, there was minimal documentation using either paper-based or digital tools to track follow-up and BP control.
One of the unique contributions of the project was a data-driven approach to improving care and overall programme management. The list of people who did not return for treatment was generated through a digital system or on paper by the nurse/health workers. Patients were reminded either over the phone or by home visit (if feasible). This strategy motivated a large number of patients to continue treatment. In addition, programme managers reviewed aggregate data at the district and State levels to assess the performance of facilities in terms of follow-up and BP control.
Scaling hypertension treatment is feasible given the enablers in India’s health system. When procured at scale, the generic antihypertensive drugs cost only ₹200 per patient per year.
India has a vast network of primary health centres where doctors and nurses can be trained to diagnose and treat hypertension.
Health wellness centres under Ayushman Bharat Yojna have specially trained nurses who can measure blood pressure and provide refills for patients initiated on treatment by doctors at the higher health facility.
In addition, E-Sanjeevani, a telemedicine initiative, facilitates teleconsultations.
Since 2018, the project team has worked hand-in-hand with State health departments to strengthen the hypertension component within the framework of ongoing initiatives for the control of noncommunicable diseases. Based on the positive experience, several States have already started implementing the strategies beyond project districts.
We need to address a few challenges to reduce the treatment gap. Many people with hypertension are not aware of their high BP. All health facilities can measure BP at the entry point for people who visit the doctor for any health problem. This strategy, also known as opportunistic screening, does not require additional resources.
The availability of good quality blood pressure monitors is a prerequisite for accurate BP measurement. Extended refills up to 60 days can reduce visits to health facilities.
One of the challenges is the involvement of the private sector, where a large number of people with hypertension currently seek care. We must overcome the challenges to ensure early detection and treatment of hypertension to reduce preventable deaths and disability due to heart attack, stroke, and chronic kidney disease.
( Prabhdeep Kaur is Senior Scientist and Head of Division of NCD, ICMR-National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, and is a member of the IHCI team. firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has issued guidelines easing norms for research into genetically modified (GM) crops and circumventing challenges of using foreign genes to change crops profile.
The ‘Guidelines for Safety Assessment of Genome Edited Plants, 2022’ exempt researchers who use gene-editing technology to modify the genome of the plant from seeking approvals from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), an expert body of the Environment Ministry. The GEAC evaluates research into GM plants and recommends, or disapproves, their release into farmer fields. The final call however is taken by the Environment Minister as well as States where such plants could be cultivated. The Environment Ministry too has sanctioned this exemption.
The GM plants that have usually come for such scrutiny are those that involve transgenic technology or introducing a gene from a different species into a plant, for instance BT-cotton, where a gene from soil bacterium is used to protect a plant from pest attack.
The worry around this method is that these genes may spread to neighbouring plants, where such effects are not intended and so their applications have been controversial. Despite several kinds of transgenic crops having been researched and approved by scientific committees, none, save BT-cotton, has made it to fields because of stringent opposition from environmental activists as well as farmer organisations.
The DBT, whose mandate is to promote biotechnology, in the guidelines, says the document is a “... road map for the development and sustainable use of genome editing technologies in India, specifying the biosafety and/or environmental safety concerns, and describing the regulatory pathways to be adopted while undertaking the genome editing of plants.”
Genome editing involves the use of technologies that allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A well-known one is called CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9.
Just as foreign genes can be used to add properties to plants, gene editing too can be used to make plants express properties not native to them.
The guidelines say that all requirements that researchers must adhere to to develop transgenic seeds will apply to gene-edited seeds except clauses that require permission from the GEAC.
Environmentalist groups have opposed this exception for gene-edited crops. “Gene editing is included in genetic engineering. Therefore, there is no question of giving exemptions to particular kinds of genome edited plants from the regulatory purview,” said a letter from Coalition for a GM-free India to Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav. Gene editing techniques, the letter alleges, involves altering the function of genes and can cause “large and unintended consequences” that can change the “toxicity and allergenicity” of plants. “Without the necessary regulatory oversight, how will regulators and the public know about such changes? Who will be responsible for the resultant risk implications?” their letter queries. They have demanded that these exemptions be withdrawn.
N. Raghuram, Professor, Biotechnology, at Guru Gobind Singh University, New Delhi, said there were a great many similarities in the techniques employed in transgenic technology and gene-editing technology. “Gene-editing is getting quite popular in biotechnology labs across the country. Gene editing can address some of the fears around the use of ‘foreign genes’ but it can only be used to express genes already present in a plant’s genome that are not manifest. But more importantly, it is not about technology but about how plants developed thus are sold or made available to farmers.”
Prof. Ajay Kumar Sood, a Distinguished Professor of Physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who took over as the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India, says crucial missions are on the roll now just as the country has overcome three waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview with The Hindu, he speaks about the need for being ‘future ready’ with regard to the pandemic, why India’s mobility issues should not depend on imported technology, and what the biodiversity mission will entail.
Excerpts from the interview
It couldn’t have come at a better time. All of us have been sensisitised to it. Two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have taught us enormous lessons and everyone is aware of the need for this mission. A DPR has been prepared and circulated for expert comments and inter-ministerial consultation. A draft note has been prepared for the national policy. There are genetics and human science initiatives by CSIR and DBT, which has been doing enormous amount of work, such as the Unique Methods of Management and treatment of inherited disorders and Genome India Project. All this needs to be integrated to make sure there is a synergy between various stakeholders.
COVID-19 is not over yet. We have to be future ready. We have to see what is the future vaccination plan, and what our animal pandemic preparedness is. Many things come from the animal world.... They are inter-connected. We must think about pandemic preparedness and see how to integrate the one health system. I hope the PSA office will come up with a plan to work on this idea because it cuts across the entire country.
These are very important missions, which were discussed in PM STIAC meetings almost three years ago. Then COVID-19 happened, and things did not move as fast as they should have. Now, the Department of Expenditure has approved the mission in principle, but has also asked the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to make some revisions so there are no overlaps with the work of other ministries. Now, the ministry is working on the DPR before the money is released. Very soon, we hope that the revised document will be submitted to the Department of Expenditure. Then, we will probably be on our way to launch the mission.
We have specific concerns for national biodiversity — loss of intact forests, which is a big issue; climate change and the pandemic, which cause stress on the natural eco system, which causes a threat to species, India’s natural eco system management, which comes under the control of States, etc. The trans-disciplinary efforts need to be expedited with a lot of planning. India has such a rich biodiversity, so conservation is key. The cost is pretty high from the economic standpoint. Natural services associated with biodiversity have huge economic implications. By some estimates, it is up to ₹128 trillion per year.
For EVs, there are many issues, such as batteries. Is lithium battery everything? Then we have to deal with the issue of materials. Where is so much lithium, cobalt that nations need? A lot of R&D work needs to be done, but we cannot wait for that to happen and then launch EVs. They have to go in parallel. Battery is one aspect. Many people are moving towards hydrogen based systems. We have initiated some effort.
The Department of Science and Technology will lead R&D. We need long-term solutions, and lithium and battery are not.
Immediate action is also needed on charging. Though it looks simple, we don’t have standardisation. Standardisation and innovations have to go hand in hand, and the PSA has led a lot of work already on this. Standards for low power charging stations have been looked at, as two and three wheelers are big markets in India. This has come through the Bureau of Indian Standards, which had notified standards in 2021. For the high power automatic connector charging — four wheelers, buses, etc, the draft is being prepared.
A lot of work for futuristic batteries needs to be done, and they should be made in India. Mobility issues cannot be based on imported technology.
This is a partnership between PSA and Invest India. We should target Indian emerging technology capabilities and national objectives in various areas. We must enable technologies and startups to serve these objectives. National priorities will generate opportunities. This is a huge way forward. We have three specific mandates right now: AGNIi will execute exemplar projects, deeper technology partnerships with individual ministries such as the waste-to-wealth project, and additional domains such as AI, robotics. The hope is that in the next year or two, it will make significant impact on the national objective front.
In our anxiety to only translate, we should not lose track of fundamental science. If we only talk about transactional technology, you have to ask, from where will it come five years down the line? If you keep on depending on other countries to generate fundamental science, why will they not commercialise it? We need to generate fundamental smart ideas. All fundamental science will not lead to technology tomorrow.
India has to have three pillars — science, technology and solution. But science cannot be derivative science. Science is also a platform to ignite young minds. If science is not exciting and not making the imagination flow, bright minds won’t come to science. That can happen if fundamental science is equally exciting. It’s all interconnected.
Technology also leads to good science. Now experimental science is so technology driven. We should not lose track of basic science and pitch it high in terms of discovery. Without discovery, you cannot do innovation in the long run.
Chinese scientists have proposed a space project to survey the sky through a space-borne telescope to hunt for habitable Earth-like planets outside the solar system, about 32 light-years from Earth, the official media reported on Thursday.
The project, named Closeby Habitable Exoplanet Survey (CHES), if carried out, will be the first space mission specially designed to search for habitable terrestrial planets around nearby Sun-like stars, the report said.
The exploration of habitable planets outside the solar system is one of the key frontiers of fundamental research in astronomy.
The CHES will observe about 100 Sun-like stars 32 light-years away on a long-term survey, and will hopefully discover roughly 50 Earth-like planets or super-Earths, planets that are up to about 10 times the mass of Earth, state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported.
The CHES will offer crucial clues to the issues such as "Are we alone in the universe?" and "How can planets become the cradle of life?" according to Ji Jianghui, a research professor from the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is the principal investigator of the CHES mission.
Ji said more than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed so far, including about 50 Earth-like planets in the habitable zone, but most of them are hundreds of light-years away from Earth.
"The discovery of the nearby habitable worlds will be a great breakthrough for humankind, and will also help humans visit those Earth twins and expand our living space in the future," Ji added.
Skyroot Aerospace, the national-award winning startup building India’s first privately built space launch vehicles has announced the successful completion of a full duration test-firing of its ‘Vikram-1’ rocket stage, representing a major milestone for the company on Thursday.
Named ‘Kalam-100’ after former President and the renowned Indian rocket scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the third stage of ‘Vikram-1’ produces a peak vacuum thrust of 100 kN (or ~10Tons) and has a burn time of 108 sec, said the city based firm’s founders, in an official release.
The rocket stage has been built with high-strength carbon fiber structure, solid fuel, novel thermal protection system, and carbon ablative nozzle. “It’s a highly reliable stage with no moving parts and high level of automation in manufacturing. This testing will help us in development of orbital vehicle Vikram-1 and gives great confidence for our other rocket stages planned to be tested soon,” said Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and co-founder Pawan Kumar Chandana.
“This is best in class rocket stage of this size, with record propellant loading and firing duration, and using all carbon composite structure for delivering best performance,” chipped in Chief Operating Officer (COO) and co-founder Naga Bharath Daka. Solar Industries India Ltd, a public listed company and one of the investors in Skyroot, managing director and chief executive officer Manish Nuwal pointed out that it is “largest rocket stage ever designed, manufactured, and tested completely in the private sector. We are proud to be a part of this achievement by supporting the propellant processing and static testing at our world class facilities in Nagpur.”
Skyroot vice president and veteran rocket scientist Eswaran VG stated that the “good match of test results with the design predictions in the very first attempt is a testimony to the team’s capabilities”. “The state-of-the-art technology like carbon composite case, high propellant volumetric loading upto 94%, lighter EPDM based thermal protection system, and submerged nozzle have been validated through the successful static test”, he added.
The firm, founded by former scientists of the Indian Space Research organization (ISRO), is a 150 plus member strong team actively developing their flagship Vikram series of space launch vehicles, named after ISRO founder Vikram Sarabhai.
Recently the Bay of Bengal region saw a cyclone named Cyclone Asani that gave rain to parts of the eastern coast of India. This cyclone had a twin by name Cyclone Karim in the southern hemisphere. Such twin cyclones are said to be cause by the Madden-Julian Oscillation.
What is the Madden-Julian Oscillation or MJO as it is called?
The MJO is a large cluster of clouds and convection, perhaps 5,000-10,000 kilometres in size. Twin cyclones are born sometimes because of the MJO.
Not all tropical cyclones are born from the MJO. Sometimes they care caused by a simple Rossby wave with two vortices on either side of the equator; the MJO is a little more complicated. Often, it is said the MJO is a coherent structure with a Kelvin wave to the East and a Rossby wave on the trailing Western side. This is called the trailing side because the whole structure is moving Eastwards at a low speed of about 5 metres per second. This was discovered in early 1970s.
The Madden Julian Oscillation is created in the Indian Ocean and decays near the International Date Line. But this is just the part of the wave that is moist. That is, the part in regions where the ocean is warm, so there are lots of clouds. There is also the dry part of the MJO that goes right around the Earth and comes back again. Therefore, it is called an oscillation. This repeats every 30 to 50 days. It is aperiodic but it has a preferred recurrence time. Thus, in the winter season alone you will have three of the MJOs going past. “They are born in the Western side in the Indian Ocean and then they move to the East. You can see them going all the way to the centre of the Pacific, to the dateline. They go all the way from 60 or 65 degrees East to about 150 – 180 degrees East, where the Ocean is warm,” says Prof. Debasis Sengupta of Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who is an expert on climate studies in the Bay of Bengal region. The warm pool in the ocean, that’s the region associated with clouds, convection and heavy rain. Beyond that, the ocean is cool and the structure moves around the earth along the equator as a dry disturbance in the atmosphere. There is not enough moisture to sustain the clouds in these regions, where the ocean is cool. The dry MJO wave can actually be traced around the world.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that there is benefit of administering an additional booster dose of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine for highest risk groups, health workers, those over 60 years of age or with immunocompromising conditions.
As a general principle, an interval of 4-6 months since completion of the primary series of the vaccine could be considered for a first booster, especially in the context of Omicron, said the WHO, with the support of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunisation and its COVID-19 Vaccines Working Group.
The WHO said that in considering additional booster doses, the two main scenarios to assess are the use of additional booster doses in those who are not able to mount and sustain adequate immune responses and considerations for additional booster doses to be administered in order to protect high risk populations and health workers to maintain the health system during periodic waves of disease surges.
It said that available data for WHO EUL COVID-19 vaccine products suggest that vaccine effectiveness and immunogenicity are lower in immunocompromised persons (ICPs), compared to persons without immunocompromising conditions.
“An additional dose included in an extended primary series enhances immune responses in some ICPs. Given the significant risk of severe COVID-19 for ICPs, if infected, WHO has already issued a recommendation for an extended primary series (i.e. third dose) as well as a booster dose (i.e. fourth dose) for ICPs, for all COVID-19 vaccines,” it said.
The WHO noted that additional booster doses beyond the first booster dose are currently being offered by some countries, adding that data on additional booster doses as of May 2022 only exists for the mRNA vaccines, and not for other vaccine platforms.
The WHO cited seven studies, conducted during a time when Omicron was the predominant circulating strain globally, that evaluated the relative effectiveness of a fourth dose four months after a third dose of mRNA vaccine compared to those who received three doses.
“Taken together, these studies show some short-term benefit of an additional booster dose of mRNA vaccine in health workers, those over 60 years of age or with immunocompromising conditions,” the WHO said.
It said that data to support an additional dose for healthy younger populations are limited; preliminary data suggest that in younger people, the benefit is minimal.
“The limited available data suggest that for highest risk groups, there is a benefit that supports the administration of an additional booster dose,” the WHO said, adding that in those most at risk for severe disease or death (i.e. adults above the age of 60 years, or those who are not able to mount a full immune response), the additional benefit of an additional booster dose of mRNA vaccine might be “warranted”.
It said while seasonality is not yet fully established for SARS-COV-2, evidence from the past two years support the notion of more substantial transmission during the winter season.
“Therefore, for countries with either a Northern or Southern Hemisphere winter season, plans for catch-up to improve primary series coverage and boosting for those at highest risk, campaigns should take seasonality into account,” the WHO added.
A NASA spacecraft on Mars is headed for a dusty demise.
The InSight lander is losing power because of all the dust on its solar panels. NASA said on May 17 that it will keep using the spacecraft’s seismometer to register marsquakes until the power peters out, likely in July. Then flight controllers will monitor InSight until the end of this year, before calling everything off.
“There really hasn't been too much doom and gloom on the team. We're really still focused on operating the spacecraft,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Bruce Banerdt, the principal scientist.
Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes; the biggest one, a magnitude 5, occurred two weeks ago.
It will be NASA's second Mars lander lost to dust: A global dust storm took out Opportunity in 2018. In InSight's case, it's been a gradual gathering of dust, especially over the past year.
NASA's two other functioning spacecraft on the Martian surface — rovers Curiosity and Perseverance — are still going strong thanks to nuclear power. The space agency may rethink solar power in the future for Mars, said planetary science director Lori Glaze, or at least experiment with new panel-clearing tech or aim for the less-stormy seasons.
InSight currently is generating one-tenth of the power from the sun than it did upon arrival. Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes; now it’s down to 10 minutes max.
The InSight team anticipated this much dust build-up but hoped a gust of wind or dust devil might clean off the solar panels. That has yet to happen, despite several thousand whirlwinds coming close.
“None of them have quite hit us dead-on yet enough to blow the dust off the panels," Banerdt told reporters.
Another science instrument, dubbed the mole, was supposed to burrow 16 feet (5 metres) underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German digger never got deeper than a couple of feet (a half-metre) because of the unexpected composition of the red dirt, and it finally was declared dead at the beginning of last year.
As India nears the 200-crore COVID-19 vaccination mark, Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield accounts for 80 per cent (154 crore) of the jabs, while Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin accounts for 16.75 per cent (32 crore) jabs.
Of the 191 crore jabs administered till now, the remaining three vaccines used — Gamelaya’s Sputnik –V, Biological E’s Corbevax and Novovax-SII’s Covovax — account only for 3.25 per cent (6.25 crore) altogether.
As of date, India has granted emergency usage authorisation (EUA) to nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates in total – Covishield, Covaxin, Covovax, Corbevax, Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D, Moderna’s Spikevax, Sputnik-V, Sputnik Light, and Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Ad26.COV2.S.
However, only five vaccines are in use and all are indigenously produced.
Produced by Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila in collaboration with the Centre’s National Biopharma Mission, ZyCoV-D is India’s first DNA COVID-19 vaccine. Using a plasmid DNA — a small, circular and extrachromosomal bacterial DNA — ZyCoV-D creates spike protein to develop anti-bodies to counter the COVID-19 virus. Injected in three doses with a disposable painless jet applicator at an interval of 28 days each, ZyCoV-D clocked a vaccine efficacy of 66.6 per cent.
While the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) granted approval to ZyCoV-D on August 20, 2021, the manufacturer and the Centre could not agree on the price for each dose. Zydus Cadila had quoted a price of Rs 1900 for its three-dose regimen and its jet applicators used for each dose. After a series of negotiations, the company reduced its cost to Rs 265 per dose and Rs 93 for the applicator – tallying to Rs 358 per dose (Rs 1074 for three doses).
Finally, in February 2022, Zydus Cadila started supplying its COVID-19 vaccine to the Centre, which decided to introduce it in Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. These states have been asked to identify districts with a high number of people who have not taken the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, according to the CoWIN Portal, not a single dose of ZyCoV-D has been administered outside of clinical trials until now.
Despite lengthy discussions, U.S. pharma giant Pfizer and the Central government could not agree on favourable terms for vaccine distribution in India. The Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine, sold under the brand name Comirnaty, is among the most predominantly used vaccines in Europe and the U.S.
While the Centre had fast-tracked clearances for importing foreign COVID-19 vaccines to India in June 2021, the U.S. pharma company had locked horns with the Centre over the indemnity clause. Pfizer insisted on an indemnity clause which would protect the company if its vaccine was perceived to have caused death or any lasting damage to a recipient. Under such a clause, any compensation claim would have to be paid by the government, not the company.
Hesitating to agree to this binding clause, Centre held several rounds of talks with Pfizer to negotiate prices and the volume of a potential vaccine order. Pfizer had also applied for EUA in India but later withdrew its application when there was no breakthrough in the indemnity negotiations.
Moderna and J&J:
India did grant EUA to Moderna’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in June 2021, allowing Indian pharma company Cipla to import vaccines. However, in September, as domestic vaccine manufacturing picked up, the Centre decided not to import Moderna vaccines, according to Reuters. The two-dose vaccine also needs ultra-cold storage facilities which are not available in most Indian districts.
For the J&J vaccine, the Centre agreed to waive bridging clinical studies — studies used for vaccines for which clinical trials have not been conducted in India — and granted EUA in August 2021. J&J had agreed to produce the vaccine domestically with Biological E, during a severe vaccine shortage in September 2021. The Centre had been in talks to acquire as many as 43.5 million doses of the single-dose Janssen vaccine; however, it later dropped these plans as the domestic production of indigenous vaccines picked up.
The Centre has allowed private firms to acquire these foreign jabs on their own. However, firms have hesitated to place orders due to the availability of cheaper domestic vaccine options.
As of date, about 97 per cent of India’s eligible population over 18 years has received their first COVID-19 vaccine shot while 80 per cent has received two doses.
However, there are three vaccines still undergoing clinical trials in India which may be used either for export purposes or for vaccinating toddlers.
Bharat Biotech’s nasal vaccine (BBV154):
An intranasal adenoviral vaccine, BBV154 is currently in its third stage of human trials in four sites across India. This vaccine generates an immune response at the site of infection (in the nasal area) and essentially blocks both infection and transmission of COVID-19. The single-dose vaccine can be administered to children over the age of two with a non-invasive, needle-free technique. The Centre is aiming to inoculate young children with the intranasal vaccine, to reduce transmission of the virus.
Gennova Biopharmaceutical’s Gemcovac:
India’s first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine — Gemcovac1-19 — is currently seeking EUA from the Centre. Cleared to stockpile over 21 lakh doses from the Central Drugs Laboratory (CDL), Kasauli, the Pune-based pharma company has run into trouble over allegations of violating clinical trial protocol.
The Centre has alleged that the company did not comply with clinical trial protocol during Phase-2 and 3 of human trials. During these phases, the company had been cleared to study the neutralisation antibodies of the mRNA vaccine on volunteers on days 29, 43, 57, 119 and 209. However, during the trial, day 57 was cancelled without informing the Central Licencing Authority, the Centre says. The company has refuted these allegations and submitted all documents regarding the trials to the DGCI for approval.
Genique Lifesciences’ vaccine:
As per the Centre’s statement to the Parliament, Gurugram-based Genique Lifesciences had started advanced pre-clinical trials for its vaccine candidate in July 2021. However, the vaccine has not yet been recommended by ICMR for clinical trials.
Pollution caused nearly nine million deaths in 2019, or about one in six deaths worldwide. This number had effectively unchanged since the last such analysis in 2015 by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, according to a report published in The Lancet Planetary Health on Wednesday.
Although the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty (such as indoor air pollution and water pollution) declined, these reductions are offset by increased deaths attributable to industrial pollution (such as ambient air pollution and chemical pollution).
A report by The Lancet in 2019, said that noxious air killed 1.67 million Indians in 2019, accounting for 18% of all fatalities.
“The health impacts of pollution remain enormous, and low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of this burden. Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda,” Richard Fuller, lead author, said in a statement. “Attention and funding has only minimally increased since 2015, despite well-documented increases in public concern about pollution and its health effects.”
“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies. Preventing pollution can also slow climate change — achieving a double benefit for planetary health — and our report calls for a massive, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” adds co-author Professor Philip Landrigan, Director, Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College.
The 2017 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health uses data from the 2015 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, which found that pollution was responsible for an estimated nine million deaths — 16% of all deaths globally. The new report provides updated estimates for the health effects of pollution based on the most recently available 2019 GBD data and methodological updates, as well as an assessment of trends since 2000.
Of the nine million pollution-attributable deaths in 2019, air pollution (both household and ambient) remains responsible for the greatest number of deaths at 6.67 million worldwide. Water pollution was responsible for 1.36 million premature deaths. Lead contributed 900,000 premature deaths, followed by toxic occupational hazards at 870,000 deaths.
Excess deaths due to pollution have led to economic losses totalling $4.6 trillion in 2019, equating to 6.2% of global economic output. The study also notes pollution’s deep inequity, with 92% of pollution-related deaths, and the greatest burden of pollution’s economic losses, occurring in low-income and middle-income countries.
The authors of the new study conclude with eight recommendations that build on those given in the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. These include calls for an independent, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC)-style science/policy panel on pollution, alongside increased funding for pollution control from governments, independent, and philanthropic donors, and improved pollution monitoring and data collection.
The story so far: A team of researchers in Australia has identified a biochemical marker in the blood that could help identify newborn babies at risk for the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
According to the findings of the research, babies who died of SIDS showed lower levels of the butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) enzyme shortly after birth. A low level of the BChE enzyme affects a sleeping infant’s ability to wake up or respond to their environment. The enzyme is an important part of the autonomic nervous system of the body and controls unconscious and involuntary functions.
“An apparently healthy baby going to sleep and not waking up is every parent's nightmare and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which infant would succumb,” study leader Dr. Carmel Harrington of The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Australia said in a statement. Dr. Harrington lost her own child to SIDS 29 years ago and has been researching the condition since then.
Sudden infant death syndrome is the unexpected death of an apparently healthy infant. It usually occurs while the baby is asleep, although in rare cases, it can also occur while the child is awake. The condition is also called “cot death”.
Newborn babies delivered prematurely or with low weight at birth are believed to be at a greater risk of SIDS. The exact cause of SIDS is unknown, although revelations from the new research look promising.
In a bid to ascertain the cause of SIDS, the researchers used dried blood spots from newborn infants and screened the samples for BChE level and total protein content. Out of the samples, 26 infants died of SIDS while 41 died of other causes, and 655 were surviving infants.
It was noted that the BChE level in infants who died of SIDS was significantly lower than that in the surviving infants. The research also states that previously-conducted studies have found that low BChE activity is associated with severe systemic inflammation and considerably higher mortality after sepsis and cardiac events. Prior to this research on SIDS, inflammation has been thought to be a factor in SIDS cases. The study adds that mild inflammatory changes on the walls of air passages of the lungs were observed in SIDS infants as early as 1889.
Prematurely-delivered babies have been considered to be at a higher risk for SIDS, although a 1957 study that evaluated BChE in infancy found that there was no difference in the levels of the enzyme in premature and mature newborn infants.
The new study also pointed out that smoking during pregnancy is associated with a significant increase in SIDS events.
Even though BChE levels can be a possible cause of SIDS, the research points out that the samples were over two years old and hence would not accurately reflect BChE specific activity in fresh dried blood samples. The researchers also added that despite analysing over 600 control samples, they are unaware of how common the abnormality is in the wider population. Furthermore, the study did not use autopsy details of the subjects of the study but used coroners’ diagnosis where possible.
(With inputs from agencies)
India may soon witness robot janitors in washrooms, if the initiatives carried out by city-based not-for-profit foundation, AI & Robotics Technology Park (ARTPARK) find success.
A not-for-profit foundation received over 130 applications from across India in response to a challenge that required robots to demonstrate janitorial tasks that would be typically performed in a public washroom.
The challenge was posted by Bengaluru-based not-for-profit foundation AI & Robotics Technology Park (ARTPARK) as part of a mission to support, nurture and co-create a robotics ecosystem to make India the global leader in robotics platforms and technologies.
The robotics challenge was organised at J.N. Tata Auditorium in the IISc. campus in Bengaluru on May 14. Robot of the top four teams — Cerberus, Gryffindors, Giga Robotics, and Robo Jyothians — demonstrated janitorial tasks in a washroom.
Gryffindor was declared the winner of the competition while Cerberus and Giga Robotics shared the runner-up spot.
Umakant Soni, co-founder & CEO of ARTPARK, said, “The size of the service robotics market is expected to be $153.7 billion by 2030, growing at 21.2% CAGR, as per Allied Market Research. In fact, developing AI and robotics skills will be crucial to thriving in the future job industry. The ARTPARK Robotics Challenge is in sync with this vision, giving learners an opportunity to nurture their skills in this space, and create technology solutions for real-world problems that exist in India.”
According to Prof. Bharadwaj Amrutur, Research Head & Director, ARTPARK, India deployed 3,200 robots, one of the highest numbers of robot installations, in 2020. “This next-gen robot technology has already proved to be a game-changing asset for various industries, and the need to invest in this tool will only increase in the years to come, given the kind of innovation it brings to the table,” he said.
He expects such robots to augment the capability and productivity of the workforce, making the country a global leader in various industry verticals like manufacturing, logistics, and agriculture.
In its initiative to make the sprawling campus spread over about 300 acres carbon neutral, the National Institute of Technology – Karnataka (NIT-K) at Surathkal has now designed and developed 11 electric vehicles on its own for use by its students, faculty and staff members.
The institute has also built a solar powered charging station to feed the e-vehicles. Thanks to major financial support for its E-Mobility Projects at the Centre for System Design (CSD) by its alumni and donors.
Of the e-vehicles included three scooters, a foldable scooter, two bikes and five cycles.
Pruthviraj U., Head, E-Mobility Projects told The Hindu that of the two bikes one is being used by the institute’s security personnel for campus surveillance. Another bike has been given to the Forest Department for the surveillance in the Kudremukh National Park area. The other vehicles are in use in the campus and are geo fenced.
“The initiative began when the COVID-19 lock down began. The team comprising students, research scholars and faculty from different disciplines of science and technology did not relax. It made best use of the past two lock downs and other days to make the projects a reality in phases,” Mr. Pruthviraj, who is also the Assistant Professor at the Department of Water Resources and Ocean Engineering at the institute said.
The alumni of 1970, 1972 and 1981 have contributed major share for the projects. The setting up of the charging station having five charging units, research and development, design, materials and the rolling out of 11 vehicles has cost about ₹ 50 lakhs.
In addition, Mr. Pruthviraj said that the institute will roll out 20 more e-cycles, an automatic e-trolley and an e-bike for the use of National Cadet Corps (NCC) unit at an estimated cost of ₹15 lakhs, borne by the 1972 alumni batch, in the coming days.
“The CSD team, headed by K.V. Gangadharan, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, comprises 37 members, from different disciplines of science and technology, of whom 11 members exclusively work on designing and developing e-vehicles,” he said.
A.S. Karanth, an alumnus of 1970 batch who is the lead co-ordinator of the batch for setting up the charging station at a cost of about Rs. 20 lakh, said: “Our aim is to see that the campus became carbon neutral. The charging station is the need of the campus to achieve it. Vehicles need the feed to run. The charging station provides discipline in charging and helps in collecting the data in addition to motivating all to use e-vehicles.”
Research and development of e-vehicles provided a great on-hand experience to students during their study, Mr. Karanth, an expert on wind energy, said.
In 2020, Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel were given the Nobel prize for showing that there existed, at the centre of the Milky Way, an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls masses towards it and causes them to speed up enormously. They estimated that mass of around 4 million times the sun was concentrated in this region. Now, the Event Horizon Telescope, a collaboration of over 300 researchers from 80 countries, has published an image of this region. Known as Sagittarius A* (SgrA* for short), this region is believed to host a supermassive black hole of about 4 million times the solar mass. There have been other possibilities put forth by researchers in this context, but that of a supermassive black hole is the most likely one.
The Event Horizon Telescope is not just a single telescope. It consists of a consortium of eight powerful telescope arrays around the world, which together made up a giant eye, the size of the Earth and 3 million times sharper than the human eye. With this giant eye, the researchers gazed at this point which is about 27,000 light years away from the Earth. They observed SgrA* on multiple nights collecting data for hours at a stretch, just like a camera would use long exposure times. The technique was, however, very different as it uses a network of telescopes rather than a single one. This is called Very Long Baseline Interferometry.
Using this technique, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration had, in 2019, imaged a region called M87*, the black hole at the centre of the galaxy Messier 87. Despite the fact that the two galaxies are so different and that the masses of the black holes were different, the images are strongly similar.
Although we cannot see the black hole itself, the gas moving around the black hole emits light, which takes a curved path around the black hole and this leaves a central dark portion, referred to as the “shadow” of the black hole. This effect happens because of the enormous gravity of the central region. Thus, this image is an attestation of Einstein’s General Relativity theory. The ring-shaped image of SgrA*, which looked a lot similar to the one of M87*, occupied 52 micro arcseconds in the field of view, which is as big a span of our view as a doughnut on the moon!
Despite the fact that M87* is much further away than SgrA*, the group was able to image the former earlier. This is because SgrA* is only one-thousandth the size of M87*; the line of sight to SgrA* is obscured by a lot of intervening matter; and, lastly, as SgrA* is much smaller than M87*, the gas swirling around it takes only minutes to complete an orbit around SgrA* as opposed to taking weeks to go around M87*. The last gives a variability that makes it difficult to image. A clear imaging requires long exposure of about 8-10 hours, during which, ideally, the object should not change much.
The telescopes making up the array are Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array, Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, IRAM 30-metre telescope, James Clerk Maxwell telescope, Large Millimetre Telescope Alfonso Serrano, Submillimetre Array, UArizona Submillimetre Telescope and South Pole Telescope. Since 2017, when observations were started on this, the group has added the Greenland Telescope, Northern Millimetre Extended Array and UArizona 12-metre Telescope on Kitt Peak to the set.
While there is overwhelming evidence that SgrA* contains a highly compact invisible object at its core, is the only possibility a black hole? This question has a non-trivial answer. According to Pankaj Joshi, founding director of the Cosmology Centre and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Ahmedabad University, who is an expert in this field and not part of the collaboration, “In their papers, the researchers consider various alternatives such as naked Singularities and wormholes. Their report in one of the papers — paper five of the series published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters — claims that the JMN (Joshi-Malafarina-Narayan) naked singularity with photon sphere could be the best black hole mimicker. The point is that the central object and its nature remains a question of great mystery. This is because just as a black hole event horizon would create a shadow, similarly the naked singularity also creates a similar shadow and therefore it is impossible to distinguish between the two.”
The New Generation Event Horizon Telescope collaboration is looking into these deeper mysteries.
The Mercury Seven, also referred to as the Original Seven, were a group of seven astronauts selected to fly spacecraft for Project Mercury – the first human space flight program by the U.S. Even though there were some hiccups, the project, initiated in 1958, was largely successful in its three goals of operating a human spacecraft, investigating an astronaut's ability to work in space, and recovering spacecraft and crew safely.
The final flight of Project Mercury took place in May 1963. The youngest of the Original Seven, astronaut Gordon Cooper, went on to become the first American to fly in space for more than a day during this mission.
Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. was born in 1927 and served in the Marine Corps in 1945 and 1946. He was commissioned in the U.S. Army after attending the University of Hawaii.
He was called to active duty in 1949 and completed pilot training in the U.S. Air Force. He was a fighter pilot in Germany from 1950 to 1954 and earned a bachelor's degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1956. He served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California until he was selected as an astronaut for Project Mercury.
Cooper flew Mercury-Atlas 9, the last Mercury mission, which was launched on May 15, 1963. He called his capsule Faith 7, the number indicating his status as one of the Original Seven astronauts.
Longer than all of the previous Mercury missions combined, Cooper had enough time in his hands to conduct 11 experiments. These included monitoring radiation levels, tracking a strobe beacon that flashed intermittently, and taking photographs of the Earth.
When Cooper sent back black-and-white television images back to the control centre during his 17th orbit, it was the first TV transmission from an American crewed spacecraft. And even though there were plans for Cooper to sleep as much as eight hours, he only managed to sleep sporadically during portions of the flight.
After 19 orbits without a hitch, a faulty sensor wrongly indicated that the spacecraft was beginning re-entry. A short circuit then damaged the automatic stabilisation and control system two orbits later. Despite these malfunctions and the rising carbon dioxide levels in his cabin and spacesuit, Cooper executed a perfect manual re-entry.
Cooper had clocked 34 hours and 20 minutes in space, orbiting the Earth 22 times and covering most of the globe in the process. This meant that he could practically land anywhere in the globe, a potential pain point that the U.S. State Department was nervous about.
In fact, on May 1, 1963, the country's Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs had outlined a contingency plan in a letter to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Secretary Affairs, in case Cooper came down in a communist country like China, North Vietnam, Cuba, or Laos. Fortunately for Cooper, he splashed down near Midway Island, less than 10 km from the recovery ship USS Kearsarge.
Cooper's success and the many overall positives of Project Mercury provided NASA the confidence to move on to Project Gemini. Cooper went to space again on Gemini 5 along with Charles Conrad Jr. in August 1965.
The duo experienced problems with power systems, thruster fuel, venting gas that made the spacecraft roll, and more in what felt like a never-ending series during their eight-day mission. They, however, completed 122 orbits, travelling over 5.3 million km in 190 hours and 56 minutes, before safely making their way back to Earth.
After accumulating more than 225 hours in space, Cooper served as the backup command pilot of Gemini 12, which was launched in November 1966, and the backup command pilot for Apollo 10 in May 1969. By the time Cooper left NASA and retired from the Air Force in July 1970, human beings had set foot on the moon, further vindicating the Mercury and Gemini projects that Cooper had been involved with.
The use of antibiotics to control bacterial infections has taken a beating with the emergence of multi-drug resistant pathogens, and researchers are looking to develop other ways of tackling such bacterial infections. In this context scientists have developed a new biomaterial that can be used to disinfect wounds and hastens the process of healing, as seen in mouse models.
Reported in a paper in the journal Biomaterials Science, the work is a collaboration between scientists from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi, IIT Delhi and National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER) in Bhubaneswar
The biomaterial is derived from the polymer pullulan which is secreted by the fungus Aureobasidium pullulans. It is an exopolysaccharide, that is, this polymer is secreted by the fungus itself into the medium on which it is growing.
“We, as a research group, have a special interest and expertise in exploiting the varied properties of natural polymers for biomedical applications,” says Dr. Amit Jaiswal from IIT Mandi, who is an author of the paper.
Pullulan as a biomaterial is already successful and widely used commercially. It is exploited in food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry because of its non-toxic, non-mutagenic and non-immunogenic properties. Further, its ease of manufacture has also added to its appeal.
Dr. Jaiswal says that while in the biomedicine sector, it has been used for drug and gene delivery, its use as a antimicrobial biomaterial had not been explored, and that was what got the group working on this aspect.
Pullulan is basically a polymeric chain of glucose. “By keeping the biocompatible carbohydrate backbone of the polymer intact, we introduced some quaternary ammonium groups into the polymer to make it positively charged,” says Dr. Jaiswal.
They process the polymer to get a powder which is water-soluble. This solution can be applied on the wound surface and then covered with a sterile gauze. This can also be used in a gel form. “We believe the best approach will be to design hydrogel-based wound dressings using this biomaterial,” he says.
This is because hydrogels have an inherent ability to accelerate wound healing by providing a closed and moist environment to the wounds for easy exchange of oxygen and act as absorbent pad to remove the pus and debris. “We are currently working towards this goal,” he says.
The group tested the efficacy of the material by applying it directly on to a full-thickness wound on mice. They found that the wounds got disinfected and also the healing was faster.
The material could cause a 100% closure of wounds within 12 days, while in the absence of application of the material, closure was only 60%. According to the researchers, within seven days, a thick neo-epithelial layer was formed well connected to wound edges along with hair follicles. A completely healed skin with more hair follicles under the epithelial layer and densely packed collagen was observed by day 12.
“Right now, we are developing antibacterial coatings for medical implants using this material. Testing in animal models to test the efficacy of these coatings is underway,” says Dr. Jaiswal.
“We believe the best approach will be to design hydrogel-based wound dressings using this biomaterial”Dr. Amit Jaiswal
A team of Australian researchers have identified a biochemical marker in the blood that could help identify newborn babies at risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a breakthrough they said creates an avenue to future tragedy-preventing interventions.
In their study, babies who died of SIDS had lower levels of an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) shortly after birth, the researchers said. BChE plays a major role in the brain's arousal pathway, and low levels would reduce a sleeping infant's ability to wake up or respond to its environment.
The findings not only offer hope for the future, but answers for the past, study leader Dr. Carmel Harrington of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Australia said in a statement.
"An apparently healthy baby going to sleep and not waking up is every parent's nightmare and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which infant would succumb," Dr. Harrington said. "But that's not the case anymore. We have found the first marker to indicate vulnerability prior to death."
Using dried blood spots taken at birth as part of a newborn screening program, Dr. Harrington's team compared BChE levels in 26 babies who later died of SIDS, 41 infants who died of other causes, and 655 surviving infants.
The fact that levels of the enzyme were significantly lower in the infants who subsequently died of SIDS suggests the SIDS babies were inherently vulnerable to dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious and involuntary functions in the body, the researchers said.
Dive into the cytoplasm of any cell and one comes across structures made of messenger RNA (mRNA) and proteins known as RNA granules, in general. Unlike other structures in the cell (such as mitochondria), the RNA granules are not covered and confined by a membrane. This makes them highly dynamic in nature, thereby allowing them to constantly exchange components with the surrounding.
RNA granules are present in the cytoplasm at low numbers under normal conditions but increase in number and size under stressful conditions including diseases.
A defining feature which does not change from one organism to another (conserved) of the RNA granule protein components is the presence of stretches containing repeats of certain amino acids.
Such stretches are referred to as low complexity regions. Repeats of arginine (R), glycine (G) and glycine (G) — known as RGG — are an example of low complexity sequence.
Messenger RNAs are converted to proteins (building blocks of the cell) by the process of translation. RNA granules determine messenger RNA (mRNA) fate by deciding when and how much protein would be produced from mRNA. Protein synthesis is a multi-step and energy expensive process.
Therefore, a common strategy used by cells when it encounters unfavorable conditions is to shut down protein production and conserve energy to deal with the stressful situation. RNA granules help in the process of shutting down protein production.
Some RNA granule types (such as Processing bodies or P-bodies) not only regulate protein production but also accomplish degradation and elimination of the mRNAs, which in turn helps in reducing protein production.
In recent years, a strong link has emerged between RNA granules and neurodegenerative disorders such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). The proteins implicated in these diseases such as ewing sarcoma breakpoint region 1 (EWSR1) and fused in sarcoma (FUS) are RNA binding proteins that can reside in RNA granules.
These above-mentioned proteins also contain low complexity sequences (repeats of amino acids) that are important for their movement into RNA granules.
In fact, these proteins are deposited as insoluble granules/aggregates in the neurons of ALS and FTD patients which are believed to contribute to the pathophysiology of these diseases. Finding ways of solubilising these aggregates could provide a breakthrough in treating these diseases.
Our group studies how RNA granules form and subsequently fall apart. A recent work from our lab published in Nature Communications has identified a protein (Sbp1) as a factor that dissolves the RNA granules (P-bodies).
This work, led by a PhD student Raju Roy, makes a surprising yet insightful conclusion that low complexity sequences (containing repeats of arginine (R) and glycine (G) amino acids — RGG) which normally promote granule formation, in this case promote the disintegration of RNA granules in yeast cells.
Mr. Roy further observed that the identified protein Sbp1 is specific for dissolving P-bodies and not stress granules which are related RNA granule type also present in the cytoplasm.
We predict that our observation is the tip of the iceberg and there are likely to be several such factors in the cell which may dissolve specific granule types.
Often insightful results pertaining to fundamental cellular processes obtained using elegant yet simple model systems such as yeast are not given the importance they deserve. This is because of the popular notion that these studies may not be relevant enough for ‘complex’ humans.
We focused on using yeast for our studies because it is a simple model organism that is easy to work with and genetically manipulate in the laboratory. Importantly, many seminal discoveries pertaining to several cellular processes were made in yeast and subsequently found to be true in humans as well. This indicates that knowledge obtained from yeast is very often applicable to humans.
The next step was, therefore, to investigate whether our finding was relevant for human proteins. Gitartha Das, a co-author of the study wondered if Sbp1 (which could dissolve P-bodies) could help in reducing the aggregates of human proteins involved in neurodegenerative disorders. EWSR1 protein aggregates have been implicated in diseases such as ALS and FTD. We expressed human EWSR1 protein in yeast cells and observed that it formed aggregates.
Further experiments indicated that Sbp1 protein was important for reducing these EWSR1 aggregates, indicating that what we learned using yeast is likely to be true in the context of humans. This study has highlighted the potential of amino acid repeats (RGG) as a therapeutic intervention. We are excited about this possibility and are gearing up to experimentally test the effect of repeat sequences in genetically engineered mice that accumulate insoluble pathological aggregates in brain cells.
At the onset, the aim of this study was not to look for possible interventions for neurodegenerative disorders. Instead, the study was driven by our quest for answering a simple but powerful fundamental question about how RNA granules fall apart. An important and satisfying take-home message from this study is that asking and addressing fundamental questions in science is equally important as doing ‘applied’ research.
(Purusharth I. Rajyaguru is Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry at IISc Bangalore)
We know about how people donate their body after death to hospitals and health research centres for possible use of the healthy organs to the needy ones. And a very common such donation is the cornea of the eye. But even when one is alive, he/she can donate blood. Many cities across India have what are called ‘blood banks’, where blood gathered by donation from blood donors is saved and preserved for later use in blood transfusion.
How much blood can one donate? Blood in a healthy human body is about 7% of the total body weight (the average body weight being 55-65 kg), or 4.7 to 5.5 litres (1.2 to 1.5 gallons).
In a regular donation, the donor gives about 500 ml of blood, and this is replaced in the body within a day or two (24-48 hours). Blood types are determined by the presence (or absence) of certain antigens (molecules that can trigger an immune response), if they are foreign to the body of the recipient. Thus, a matching of the blood type of the donor with that of the receiver is necessary.
What are these blood types? They are classified as antigens A and B in our red blood cells. Landmark research on these was done by a medical doctor, Dr. Karl Landsteiner of the University of Vienna in Austria. He collected blood samples from several of his staff members and found that the serum of some of them led to the clumping together (or precipitation), while others had no problem with the donor serum. Using this information, he defined three acceptable types of blood cells which he called as A, B and O blood types. We still use these classifications to this day.
Dr. Landsteiner received the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 1930. A very informative review on Dr. Landsteiner’s work has been published by two Iranian scientists, Dr. Dariyush D. Farhud and Marjan Zarif Yeganeh in Iranian Journal of Public Health, Vol. 42, No. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 1-6., wherein they estimate that the blood group A in India to be about 40%, blood group B between 25-35% and group O to be 40-50%.
A recent detailed paper by two scientists from AIIMS, New Delhi, Dr. G.K. Patidar and Dr. Y. Dhiman ( ISBT Science Series (2020) O, 1-12) has analysed several reports on the distribution of A, B, O and AB blood groups in India to be 23%, 34%, 35% and 8%, respectively, and that the Southern States have higher O group, about 39%.
In 1964, the Italian population geneticist Dr. Cavalli-Sforza worked not only with his colleagues to check on the prevalence of blood groups A, B, O and AB in Italy and its neighbours, but also contacted several colleagues across the world, and together published a phylogenetic tree of 15 human populations, and the prevalence of blood groups distributed across the continents of North and South America, South Africa, and Polynesia in the far East.
In addition, he was also able to obtain fossils of Neandertals and Denisovs, from heritage sites in Europe, roughly between 40,000 to 1,00,000 years ago. His group could then classify these populations with blood groups A, B, O and AB. And the latest paper by Silvana Condemi et al., in PLOS One, July 28, 2021, titled, “Blood groups of Neandertals and Denisova decrypted” point out that blood group systems were the first phenotypic markers used in anthropology to decipher the origin of populations across the world, as aboriginal humans migrated to various parts of the world (Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and Papua, and other places).
Analysis of the blood group markers of some Neandertals and Denisovans showed the presence of the ABO group, and also some other markers that are used today in blood transfusion.
Interestingly in their paper, Dr. Farhud and Dr. Yeganeh also quote a report published by Dr. P. Kramp in Primatologia III (1960) Basel which reports that primates (chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, gibbons) also have blood groups containing AB, A, B and O, just as we humans have.
Indeed, we owe our blood types (A, B, O, AB), thanks to what our primate monkey ancestors had millions of years ago. Just think about it. Our blood is our heritage, just as our genes are — from monkeys to archaic humans and our ancestors to today. Hanuman of Ramayana not only helped Goddess Sita by bringing her to the safety of her home, but has also blessed us with our blood groups.
Scientists have grown plants in soil from the Moon, a first in human history. University of Florida researchers showed ( Communications Biology) that plants can successfully sprout and grow in lunar soil. Their study also investigated how plants respond biologically to the Moon’s soil, also known as lunar regolith, which is radically different from soil found on Earth.
This work is a first step toward one day growing plants for food and oxygen on the Moon or during space missions. In future, longer space missions might use the Moon as a hub or launching pad. It makes sense that we would want to use the soil that’s already there to grow plants. Then began a simple experiment: plant seeds in lunar soil, add water, nutrients and light, and record the results. But the scientists only had 12 grams of lunar soil collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions to the Moon to do this experiment.
To grow their tiny lunar garden, the researchers used thimble-sized wells in plastic plates normally used to culture cells. Each ‘pot’ was filled with nearly a gram of lunar soil, the soil was moistened with a nutrient solution and a few seeds from the Arabidopsis plant was added. The plants were grown in non-lunar soils as a control group.
All the seeds planted in the lunar soils sprouted but plants grown in the lunar soils were smaller, grew more slowly or were more varied in size than their counterparts. These were all physical signs that the plants were working to cope with the chemical and structural make-up of the Moon’s soil, Anna-Lisa Paul, also one of the study’s authors, says in a release. This was further confirmed when the researchers analysed the plants’ gene expression patterns.
Each of us carries around the most powerful machine on earth in our heads. Our brain is capable of building monuments that outlast generations, exploring inhabitable space at great distances from our planet, eradicating illnesses, destroying thousands of species and making movies about saving the world. The human brain is a fascinating subject of study, and Neuroscience and Cognitive Science focus on unravelling its mysteries.
Cognitive Science is the scientific study of the human mind and brain. A highly interdisciplinary field, Cog Sci combines ideas and tools from Psychology, Computer Science, Linguistics and even Philosophy. It focuses on how the mind represents and manipulates knowledge, how the brain learns, how it makes a decision, and how it performs any task. There are three main tracks that Cognitive Scientists can specialise in:
Computation and Cognition: This involves understanding human cognition through the lens of computers and vice versa. It works on the idea that our mental processes are computational and attempts to understand them through computer simulations. This is also replicated in intelligent machines. Computational Cognitive Science finds applications in medicine though brain pattern imaging and related treatments for neural disorders like epilepsy or seizures and psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder or dementia.
Language and Cognition: This is the scientific study of the written and spoken language to build insights that can be used in intelligent machines like linguistically competent computers and chatbots. This is also useful in natural language interfaces like voice-based services. Linguistic Cognitive Science can also be used in the treatment of language-related disorders such as dyslexia or in speech therapy.
Philosophy and Cognitive Science: This is a more academic area that examine the theories of mind and answers questions like: is human thought mainly computational? How do the diverse fields of Cognitive Science such as Psychology, Linguistics, and Neuroscience connect? Is it possible to reduce human mental and psychological experiences to computational models?
So, what can one do with a degree in Cognitive Science? There are three main areas of work:
Medicine, therapy, biotechnology: Cognitive Scientists go on to do a degree in medicine or therapy, or work with doctors in the rehabilitation of mental processes of people with disability or injuries to parts of the brain, occupational or speech therapy. They work in research and occasionally in clinical practice to maintain all aspects of cognitive health, such as speed/attention, memory/learning, visuospatial ability, language, executive capacity and social cognition. Biomedical modelling that observes and measure the impact of medications on brain function is an emerging field that cognitive scientists can work in.
Computation and Artificial Intelligence: Computational Cognitive Science prepares you for some of the fastest-growing areas in Computer Science today like cognitive engineering (adding human factors to robots), designing and improving computer applications and robots, designing human-computer interfaces, deepening Artificial Intelligence and creating applications that use neural networks.
Special Needs and Language Education: Cognitive Scientists with degrees in education can work with students with special needs who are dealing with issues like attention deficit, dysgraphia or developmental disorders. They can also work to improve teaching methods in all areas but especially in learning language and motor skills.
So if you are someone who loves Science, Psychology and Maths, plunge in. The field is still emerging and new ideas and applications are being developed everyday.
With inputs from Ankit Goyal
The writer is the founder and CEO, Inomi Learning, a Gurugram-based career and college guidance firm. email@example.com
CSIR-CCMB has announced the success of ‘proof of principle’ of the first indigenous mRNA vaccine technology coming from a scientific institution stable in the country, having completed experiments in lab and on mice, said Director Vinay Nandicoori on Friday.
“We are very excited about this achievement of replicating the mRNA vaccine technology end to end. We are proud to have developed the potential mRNA vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2 within 10 months of having initiated the concept. It is based on the Moderna model, but has been built with the information available in the open and our own technology and materials,” he told a press conference at the CCMB, along with Atul Incubation Centre (AIC-CCMB) director N. Madhusudana Rao.
Dr. Nandicoori said “robust immune response” has been observed against the COVID spike protein in mice upon administration of two doses of the mRNA. “The anti-spike antibodies generated were found to be more than 90% efficient in preventing the human ACE2 receptor binding to the coronavirus”, said scientist Rajesh Iyer.
The mRNA vaccine candidate is now undergoing pre-clinical Hamster challenge studies to evaluate the efficacy to protect against live virus infection. While vaccines work by training the immune system to identify disease-causing micro-organisms and eliminate them quickly when they encounter them, in the mRNA technology, the host cell’s immune system is trained to evade the real infection. This is done by introducing mRNA of the micro-organism of concern into the host.
“Though our own vaccine programme has been lauded, we have missed the mRNA vaccine technology developed by Moderna or Pfizer/BioNtech to combat COVID in United States and Europe. And, what we have developed here is different from the mRNA vaccine being developed by Gennova Bio based on self-replicating RNA,” said Dr. Rao, also the lead scientist.
The home grown mRNA vaccine platform holds promise to deal with other infectious diseases like TB, Dengue, Malaria Chickungunya, rare genetic diseases and others. “The beauty of this technology is in its rapid turn around times, which means vaccines can be developed for other diseases or a pan-COVID vaccine covering different variants,” said the CCMB director.
The scientists said the technology is ready to be tranferred to any interested firm to take it to the next level of conducting human trials and bringing out the vaccine into the market after approval of the regulatory authorities concerned. “We have been having discussions with a few private firms to scale up to the next level of trials and commercial production,” they added.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully carried out the static test of the HS200 solid rocket booster, taking the space agency one more step closer to the keenly awaited Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission.
The test was held at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, on Friday morning. Designed and developed by the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram over two years, the HS200 booster is the rocket booster used on the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III), also called the LVM3.
The GSLV Mk-III rocket which will be used for the Gaganyaan mission will have two HS200 boosters which will supply the thrust for lift-off. The HS200 is a 20-metre-long booster witha diameter of 3.2 metres and is the world’s second largest operational booster using solid propellants. During Friday's test, about 700 parameters were monitored and the performance of all the systems were normal, ISRO said. Loaded with 203 tons of solid propellant, the HS200 booster was tested for a duration of 135 seconds.
ISRO chairman S. Somanath and VSSC director S. Unnikrishnan Nair were present during the test. ''The successful completion of this test marks a major milestone for the prestigious human space flight mission of ISRO, the Gaganyaan, as the first stage of the launch vehicle is tested for its performance for the full duration,'' ISRO said in a statement on Friday.
Since Gaganyaan is a crewed mission, the GSLV Mk-III will have improvements to increase reliability and safety to meet the requirements of 'human rating.' The control system used in the HS200 booster employs one of the world’s most powerful electro-mechanical actuators with multiple redundancy and safety features, according to the VSSC.
Of the three propulsion stages of the GSLV Mk-III, the second stage uses liquid propellant while the third is a cryogenic stage.
Scientists for the first time have grown seeds in the soil from the moon - samples retrieved during NASA missions in 1969 and 1972 - in an achievement that heralds the promise of using earthly plants to support human outposts on other worlds.
Researchers said on May 12 they planted seeds of a diminutive flowering weed called Arabidopsis thaliana in 12 small thimble-sized containers each bearing a gram of moon soil, more properly called lunar regolith, and watched as they sprouted and grew. Lunar regolith, with its sharp particles and lack of organic material, differs greatly from Earth soil, so it was unknown whether seeds would germinate.
"When we first saw that abundance of green sprouts cast over all of the samples, it took our breath away," said horticultural sciences professor Anna-Lisa Paul, director of the University of Florida Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and co-leader of the study published in the journal Communications Biology.
"Plants can grow in the lunar regolith. That one simple statement is huge and opens the door to future exploration using resources in place on the moon and likely Mars," Ms. Paul said.
Every seed germinated and there were no outward differences at the early stages of growth between those sown in the regolith - composed mostly of crushed basalt rocks - and seeds sown for comparative reasons in volcanic ash from Earth with similar mineral composition and particle size.
The regolith seeds, perhaps unsurprisingly, did less well than the comparison plants. They were slower to grow and generally littler, had more stunted roots, and were more apt to exhibit stress-related traits such as smaller leaves and deep reddish-black coloration not typical of healthy growth. They also showed gene activity indicative of stress, similar to plant reactions to salt, metal, and oxidation.
"Even though plants could grow in the regolith, they had to work hard metabolically to do so," Ms. Paul said.
To the researchers, the fact that they grew at all was remarkable. Study co-leader Rob Ferl, a University of Florida assistant vice president for research, said he felt "joy at watching life do something that had never been done before."
"Seeing plants grow is an achievement in that it says that we can go to the moon and grow our food, clean our air and recycle our water using plants the way we use them here on Earth. It is also a revelation in that it says that terrestrial life is not limited to Earth," Mr. Ferl added.
Arabidopsis, also called thale cress, is widely used in scientific research, including previous experiments in orbit, owing to its speedy life cycle and a deep understanding of its genetics.
NASA made available 12 grams - just a few teaspoons — of regolith collected during the Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 17 missions. The researchers planted three or four seeds in a dozen containers moistened with a nutrient solution, then placed them in a laboratory at about 73 degrees Fahrenheit (23°C) under LED lights giving off a pink hue.
The seeds sprouted within three days. After about a week of growth, the researchers removed all but one plant from each container. The one was left to grow until it was 20 days old, with its leaves then harvested to assess gene activity.
The researchers also determined that regolith that had experienced longer exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind on the lunar surface was less hospitable to growth.
Earth plants could help people establish outposts in places like the moon and Mars, as depicted in the 2015 film 'The Martian' when an astronaut grew potatoes on the Red Planet. NASA's Artemis program envisions people returning to the moon's surface in the coming years.
"Plants are deeply embedded in the science of space exploration because of their life-support role, especially when we consider leaving the Earth for extended periods of time," Mr. Ferl said.
Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) signed two agreements with business establishments for transfer of two technologies from its research initiatives, on the eve of ‘Technology Day 2022’, on May 10. JNCASR is an autonomous institute in Bengaluru under the Department of Science and Technology of the Central Government.
One IP transfer agreement pertains to a molecule that could be a potential drug candidate for dementia. The other is for a robust, mobile group oxygen concentrator that can be used in remote settings and deployed in emergencies.
T Govindaraju, a scientist at the JNCASR, and his team have developed the molecule that could be a potential drug candidate to halt or cure the leading cause of dementia in 70 to 80% cases worldwide. This research work was patented and published in the journal Advanced Therapeutics and patented by the JNCASR. The research aimed to design and synthesise molecules that can reduce the toxicity of amyloid peptide — that accumulates in the central nervous system, it said.
“The molecule, named TGR63, can rescue neuronal cells from amyloid toxicity. We saw that the molecule helped in reducing the clumping and slowly reversing the cognitive decline, which disrupts the mechanism through which neurons become dysfunctional due to Alzheimer’s,” said Prof. Govindaraju.
According to the JNCASR, as per studies, Alzheimer’s will soon be one of the top diseases in the country, and currently available treatments provide only temporary relief, and there are no approved drugs that directly act on the mechanisms of the disease. This molecule addresses the unmet need to develop drug candidates to halt or cure the disease, it said.
Hamsa Biopharma India Pvt. Ltd., a company based in Delhi, indicated its interest to further develop the drug based on a licence agreement.
Another research group at the JNCASR, led by S.V. Diwakar, has designed a robust, mobile group oxygen concentrator that can be used in rural settings and also rapidly deployed in emergencies in any location. Named ‘OxyJani’, the multi-group initiative of Dr . Diwakar, Meher Prakash, and Santosh Ansumali from the JNCASR, and collaborators, Arvind Rajendran from the University of Alberta and Arun Kumar from Eiwave Digitech executed it with the help of Ritwik Das, an MS student. Technical advice was provided by faculty members of JNCASR, Prof M Eswaramoorthy, Prof Tapas Maji, and Prof Sridhar Rajaraman.
OxyJani is based on the principles of Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) technology. The team replaced lithium zeolites (LiX), which is usually used in oxygen concentrators, with sodium zeolites, which does not generate toxic solid waste and can be manufactured in India. The concentrator is modular and capable of delivering a range of solutions, conversion of medical air to medical oxygen, and is an entirely off-grid solution including all modules that can facilitate deployment in rural areas. Moreover, the waste from the 13X zeolite plant can be potentially a good agricultural input material.
This new class of technology called ‘group concentrators’ has the robustness of large PSA plants, portability similar to the personal concentrators, and is affordable too. Oxygen output from the device is in the range of 40-75 lpm, and the inventors have ensured medical grade components and the availability of components for this device in the local market.
Apart from occupying a niche segment in the market in terms of sizing, this product provides a sustained healthcare solution in nursing homes, Tier III/Tier IV towns for ICU, and other medical uses.
JNCASR, under its startup initiative, facilitates the establishment of new enterprises with innovative technologies in various branches of science and engineering. JNCASR has transferred the IP rights in respect of OxyJani to Rugn Abhilekha, a start-up based in Bengaluru that includes a couple of faculty members of JNCASR.
Rugn Abhilekha is the fifth startup initiative from JNCASR.
Recent satellite images have shown a pair of cyclones in the Indian Ocean region, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere. Named cyclone Asani and cyclone Karim respectively, these are twin cyclones originating in the same longitude and now drifting apart.
According to a bulletin posted on the Indian Meteorological Department website, the severe cyclonic storm Asani moved in from its position in the Bay of Bengal, reaching a point 210 km south-southeast of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh around 11.30 a.m. on May 10. It is expected to move nearly northwestwards and reach the coast near Kakinada-Vishakhapatnam around the morning of May 11. Then it is predicted to curve and move along the Andhra Pradesh coast before moving back over the Bay of Bengal, where it will weaken to a cyclonic storm and then a depression by the morning of May 12.
It is fascinating that cyclone Asani is not alone, but has a twin in the southern hemisphere – cyclone Karim. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory website, cyclone Karim has created a path in the open seas west of Australia.
A much stronger wind speed has been observed in this member of the pair, which has led to its classification as a category one hurricane. According to the website, the cyclone will weaken quickly due to wind shear in the coming days and will pose no problem for heavily populated areas, although it may affect the Cocos Islands with a population of 600.
Twin cyclones are not really rare. The interplay of the wind and the monsoon system combined with the Earth system produces these synchronous cyclones.
Debasis Sengupta, professor at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, explains that twin tropical cyclones are caused by what are called equatorial Rossby waves.
Rossby waves are huge waves in the ocean with wavelengths of around 4,000–5,000 kilometres. This system has a vortex in the northern hemisphere and another in the southern hemisphere, and each of these is a mirror image of the other. The vortex in the north spins counterclockwise and has a positive spin, while the one in the southern hemisphere spins in the clockwise direction and therefore has a negative spin. Both have positive value of the vorticity which is a measure of the rotation. Very often twin cyclones are formed from these Rossby waves.
Rossby waves are named for famous meteorologist Carl-Gustaf Rossby who was the first to explain that these waves arose due to the rotation of the Earth.
When the vorticity is positive in both Northern and Southern hemispheres, as is the case with Rossby waves, the air in the boundary layer, which is moist, is lifted slightly. That is enough to set off a feedback process.
When the air is lifted slightly, the water vapour condenses to make clouds. As it condenses, it lets out the latent heat of evaporation. The atmosphere warms, this parcel of air rises, and a positive feedback is set off by this process. The warmer parcel of air can rise further because it is lighter than the surrounding air, and it can form deeper clouds. Meanwhile, moisture comes in from both sides. This leads to the formation of a cyclone if certain conditions are present.
“The ocean’s surface temperature has to be 27 degrees or warmer; the wind shear in the atmosphere must not be too high,” says Prof. Sengupta. For example, if you have westerly winds at the lower level and easterly winds at the upper level, if the difference between them is too high, cyclones will not form. But if the difference is modest, cyclones will still form. “There will be a big, tall vortex with all sorts of clouds inside. Once they are stronger, they will spin faster and faster and organise themselves into the big storms,” says Prof. Sengupta.
Yes, once they form, generally, they will go westward. In the northern hemisphere, they will have a slightly northward component of motion; whereas, in the southern hemisphere, they will usually have a slightly southward component to their movement. So this means the northern hemisphere cyclone would go North and West, while the southern one would go South and West.
The MJO is a large cluster of clouds and convection, around 5000-10,000 kilometres in size. It is composed of a Rossby wave and a Kelvin wave, which is a type of wave structure that we see in the ocean. On the eastern side of the MJO is the Kelvin wave, while on the western, trailing edge of the MJO, is the Rossby wave, once again with two vortices on either side of the equator.
However, not all tropical cyclones are born from the MJO. Sometimes it is a mere Rossby wave with two vortices on either side.
Scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope(EHT) facility, a collaboration of over 300 researchers, revealed the first image of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way in press conferences held around the world. This image of the black hole referred to as Sagittarius A* (SgrA*) gave further support to the idea that the compact object at the centre of our galaxy is indeed a black hole. This strengthens Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
In 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope made history by releasing the first ever image of a black hole M87* – the black hole at the centre of a galaxy Messier 87, which is a supergiant elliptic galaxy.
The ring-shaped image of SgrA*, which looked a lot similar to the one of M87*, occupied 52 micro arcseconds in the field of view, which is as big a span of our view as a doughnut on the moon! The whole exercise was possible because of the enormous power of the Event Horizon Telescope, an ensemble of several telescopes around the world, which together were like a giant eye on the earth with a sight that is 3 million times sharper than the human eye. Sagittarius A* is 27,000 light years from us.
At the press conference held simultaneously at several centres around the world, the researchers said that imaging Sagittarius A* (SgrA*), the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, was much more difficult than imaging M87* for the following reasons: firstly, SgrA* is only one-thousandth the size of M87*; secondly, the line of sight is obscured by a lot of matter; and as SgrA* is much smaller than M87*, the gas swirling around it takes mere minutes to complete an orbit around SgrA* as opposed to taking weeks to go around M87*. The last gives a variability that makes it difficult to image. A clear imaging requires long exposure of about 8-10 hours, where ideally the object should not change much.
In this relation, Venkatessh Ramakrishnan, who is a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University Metsahovi Radio Observatory, a key member of the calibration and imaging team, says “Since the physics of plasma flows around SgrA* changes on an hourly time-scale, getting a coherent image with all relevant information from photons corresponding to one orbit is difficult. This requires higher sensitive observations which comes with the addition of more telescopes to the EHT and with advanced image reconstruction algorithms.” He is an author of the paper on this work that is published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The collaboration hopes to improve their capacity so that they can not only image black holes but construct movies and study the magnetic field further.
The vaquita porpoise is the world's smallest marine mammal and is believed to be on the brink of extinction, with 10 or fewer still living in Mexico's Gulf of California, their sole habitat. The biggest threat to the species is not habitat loss or genetic factors but illegal "gillnet" fishing.
The porpoises, which range from 4 to 5 feet in length, often become entangled and die in the large mesh gillnets used by poachers hunting the totoaba, an endangered fish highly valued in some countries for its perceived medicinal properties. While Mexico has outlawed totoaba fishing and made the use of these nets in the vaquitas' habitat illegal, many say the bans are not always enforced.
A team of researchers analysed the genomes of 20 vaquitas that lived between 1985 and 2017 and conducted computational simulations to predict the species' extinction risk over the next 50 years. They concluded that if gillnet fishing were to end immediately, the vaquita had a very high chance of recovery, even with inbreeding. Often species with few members tend to be susceptible to genetic diseases from inbreeding.
But because the vaquitas have always been a small population in a very small habitat in the northern tip of the gulf, their genetic make-up is unlikely to be threatening.
Of 12 marine mammal species analysed -- including vaquitas -- the porpoises had the fewest number of potentially harmful mutations.
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Omicron: severe in virus-naive, unvaccinated people
Surface tension aids left-right symmetry
Will BA.4, BA.5 Omicron lineages cause the next wave?
Is La Nina a fair weather friend of our country?
Can hearing loss due to aging be reversed? Read the answer here.
Coral reefs provide stunning images of a world under assault
Future looms dark for 48% of bird species
Explained | What is the monkeypox virus and how is it transmitted?
259 pigs died this year in Meghalaya due to African Swine Fever
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The National Institute of Technology-Karnataka, (NIT-K) Surathkal, has set up on its campus its first solar powered charging station for electric vehicles.
The station, URJA, which is a contribution of the alumni batch of 1970 will be inaugurated at 4.30 p.m. on May 11.
Six e-cycles, two e-scooters/e-bikes and an e-car can be charged at a time at the station set up at an estimated cost of ₹20 lakh.
The station is for the use of faculty and students of the institute. “The non-NITK designed e-vehicles can pay and use the station by using IRIS app designed in-house,” the release said.
Pruthviraj U., Head, E-Mobility Projects at the Centre for System Design at the institute, and also Assistant Professor, Department of Water Resources and Ocean Engineering, said that the station developed is part of the objective of the institute to make the campus carbon neutral.
As many as 36 candidates including Ph.D., B.Tech. And M.Tech students are involved in developing this project for the alumni batch.
The station will be inaugurated in the presence of Udaykumar R. Yaragatti, in-charge Director of the institute.
The story so far: The United Kingdom health authorities recently confirmed a case of the monkeypox virus in an individual who recently travel to the U.K. from Nigeria. The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA), while saying that the rare viral infection does not spread easily among people, is taking precautionary measures with the country’s National Health Service (NHS) to trace those who came in close contact with the case prior to the confirmation of their infection.
Monkeypox cases were last recorded in the U.K. in 2018, when three people, including a health worker, had contracted the infection.
Monkeypox is a rare zoonotic (disease that spread from animals to humans) viral disease belonging to the Orthopoxvirus genus in the Poxviridae family, the same virus family as smallpox.
Monkeypox was first discovered in animals in 1958 when two outbreaks occurred in captive monkey colonies kept for research purposes. Hence, the name ‘monkeypox’.
The first case of the virus in humans was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in a nine-year-old boy. The case was recorded in a region from where smallpox had been wiped out in 1968.
It has since largely been reported in Western and Central Africa from rural and rainforest regions. In DRC, monkeypox is considered an endemic.
To date, two main strains or clades of the virus have been detected- one from the Congo Basin (Central Africa) and one from West Africa.
Primary transmission of the virus occurs from animals to humans. It can happen through direct contact with the blood, fluids, or skin or mucus lesions (damaged or broken areas) of infected animals. Consuming undercooked meat and other animal products of infected animals also involves a possible risk. Evidence of monkeypox has been found in several animal species in Africa including rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian poached rats, dormice and different species of monkeys. According to the World Health Organisation, the “natural reservoir of monkeypox has not yet been identified, though rodents are the most likely”.
The WHO says that secondary or human-to-human spread is fairly limited. The UKHSA has also emphasised that monkeypox does not spread easily among people and that “the overall risk to the general public is very low”.
In humans, it can spread through respiratory droplets, skin lesions, mucous membranes- eyes, nose, or mouth, and through contaminated objects like bedsheets used by infected persons.
According to the UKHSA, monkeypox is usually a mild “self-limiting illness” and most people recover within a few weeks. As per the WHO, the incubation period of the virus or the gap between contracting the infection and symptoms showing up is “is usually from 6 to 13 days but can range from 5 to 21 days”.
The United States Centres for Disease Control (CDC) say that monkeypox symptoms are similar in nature to smallpox but are milder. The major difference between the symptoms of the two diseases is that monkeypox causes lymph nodes to swell up. Other symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, chills and fatigue. Rashes develop starting on the face and spreading to other parts of the body. The goes through different stages of development before eventually forming a scab, which later falls off.
Most people recover within a few weeks but severe illness can occur in some cases. The fatality in monkeypox ranges between zero and 11% in the general population, being higher in younger people. In Africa, the virus has resulted in death among one in 10 persons who contracted the disease.
There is currently no specific treatment for monkeypox. However, several observational studies showed that the Vaccinia vaccine, which was used against smallpox, had shown 85% efficacy in monkeypox prevention.
While the original smallpox vaccine is not available any longer after the disease was largely eradicated, a new version of Vaccinia was approved for monkeypox prevention in 2019.
Since 1970, monkeypox cases have been recorded in 11 African countries including the Central African Republic, DRC, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, and South Sudan. Overall, cases have been reported in 15 countries on four continents to date.
In 2003, the first human cases of the virus were reported outside of Africa when an outbreak occurred in the United States with 47 confirmed and probable cases in six states — Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Those infected had come in contact with pet prairie dogs. The dogs had contracted the infection as they had been housed in close proximity with mammals imported from Ghana in an animal distributor’s facility in Illinois. The imported animals included 800 small mammals belonging to nine species, six of which were rodents. According to the CDC “no instances of monkeypox infection were attributed exclusively to person-to-person contact”.
In 2017, Nigeria reported the biggest documented outbreak of monkeypox, 40 years after it reported the last confirmed case of the virus. According to the BBC, there were a little over 170 suspected cases of the virus, about 75% of those infected being males between ages 21 and 40.
Besides the current confirmed case, the United Kingdom has reported three cases of monkeypox, all in 2018. Two cases were of individuals who had travelled to Nigeria and the third one was a health worker who came in contact with one of the infected persons prior to their diagnosis. Israel had also reported a case of monkeypox in 2019, while Singapore reported a case in 2019. Both had been found in those who had travelled to Nigeria.
Last year, two monkeypox cases were reported in the United States in Texas and Baltimore, with both individuals having returned from Nigeria.
Humans don’t know what they’re missing under the surface of a busy shipping channel in the “cruise capital of the world.” Just below the keels of massive ships, an underwater camera provides a live feed from another world, showing marine life that’s trying its best to resist global warming.
That camera in Miami’s Government Cut is just one of the many ventures of a marine biologist and a musician who’ve been on a 15-year mission to raise awareness about dying coral reefs by combining science and art to bring undersea life into pop culture.
Their company — Coral Morphologic — is surfacing stunning images, putting gorgeous closeups of underwater creatures on social media, setting time-lapsed video of swaying, glowing coral to music and projecting it onto buildings, even selling a coral-themed beachwear line.
“We aren’t all art. We aren’t all science. We aren’t all tech. We are an alchemy,” said Colin Foord, who defies the looks of a typical scientist, with blue hair so spiky that it seems electrically charged. He and his business partner JD McKay sat down with The Associated Press to show off their work.
One of their most popular projects is the Coral City Camera, which recently passed 2 million views and usually has about 100 viewers online at any given time each day.
“We’re going to actually be able to document one year of coral growth, which has never been done before in situ on a coral reef, and that’s only possible because we have this technological connection right here at the port of Miami that allows us to have power and internet,” Foord said.
The livestream has already revealed that staghorn and other corals can adapt and thrive even in a highly urbanized undersea environment, along with 177 species of fish, dolphins, manatees and other sea life, Foord said.
“We have these very resilient corals growing here. The primary goal of us getting it underwater was to show people there is so much marine life right here in our city,” Foord said.
McKay, meanwhile, sounds like a Broadway producer as he describes how he also films the creatures in their Miami lab, growing coral in tanks to get them ready for closeups in glorious colour.
“We essentially create a set with one of these aquariums, and then obviously there’s actors — coral or shrimp or whatever — and then we film it, and then I get a vibe, whatever might be happening in the scene, and then I soundtrack it with some ambient like sounds, something very oceanic,” McKay explained.
Their latest production, “ Coral City Flourotour, ” will be shown on the New World Center Wallscape this week as the Aspen Institute hosts a major climate conference in Miami Beach.
Foord is speaking on a panel about how the ocean’s natural systems can help humans learn to combat impacts of climate change.
The talk’s title? “The Ocean is a Superhero.” “I think when we can recognise that we’re all this one family of life and everything is interconnected, that hopefully we can make meaningful changes now, so that future generations don’t have to live in a world of wildfires and melted ice caps and dead oceans,” Foord told the AP.
Their mission is urgent: After 500 million years on Earth, these species are under assault from climate change. The warming oceans prompt coral bleaching and raise the risk of infectious diseases that can cause mass die-offs in coral, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Stronger storms and changes in water chemistry can destroy reef structures, while altered currents sweep away food and larvae.
“Climate change is the greatest global threat to coral reef ecosystems,” NOAA said in a recent report.
That gets at the second part of Coral Morphologic’s name. “What does it mean to be morphologic? It really means having to adapt because the environment is always changing,” Foord said.
The staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral living in Government Cut provide a real-world example of how coral communities can adapt to such things as rising heat and polluted runoff, even in such an unlikely setting as the port of Miami.
Their video has documented fluorescence in some of the coral, an unusual response in offshore waters that Foord said could be protecting them from solar rays.
“The port is a priceless place for coral research,” Foord said.
“We have to be realistic. You won’t be able to return the ecosystems to the way they were 200 years ago. The options we are left with are more radical.” Beyond the science, there’s the clothes. Coral Morphologic sells a line of surf and swimwear that takes designs from flower anemones and brain coral and uses environmentally sustainable materials such as a type of nylon recycled from old fishing nets.
“We see the power of tech connecting people with nature. We are lucky as artists, and corals are benefitting,” Foord said.
GUWAHATIHumans eat 14% of the world’s surviving species of birds. However, this is not the only reason why 48% of the extant bird species are undergoing population decline, a study by nine renowned avian experts and conservationists has revealed.
The State of the World’s Birds, an annual review of environmental resources published on May 5, has attributed the threat to almost half of the 10,994 recognised extant species of birds to the expanding human footprint on the natural world and climate change.
The degradation and loss of natural habitats as well as direct overexploitation of many species are the key threats to avian biodiversity, the study led by the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) says.
The use of 37% of the surviving bird species as common or exotic pets and 14% as food are examples of direct overexploitation, the report indicates.
The review found that 5,245 or about 48% of the existing bird species worldwide were known or suspected to be undergoing population decline. While 4,295 or 39% of the species had stable trends, about 7% or 778 species had increasing population trends. The trend of 37 species was unknown.
The study underlines birdwatching, a global pastime involving millions of people, as a form of avian conservation but warns of “local negative impacts” of bird feeding valued at $5-6 billion per year and growing by 4% annually.
The caution is for some non-provisioned species via trophic cascades, an “ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling”.
“Avian diversity peaks globally in the tropics and it is there that we also find the highest richness of threatened species. We know a lot less about the fortunes of tropical bird species than we do about temperate ones, but we are now witnessing the first signs of a new wave of extinctions of continentally-distributed bird species, which has followed the historic loss of species on islands like the dodo,” said MMU’s Alexander Lees, the lead author of the study.
The study, which involved scientists from Manchester Metropolitan, Cornell University, Birdlife International, the University of Johannesburg, Pontifical Xavierian University, and the India-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), reviewed changes in avian biodiversity using data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List to reveal the changes in fortunes of all the global bird species.
Apart from tropical forests, the threat of natural grasslands has been particularly worrying for North America, Europe and India. “If unique ecosystems like grasslands are to retain their diverse birdlife, governments and research groups must prioritise such landscapes and their inhabitants for conservation and ensure that they do not become plantations or woodlands,” NCF’s Ashwin Viswanathan said.
“After documenting the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in North America alone, it was dismaying to see the same patterns of population declines and extinction occurring globally,” Ken Rosenberg of Cornell University said.
Because birds are highly visible and sensitive indicators of environmental health, we know their loss signals a much wider loss of biodiversity and threat to human health and well-being, he added.
Hearing loss due to aging, noise and certain cancer therapy drugs and antibiotics has been irreversible because scientists have not been able to reprogram existing cells to develop into the outer and inner ear sensory cells — essential for hearing — once they die.
The Northwestern Medicine scientists have now discovered a single master gene that programmes ear hair cells into either outer or inner ones, overcoming a major hurdle that had prevented the development of these cells to restore hearing ( Nature).
Currently, scientists can produce an artificial hair cell, but it does not differentiate into an inner or outer cell, which provide different essential functions to produce hearing. The discovery is a major step towards developing these specific cells.
The death of outer hair cells made by the cochlea are most often the cause of deafness and hearing loss. The cells develop in the embryo and do not reproduce. The outer hair cells expand and contract in response to the pressure of sound waves and amplify sound for the inner hair cells. The inner cells transmit those vibrations to the neurons to create the sounds we hear.
The master gene switch Northwestern scientists discovered that programmes the ear hair cells is TBX2. When the gene is expressed, the cell becomes an inner hair cell. When the gene is blocked, the cell becomes an outer hair cell. The ability to produce one of these cells will require a gene cocktail, says a press release. The goal would be to reprogramme supporting cells, which are latticed among the hair cells and provide them with structural support, into outer or inner hair cells.
Late in November 2021, World Health Organization (WHO) designated the B.1.1.529 lineage of SARS-CoV-2 as Variant of Concern (VOC) Omicron. The swift rise of Omicron and displacement of previous lineages of SARS-CoV-2 across the world, particularly Delta, was suggestive that Omicron not only had a fitness advantage over Delta but also had the ability to infect people who had prior immunity to Delta or any previous lineages of the virus.
During its designation in 2021, VOC Omicron initially comprised three sister lineages: BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3, although each lineage differs significantly from the other in terms of its mutations. While lineage BA.3 remained relatively rare, lineages BA.1 and BA.2 were primarily responsible for the upsurge in COVID-19 cases across different countries, and also causing infections in fully vaccinated individuals — otherwise known as vaccine breakthrough infections. Over the time, BA.2 became the predominant Omicron lineage worldwide.
As of today, over 100 sub lineages of Omicron have been detected and designated from different regions of the world.
In April 2022, genome sequencing efforts by researchers in South Africa helped identify two new Omicron lineages in the region, which have been later designated by the Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak (PANGO) network as BA.4 and BA.5. The detection of the two lineages also coincides with an upswing in the numbers of COVID-19 cases seen in South Africa, briefly after a decline in numbers since the previous Omicron wave.
The two lineages have been driving the new wave of cases in South Africa, now touching over 10,000 cases daily and a test positivity of over 26%. Further, researchers in South Africa suggest that the two lineages BA.4 and BA.5 can escape immunity acquired through BA.1 infection.
Although not yet detected in India, the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages have been detected in low numbers in over 15 other countries, including the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany and the USA.
Early studies from South Africa estimate that BA.4 and BA.5 have a significant growth advantage over the BA.1 as well as BA.2 lineage, which could either be because of an ability of the lineages to transmit better or an ability to escape immunity from previous infections or vaccination. While significantly different from the original BA.1 lineage, BA.4 and BA.5 have an identical spike protein. Compared to BA.2, both BA.4 and BA.5 differ from the dominant Omicron lineage by three mutations and one deletion. One of the three distinct mutations found in the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages is L452R in the spike protein of the virus.
Mutations at position L452R was found in Delta along with Kappa and Epsilon, while variant Lambda had L452Q. These mutations have been previously reported to be associated with increased infectivity of the virus and also has the ability to evade neutralisation by monoclonal antibodies. Preliminary research shows that BA.4 and BA.5 lineages may be capable of escaping immunity gained by a previous BA.1 infection. Preliminary evidence emerging in a preprint from South Africa also suggests that vaccines are potentially better in protecting against infection as compared to previous infection with BA.1. More evidence is required to understand the clinical outcomes of the new lineages.
The L452 mutations in the spike protein are not unique to BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron lineages but have also emerged independently in other Omicron sublineages in different countries. This includes the mutation L452Q in lineage BA.2.12.1, a sublineage of BA.2, which is recently seen to dominate COVID-19 cases in New York. As the number of infections continues to surge in the USA, proportions of BA.2.12.1 have also been seen to slowly increase, although the cases in the country continue to be dominated by its parent lineage BA.2.
As the Omicron variant continues to dominate the pandemic across the world, it is expected that additional sub-lineages of the variant will emerge as the virus continues to accumulate mutations. As the wave of infections progress, in South Africa and elsewhere more granular data is expected in the coming weeks which would throw light into whether these lineages, including BA.4 and BA.5, are capable of causing waves of infections in different countries or if they are able to prolong the ongoing surges by replacing the currently dominant BA.2 lineage.
Current evidence is insufficient to ascertain what will be the impact of these new variants on vaccine efficacy and other clinical outcomes compared to previous variants. Enhanced genome sequencing efforts, rapid sharing of genomic and epidemiological data also remain essential for detecting and tracking the prevalence of Omicron lineages. Irrespective of emerging variants, controlling transmission of the virus through non-pharmacological interventions like masking and increasing ventilation should remain the priority, apart from protecting the vulnerable through precautionary doses of vaccines.
( Bani Jolly and Vinod Scaria are researchers at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) in Delhi)
In most years, meteorologists consider the La Nina to be a friend of India. The phenomenon associated with below normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, makes the summer monsoon wetter and the winter colder unlike its evil twin, the El Nino, or a warming phenomenon that frequently dries up monsoon rains over India.
This year, however, the La Nina is being blamed for worsening perhaps the longest spell of heatwaves from March to April in north, west and Central India.
Formally known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the La Nina-El Nino phenomenon follows a periodic pattern that roughly lasts three years.
During a La Nina winter, a north-south pressure pattern sets up over India and normally this influences the trade winds that bring rains to India. However, because the La Nina didn’t peak, the sea surface temperatures continued to be cold and this drove hot westerly winds and blasts of hot air from the Middle East into Pakistan and India.
“The north-south pressure pattern has been persisting over India, with La Nina extending its stay over the Pacific. This has definitely impacted the weather over India, which has been seen even during 1998-2000 when La Nina had persisted for three years,” Raghu Murtugudde, Professor, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, University of Maryland told Climate Trends, a communications firm that specialises in climate and environment.
While land temperatures over India begin rising in March, they are usually punctuated by western disturbances, or moisture from the Mediterranean region that fall as rain over north and western India. For these currents to make it as far as India, they need a significant difference in temperature between Europe and the latitudes over India. “Partly due to La Nina, this temperature difference was absent and so the western disturbances that came to India were weak with hardly any rain,” M. Ravichandran, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences and climate scientist, told The Hindu.
According to a 2021 report by the Ministry of Earth Sciences, ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’, all India averaged frequency of summer heatwaves is expected to rise to about 2.5 events per season by the mid-21st century, with a further slight rise to about 3.0 events by the end of 21st century under current trajectory of greenhouse gas emission.
Having a vertebral column endows vertebrates with many similar characteristics and one of these is bilateral or left-right symmetry. For instance, if we draw an imaginary line dividing a vertebrate’s body from head to tail through the centre, we will see symmetrically placed eyes, limbs, etc. To ask how this symmetric body structure comes into being means going to the embryonic stage and see how the precursors of the skeleton and muscles, known as somites, develop. The question then is – does the left-right symmetry seen in the somites develop through some inbuilt mechanism of genetic regulation or is it a physical property of the tissues making up the somites? A group of researchers studying zebrafish model embryos find that it is in fact surface tension that shapes these cells and not any genetic regulatory mechanism. The results of their study are published in Nature.
“A key insight of this study is the realisation that the precise patterns we see in developing organisms are not solely due to detailed genetic regulation, but rely on very generic physical properties of tissues,” says Andrew C. Oates from the Institute of Bioengineering, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland, in whose lab the study was carried out, in an email to The Hindu. According to him, this has implications for understanding normal development, as well as birth deformities, and also for the precision of engineered tissues for patients from stem cells.
The group studied the development of somites in zebrafish embryos. “We were interested in understanding how a left-right symmetric muscle and skeletal system emerges from embryonic development,” says Sundar Naganathan, who was a post doc in Prof. Oates’ lab at the time the work was carried out. He is the first author of the paper. They noticed that even though at the beginning the somites are not perfectly arranged and some even violate the left–right symmetry, they eventually change shape, without a change in volume and adopt a perfectly symmetrical arrangement. The group deduces that this is surface tension at play in the tissues of the somites.
The main challenge was in imaging left and right sides of the embryo simultaneously, for which the researchers used a multi-view light-sheet microscope where the sample was rotated and imaged from multiple angles. “The second challenge was developing data analysis tools, because each movie that we acquired using the light-sheet microscope was about 500 GB in size, and we had to come up with new tools to process these large data sets,” says Dr Naganathan.
Disturbance of left–right symmetry in individuals is seen in a condition called scoliosis where the backbone gets curved , either before birth itself or later, during active development as during adolescence. Scoliosis patients show a lack of left–right symmetry in their ribs, muscle and skeleton. “Our work provides a way forward to enable a fundamental understanding of how the left and right sides of the embryo form symmetrically, which in the long-term will hopefully help us understand the etiology behind scoliosis,” says Dr. Naganathan.
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to adapt to the human host, it has been transforming itself in ways that can escape immune protection. Omicron and its sub-lineages are ruling the world at this time, and it is important to know how well the vaccines are doing. For many reasons, real-world (field) experience is often different from the original efficacy studies conducted by vaccine manufacturers.
A recent study posted as a preprint in medRxiv, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, compared the real-world experience with Delta and Omicron, specifically addressing the risk of requiring a visit to the casualty or A&E (Accidents and Emergency, in the U.K.) among COVID-positive individuals of varying vaccination status. For the purpose of the study, visit to the casualty or A&E was used as an approximate marker of severity of disease, although an A&E visit can also be triggered for reasons other than COVID pneumonia The study by Daniel J. Grint and others looked at 2,37,430 people who got infected with Omicron, and 92,950 people with Delta in the U.K. during the month of December 2021.
They found, predictably, that Omicron-infected individuals were less likely to require an A&E visit than Delta. While the common explanation is that the severity of Omicron is lower because of widespread vaccination, the authors found that this difference was also apparent among unvaccinated individuals. In other words, compared to Delta, unvaccinated people with Omicron were less likely to require an A&E visit.
This could mean one of two things, or both. Omicron by itself could be less pathogenic, or unvaccinated individuals have acquired a substantial level of immunity by now through natural infection. The latter is more likely, because we know that unvaccinated people in Hong Kong suffered severely from Omicron. Natural infections were uncommon in Hong Kong because of their zero COVID strategy; this led to the absence of widespread natural immunity in the population. Thus, their suffering was not because the virus itself had become less lethal.
The lethality of the Omicron variant was highlighted by another large study. The recent study posted as a preprint in Research Square, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, by researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital compared 1,30,000 COVID-19 patients during the Omicron and the Delta waves.
They found that contrary to popular belief, the severity of both these variants was almost the same, when measured in terms of hospitalisation and death rate. They discovered this after adjusting for confounding variables such as vaccination status, demography and comorbidities.
This indicates that the intrinsic severity of Omicron has not reduced, but rather our ability to counter the virus has improved — through immunity acquired by vaccination or natural infection.
The medRxiv study by Daniel Grint unearths more interesting findings pertaining to how well vaccines are doing with Omicron and Delta. In the case of the Omicron variant, the authors found that for most individuals, including healthy people over 70 years, it hardly mattered whether they were unvaccinated, vaccinated or boosted — they all had about the same risk of A&E visit.
However, elderly people who also had comorbidities were more likely to need an A&E visit if they were unvaccinated, implying that this subgroup of people stand to benefit the most from vaccination.
Importantly, they also noted that with Omicron, the difference between those who were fully vaccinated with two doses and those who also received a booster shot was non-existent or marginal in most instances, with the exception of the same subgroup — elderly with comorbidities.
However, in the case of the Delta variant, unvaccinated people in all adult age groups were clearly more likely to need an A&E visit compared with those who were vaccinated.
They also report that compared to Omicron, the proportion of vaccinated and boosted individuals was considerably lower among the Delta-infected subgroup, implying that vaccine protection was higher against Delta.
The findings indicate that Omicron has started to level the playing field, narrowing the gap between unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, a trend that was not observed with Delta.
This does not mean that vaccines are ineffective, as the overall risk of A&E visit is still greater among the unvaccinated. The study helps to categorise those who are more or less likely to experience a difference, by virtue of being vaccinated or boosted.
Compared to 2020, at least three major changes have occurred in the pandemic narrative, as we gather more evidence. First, while vaccines continue to protect against severe disease, their ability to stop infection or transmission is not good enough. Second, reinfections are common. This means that people who were vaccinated or unvaccinated could continue to repeatedly pick up infections if they got exposed to a large viral aerosol load. Finally, the risk of infection is lower in the initial few months following a vaccine dose or natural infection, but this early protection from infection rapidly wanes afterwards.
( Rajeev Jayadevan is co-Chairman, National IMA COVID Task Force)
Scientists have discovered a rare "triple black widow" system – a pair of stars that rapidly circle each other before one is consumed by the other – located some 3,000 light-years away.
The star system named "ZTF J1406+1222" has the shortest known orbit of any black widow binary i.e. 62 minutes, according to researchers.
What makes this system unique is that it contains a third star that circles the central pair every 10,000 years, according to the finding published in the journal Nature on May 4.
A team led by scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. found the stellar oddity, which appears to be a new black widow binary – a rapidly spinning neutron star or pulsar that is circling and slowly consuming a smaller companion star.
The system derives its name from the "black widow" spiders, in which the female eats the male after mating.
Astronomers know of about two dozen black widow binaries in the Milky Way.
The research, which also involves astronomers from the University of Sheffield in the U.K., suggests that "ZTF J1406+1222" has the shortest orbital period yet identified, with the pulsar and companion star circling each other every 62 minutes.
The study used HiPERCAM, a high-speed camera developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield that can take more than 1,000 optical images per second, to find the exotic triple black widow.
The discovery has raised questions about how such a system could have formed, with researchers speculating that as with most black widow binaries, the triple system likely arose from a dense constellation of old stars known as a globular cluster.
This particular cluster may have drifted into the Milky Way’s centre, where the gravity of the central black hole was enough to pull the cluster apart while leaving the triple black widow intact.
With the help of HiPERCAM, the research team used a new approach to detect the triple system. While most black widow binaries are initially found through the radio and gamma ray radiation emitted by the central pulsar, the team used visible light, and specifically the varying light from the binary’s companion star to discover ZTF J1406+1222.
"Thanks to the extraordinary sensitivity of the Sheffield-led HiPERCAM camera, we have discovered the most extreme member of the black widow class of binary star, along with a promising new method of detecting such systems,” Professor Vik Dhillon, co-author of the study from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said.
Black widow binaries are powered by pulsars — rapidly spinning neutron stars that are the collapsed cores of massive stars.
Pulsars have a dizzying rotational period, spinning around every few milliseconds, and emitting flashes of radio and high-energy gamma rays in the process.
Normally, pulsars spin down and die quickly as they burn off a huge amount of energy, but every so often, a passing star can give a pulsar new life.
As a star nears, the pulsar’s gravity pulls material off the star, which provides new energy to spin the pulsar back up. The “recycled” pulsar then starts reradiating energy that further strips the star, and eventually destroys it.
Astronomers discovered the companion star’s day side — the side perpetually facing the pulsar — can be many times hotter than its night side, due to the constant high-energy radiation it receives from the pulsar.
This allowed them to find the new black widow by looking for the companion star instead of looking directly for the pulsar.
The new method could make it easier to discover black widows in the future, as a star whose brightness is changing periodically by a huge amount is a strong signal that it’s a binary with a pulsar, said the research supported by the National Science Foundation.
SpaceX brought four astronauts home with a midnight splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, capping the busiest stretch yet for Elon Musk’s taxi service.
The three U.S. astronauts and one German in the capsule were bobbing off the Florida coast, near Tampa, less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station. NASA expected to have them back in Houston later in the morning.
“That was a great ride,” said Raja Chari, the capsule commander. As for the reintroduction to gravity, he noted: “Only one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy.”
NASA’s Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer, were out of the capsule within an hour of splashdown, waving and giving thumbs-up as they were hustled away on rolling chaises for medical checks.
Their departure from the space station Thursday was bittersweet, as they embraced the seven astronauts remaining there.
“It’s the end of a six-month mission, but I think the space dream lives on,” Maurer said.
SpaceX brought up their U.S. and Italian replacements last week, after completing a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen earlier in April.
That amounts to two crew launches and two splashdowns in barely a month. Musk’s company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years, since it started ferrying astronauts for NASA. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.
SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier, a vice president, acknowledges it’s “a pretty exciting time.”
Barely five hours after splashdown, the company founded by Musk in 2002 launched a fresh batch of its own internet satellites known as Starlinks from Cape Canaveral. There were 53 of the mini flat-panel satellites in this predawn load.
“Satellites are nice, but flying people are a little special and a little bit different, and the team here sure understands that,” he told reporters. “There’s a sense of relief and and a sense of accomplishment that you know you’ve done something good.”
NASA is more impressed than ever, given SpaceX’s unprecedented pace. The only problem of note in the latest flight was a mechanical nut that wiggled loose and floated away from the SpaceX capsule following Thursday’s undocking. Officials assured everyone it would not pose a danger to the space station.
“Look at all this work in the last month,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations mission chief. “I really want to personally thank SpaceX for just, wow, just performing such seamless operations on all those missions.”
The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their ex-astronaut escort who dropped by in April, opening up NASA’s side of the station to paying guests after decades of resistance.
On the down side, they had to contend with a dangerous spike in space junk after Russia blew up a satellite in a missile test in mid-November. More than 1,500 pieces of shrapnel spread across Earth’s orbit for years to come.
While the war in Ukraine has caused tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the astronauts have stood by their Russian crewmates, and vice versa. Flight controllers in Houston and Moscow also continued to cooperate as always, according to NASA officials.
As he relinquished command of the space station earlier this week, Marshburn called it “a place of peace” and said international cooperation would likely be its lasting legacy. Russian Oleg Artemyev, the new commander, also emphasized the “peace between our countries, our friendship” in orbit and described his crewmates as brothers and sisters.
Up there now are three Russians, three Americans and one Italian.
It was Marshburn’s third spaceflight, and the first for the three returning with him. Chari and Barron’s next stop could be the moon; they are among 18 U.S. astronauts picked for NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program. Two others in that elite group are now at the space station.
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On April 7, this year, in a paper in Science, researchers from Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) Collaboration analysed ten years of data and announced that they have made a precise detection of the mass of the so-called W boson and that it does not match with value expected from estimates using the standard model and previous measurements. If confirmed by other experiments this would be a sign of the incompleteness, or even incorrectness, of the Standard Model of particle physics.
The W boson is an elementary particle that plays an important role in mediating weak nuclear interactions. The weak nuclear force is one of the four fundamental interactions between matter particles in physics, the others being electromagnetic interaction, strong nuclear interaction and gravitational interactions. In quantum electrodynamics, the theory that describes electromagnetic interactions, the photon is the particle that mediates the interaction – for example, charged particles exchange a photon when they interact. In the case of weak interactions there are three such ‘gauge bosons’ – the W+ (W-plus), W- (W-minus) and Z particles. Unlike the photon, the W-plus and W-minus are charged and by exchanging such bosons, a neutron can change into a proton, for example. This helps in the transmutation of elements. The W boson helps the interactions that make the Sun burn and produce energy.
Inspired by the success of quantum electrodynamics, Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg developed the similar but more general ‘electroweak’ theory in which they predicted these three particles and how they mediated the weak interactions. They were given the Nobel prize for their efforts in 1979. The W boson was first discovered at CERN, located in the Franco-Swiss border. Unlike the photon, which is massless, the W bosons are quite massive, which results in the force they meaidate – the weak force – being very short ranged.
The Standard Model of particle physics has been very successful in predicting the behaviour of elementary particles, for about 60 years now, since its inception. It predicted the existence of the Higgs boson which was discovered, also at CERN in 2012. However, there are glaring gaps – the SM does not describe gravity, and has no room to include dark matter particles. The latest discovery that the W boson mass is not agreeing with the value allowed by the standard model, would be another crack in the theory. This finding by Fermilab awaits being confirmed by other major experiments.
The third long-duration team of astronauts launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA safely departed the orbiting outpost early on May 5 to begin their descent back to Earth, capping a six-month science mission.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three U.S. NASA astronauts and a German astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA) undocked from the ISS shortly after 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) to embark on a return flight expected to last about 23 hours. A live video showing the capsule moving away from the station was shown on a NASA webcast.
Wearing helmeted white-and-black spacesuits, the four astronauts were seen strapped into the crew cabin shortly before the spacecraft separated from the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth. A few brief rocket thrusts then autonomously pushed the capsule safely clear of the ISS.
If all goes smoothly, the Crew Dragon craft, dubbed Endurance, will parachute into the sea off the coast of Florida at 12:43 a.m. EDT on Friday (0443 GMT).
The Endurance crew, consisting of American astronauts Tom Marshburn, 61, Raja Chari, 44, and Kayla Barron, 34, along with ESA crewmate Matthias Maurer, 52, arrived at the space station on November 11.
Their departure came about a week after they welcomed their replacement team aboard the station, also currently home to three Russian cosmonauts on a long-term mission. One of those cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, assumed command of the ISS from Marshburn in a handover before Thursday's undocking, NASA said.
Earlier in April, a separate all-private astronaut crew launched by SpaceX to the space station under contract for the Houston-based company Axiom Space left the orbiting laboratory, concluding two weeks in orbit.
The NASA-ESA team flying home on Thursday was officially designated "Crew-3," the third full-fledged long-duration group of astronauts that SpaceX has launched to the space station for the U.S. space agency. They will be carrying some 550 pounds of cargo with them on their flight back to Earth.
SpaceX, the California-based company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc who recently clinched a deal to buy social media platform Twitter has launched a total of seven human spaceflights over the past two years.
I gaze at an unusual South Asia map: it is a ragged dull-yellow chart from 1921 that estimates the number of “insanes” on the sub-continent. This map has five translucent dots, like crystal balls, which on touch takes me to a different world, a different time. The ball near Kolkata transports me to the 1800s, to a hand-coloured print of the city’s mental hospital.
Here I learn about Eliza Moirs, 44, an inmate here since February 1860. She has blue eyes and dark-brown hair, but no one knows where she was born, or who she was born to. In the asylum, she was prone to occasional bouts of violence and was “a source of annoyance to the other patients”.
She did not improve, and in February 1863, the medical department sought permission to send her and several others aboard Hougoumont, a Britain-bound convict ship. The inspector hoped that Eliza’s return to the homeland would help her recovery. I am not sure what happens to Eliza: does she board the ship? Does she get better?
Her story is part of ‘The Asylum’, a chronicle of the Indian Mental Hospital, one of the displays at Science Gallery Bengaluru’s digital exhibition PSYCHE.
The exhibition features the work of neuroscientists, artists, psychologists, historians, filmmakers, sociologists, writers and performers who explore the complexities of the mind. There’s a media lounge curated with relevant books, podcasts, video games and an activity pack that offers puzzles and mind-games to solve at home.
The human mind is an extraordinary thing. “We know that the mind probably relies on the brain to create itself, yet how the brain creates the mind is absolutely unknown,” says Sanjeev Jain at the psychiatry department of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) who is an academic advisor to PSYCHE.
Wandering, I drop into ‘The Serpent of a Thousand Coils’, an interactive game that provides a glimpse into the minds of anxiety sufferers. Built like a 1980s’ video game, the player moves through several dizzying paths. At each juncture, they must respond to their character’s turmoil to progress to the next phase, choices that determine a player’s anxiety level, and ultimately their escape from the mind’s seemingly endless panic loops.
The game is not intended to merely embroil a participant into what an anxiety sufferer might go through. “There is this sensorial screen that exists between every visitor and the direct experience of anxiety,” says artist Anuj Malhotra, founder of Lightcube. “We want them to be able to meditate on how anxiety actually works on a minute to minute, day to day basis,” he adds.
I pass through several other rooms: ‘Black Men’s Minds’ is an installation led by the voices of Black men, a neglected community on mental health; the ‘McGill Pain Questionnaire’ investigates the classic pain assessment tool; ‘Schizophrenia and the Brain’ surveys ongoing clinical research to better understand schizophrenia; ‘Playing with Reality’ explores psychosis and its implications on reality; ‘Change my Mind’ and ‘Synthetic Self’ probe the impacts of new technologies on the mind — brain implants, robotic arms and microchip implants.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, a non-profit public institution that seeks to ‘bring science back into culture’. Young people in particular, says Jahnavi, have been reading up and posing questions often situated in their daily lives.
I go back into the ‘The Asylum’ exhibit, looking at old photographs, reading letters, and thinking about lessons from the past. “Our purpose was to colour these stories, to introduce other hues, so that it is not a black and white rendition of mental hospitals,” says Alok Sarin, a clinical psychiatrist, and one of the exhibit’s scholars. Too often, institutions have been painted in bleak shades, as centres of squalor and cruelty, but this is only part of the history, says Alok.
To make life bearable, Ranchi’s Indian Mental Hospital (exclusively for ‘natives’) in the 1930s organised sports, set up a cinema theatre and provided occupational therapy. Major J.E. Dhunjibhoy, the superintendent, was devoted to his job: reading, travelling, experimenting widely with new medical treatments that could alleviate suffering. Across the road, at the European Hospital, Lt. Colonel Owen Berkeley Hill, the director, allowed patients to leave the campus unchaperoned during the day, abolished the practice of secluding and restraining patients, and mandated that nurses had a degree in psychological medicine.
Today, these hospitals have been shut down or downsized, Alok says, and community care designed to replace the institution has not been adequately established. “We need a variety of services including mental institutions where human rights are respected, where things are done properly,” says Alok. “The focus of our exhibit is to bring the mental hospital back into the light.” As I leave the exhibition, I want to know more about heroes such as Major Dhunjibhoy — compassionate, dedicated men and women.
Its collaborators hope that PSYCHE will inspire young adults to engage with questions of the mind: inquiries of history and culture, science and technology, medicine and art. And perhaps someday, they will help shine a light on the answers that elude us.
Science Gallery Bengaluru’s digital exhibition PSYCHE can be visited here: https://psyche.scigalleryblr.org/
The writer is a freelance journalist.
After sending missions to the Moon and Mars, the ISRO is now readying a spacecraft to orbit Venus to study what lies below the surface of the solar system's hottest planet, and also unravel the mysteries under the Sulfuric Acid clouds enveloping it.
Addressing a day-long meeting on Venusian science, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman S. Somnath said the Venus mission has been conceived, a project report made and "money identified".
He urged scientists to focus on high-impact outcomes.
"Building and putting a mission on Venus is possible for India in a very short space of time as the capability today exists with India," Mr. Somnath said in his inaugural address.
The space agency is eyeing the December 2024 window for its launch with orbital maneuvers planned for the following year when earth and Venus would be so aligned that the spacecraft could be put in the neighbouring planet's orbit using a minimum amount of propellant.
The next similar window would be available in 2031.
Mr. Somnath cautioned against repeating experiments conducted by previous missions to the Venus and focus on unique high-impact outcomes as were achieved by Chandrayaan-I and Mars Orbiter Mission.
Among the experiments planned include an investigation of the surface processes and shallow sub-surface stratigraphy, including active volcanic hotspots and lava flows, studying the structure, composition, and dynamics of the atmosphere, and investigation of solar wind interaction with the Venusian Ionosphere.
The story so far: Astronomers and sky enthusiasts marked the 2022 International Dark Sky Week from April 22-30. Hundreds of events were conducted across the globe where participants came together to learn astrophotography, take night walks, and observe the night sky without light pollution and learn how it negatively impacts our ecosystem.
The International Dark Sky Week is an annual event hosted by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
“International Dark Sky Week provides a wonderful opportunity for people to discover value and beauty in the dark. It’s a great time to connect with the night and learn about what is at stake if light pollution continues to increase,” IDA’s communications manager Lauren Scorzafava said.
The event aims to raise awareness about the negative impact of light pollution and celebrate the night sky.
According to IDA, outdoor artificial lighting at night can disrupt wildlife, impact human health, waste money and energy, contribute to climate change, and block views of the universe — when used indiscriminately. Light pollution is increasing at twice the rate of population growth and 83% of the world’s population lives under the light-polluted sky, the organisation added.
Here are a few glimpses of how sky enthusiasts celebrated the International Dark Sky Week.
From Santa Barbara, California, to Hefei, China, scientists are developing a new kind of computer that will make today’s machines look like toys.
Harnessing the mysterious powers of quantum mechanics, the technology will perform tasks in minutes that even supercomputers could not complete in thousands of years. In the fall of 2019, Google unveiled an experimental quantum computer showing this was possible. Two years later, a lab in China did much the same.
But quantum computing will not reach its potential without help from another technological breakthrough. Call it a “quantum internet” — a computer network that can send quantum information between distant machines.
At the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, a team of physicists has taken a significant step toward this computer network of the future, using a technique called quantum teleportation to send data across three physical locations. Previously, this was possible with only two.
The new experiment indicates that scientists can stretch a quantum network across an increasingly large number of sites. “We are now building small quantum networks in the lab,” said Ronald Hanson, the Delft physicist who oversees the team. “But the idea is to eventually build a quantum internet.”
Their research, unveiled this week with a paper published in the science journal Nature, demonstrates the power of a phenomenon that Albert Einstein once deemed impossible. Quantum teleportation — what he called “spooky action at a distance” — can transfer information between locations without actually moving the physical matter that holds it.
This technology could profoundly change the way data travels from place to place. It draws on more than a century of research involving quantum mechanics, a field of physics that governs the subatomic realm and behaves unlike anything we experience in our everyday lives. Quantum teleportation not only moves data between quantum computers, but it also does so in such a way that no one can intercept it.
“This not only means that the quantum computer can solve your problem but also that it does not know what the problem is,” said Tracy Eleanor Northup, a researcher at the University of Innsbruck’s Institute for Experimental Physics who is also exploring quantum teleportation. “It does not work that way today. Google knows what you are running on its servers.”
A quantum computer taps into the strange ways some objects behave if they are very small (like an electron or a particle of light) or very cold (like an exotic metal cooled to nearly absolute zero, or minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit). In these situations, a single object can behave like two separate objects at the same time.
Traditional computers perform calculations by processing “bits” of information, with each bit holding either a 1 or a 0. By harnessing the strange behavior of quantum mechanics, a quantum bit, or qubit, can store a combination of 1 and 0 — a little like how a spinning coin holds the tantalizing possibility that it will turn up either heads or tails when it finally falls flat on the table.
This means that two qubits can hold four values at once, three qubits can hold eight, four can hold 16 and so on. As the number of qubits grows, a quantum computer becomes exponentially more powerful.
Researchers believe these devices could one day speed the creation of new medicines, power advances in artificial intelligence and summarily crack the encryption that protects computers vital to national security. Across the globe, governments, academic labs, startups and tech giants are spending billions of dollars exploring the technology.
In 2019, Google announced that its machine had reached what scientists call “quantum supremacy,” which meant it could perform an experimental task that was impossible with traditional computers. But most experts believe several more years will pass — at the very least — before a quantum computer can actually do something useful that you cannot do with another machine.
Part of the challenge is that a qubit breaks, or “decoheres,” if you read information from it — it becomes an ordinary bit capable of holding only a 0 or a 1 but not both. But by stringing many qubits together and developing ways of guarding against decoherence, scientists hope to build machines that are both powerful and practical.
Ultimately, ideally, these would be joined into networks that can send information between nodes, allowing them to be used from anywhere, much as cloud computing services from the likes of Google and Amazon make processing power widely accessible today.
But this comes with its own problems. In part because of decoherence, quantum information cannot simply be copied and sent across a traditional network. Quantum teleportation provides an alternative.
Although it cannot move objects from place to place, it can move information by taking advantage of a quantum property called “entanglement”: A change in the state of one quantum system instantaneously affects the state of another, distant one.
“After entanglement, you can no longer describe these states individually,” Northup said. “Fundamentally, it is now one system.”
These entangled systems could be electrons, particles of light or other objects. In the Netherlands, Hanson and his team used what is called a nitrogen vacancy center — a tiny empty space in a synthetic diamond in which electrons can be trapped.
The team built three of these quantum systems, named Alice, Bob and Charlie, and connected them in a line with strands of optical fiber. The scientists could then entangle these systems by sending individual photons — particles of light — between them.
First, the researchers entangled two electrons — one belonging to Alice, the other to Bob. In effect, the electrons were given the same spin, and thus were joined, or entangled, in a common quantum state, each storing the same information: a particular combination of 1 and 0.
The researchers could then transfer this quantum state to another qubit, a carbon nucleus, inside Bob’s synthetic diamond. Doing so freed up Bob’s electron, and researchers could then entangle it with another electron belonging to Charlie.
By performing a specific quantum operation on both of Bob’s qubits — the electron and the carbon nucleus — the researchers could then glue the two entanglements together: Alice plus Bob glued to Bob plus Charlie.
The result: Alice was entangled with Charlie, which allowed data to teleport across all three nodes.
When data travels this way, without actually traveling the distance between the nodes, it cannot be lost. “Information can be fed into one side of the connection and then appear on the other,” Hanson said.
The information also cannot be intercepted. A future quantum internet, powered by quantum teleportation, could provide a new kind of encryption that is theoretically unbreakable.
In the new experiment, the network nodes were not that far apart — only about 60 feet. But previous experiments have shown that quantum systems can be entangled over longer distances.
The hope is that, after several more years of research, quantum teleportation will be viable across many miles. “We are now trying to do this outside the lab,” Hanson said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a large spiral galaxy called NGC 3227 wrapped in a turbulent “gravitational dance,” with NGC 3226, an elliptical galaxy. Collectively called Arp 94, the two are between 50 and 60 million light-years from Earth, towards the constellation Leo. Faint tidal streams of gas and dust link the pair in their dance.
NGC 3227 is a Seyfert Galaxy, a type of galaxy that has a supermassive black hole at the centre and therefore accrete metal, releasing large amounts of radiation. Scientists estimate that about 10 per cent of all galaxies may be Seyfert galaxies. Hubble was looking at NGF 3227 and 3226 as part of a program to measure black hole masses by observing the dynamics of gas at the centres of bright galaxy clusters.
The red-coloured parts of the image represent both visible red and near-infrared wavelengths of light.
Astronomers want to understand why galaxies in our local universe mostly fall into two categories: they are either younger star-forming spirals like our Milky Way or older elliptical galaxies where star-making has ceased. NGC 3226 occupies a transitional middle ground, giving scientists an opportunity to understand how one transitions into another.
Many gassy loops with stars emerge from NGC 3226 and filaments run from it to NGC 3227. These ‘streamers’ of materials suggest that a third galaxy could have existed there recently until NGC 3226 cannibalised and strewed pieces of the shredded galaxy all over the vicinity.
A piece of these messy leftovers stretches 100,000 light-years and extends right into the core of NGC 3226. This ‘tail’ ends as a curved plume in a disk of warm hydrogen gas and a ring of dust. The contents of this tail are falling into 3226, drawn by the gravity of the supermassive black hole at the centre.
A ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid, which is twice the size of the Burj Khalifa and four times the Empire State Building will zip past Earth on Friday, according to NASA’s Centre for Near Earth Object Studies. The asteroid, named 1989 JA, is estimated to be 1.1 miles long, two kilometres wide and is travelling at a speed of 30,000 mph, as per a Live Science report.
On making its closest approach to Earth on May 27, 1989 JA will be 40,24,182 kilometres away, the closest it gets to the planet for the next 172 years.
The Apollo asteroid –a term given to asteroids that revolve around the sun while periodically crossing Earth’s orbit– has been labelled “potentially hazardous” as it can cause severe damage to Earth if it changes its orbit.
“To provide some context, that is 17 times the speed of a bullet through the air. At this speed, the asteroid could travel around the planet Earth in 45 minutes,” Franck Marchis, chief scientific officer of the telescope company Unistellar and senior planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute, was quoted as saying by USA Today.
The asteroid was discovered in 1989 by astronomer Eleanor Helin at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. According to NASA, of the nearly 29,000 near-Earth asteroids whose existence is known of, the 1989 JA belongs to the group of 878 asteroids that are at least 3,280 feet wide.
Boeing Co’s Starliner astronaut capsule returned from the International Space Station and landed in New Mexico on Wednesday, capping a high-stakes test flight as NASA’s next vehicle for carrying humans to orbit.
Less than a week after its launch from the Cape Canaveral US Space Force Base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner capsule plunged through Earth’s atmosphere Wednesday evening ahead of a parachute-assisted descent over the desert of White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico. It touched down on time at 6:49 pm EDT (2249 GMT).
The roughly five-hour return trip from the space station, an orbital outpost some 250 miles above Earth, checks off the last leg of a repeat test flight that Boeing had first attempted in 2019, but failed to complete after running into software failures.
The latest test mission moves Starliner, beset by repeated delays and costly engineering setbacks, a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable avenue for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
Starliner was lofted to orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance and achieved its main objective – a rendezvous with the ISS, even though four of its multiple onboard thrusters malfunctioned along the way.
Boeing engineers also had to improvise a workaround for a thermal control defect during the final approach of the capsule to the space station.
Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the US space agency has had to rely solely on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX.
Previously, the only other option for reaching the orbiting laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative currently less attractive in light of heightened US-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Much is on the line for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million over the past 2-1/2 years.
An ill-fated first orbital test flight of Starliner in late 2019 nearly ended with the vehicle’s loss following a software glitch that effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.
Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
Starliner remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them.
The do-over test mission that wrapped up on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first astronaut crew to the space station sometime next year, pending a redesign of Starliner’s propulsion system valves and a resolution of the thruster issues that popped up mid-mission.
The orbiting outpost is currently home to a crew of three US NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency, and three Russian cosmonauts. While Starliner was parked to the station, some of those astronauts boarded the capsule to analyze its cabin conditions.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander took what the space agency says will be its last selfie on April 24 this year. The lander can be seen covered in a lot of dust. The InSight team expects the lander to become inoperative by December, thus concluding a mission that has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes and located the most quake-prone regions of the Red Planet.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) robotic lander is designed to study the deep interior of the red planet. It is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory but most of its scientific instruments were built by European agencies. It was launched aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle on May 5, 2018, and successfully landed on Mars on November 26, 2018.
In order to capture such a full “selfie,” InSight’s robotic arms have to move several. But the InSight’s solar panels are quite dusty and produce very little power. The team will put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position, called retirement pose, for the last time this month (May).
The InSight lander was the first to detect a quake on another planet. Its onboard seismometer has measured over 1,300 seismic events, with over 50 of them having clear enough signals for the team to learn information about where they occurred on the planet. The most recent one happened this month and had an estimated magnitude of 5, with reverberations coursing through the planet for at least six hours.
Apart from seismic data, InSight also collected the most comprehensive weather data of any mission sent to the planet. InSight’s sensors have detected thousands of passing dust devils using its pressure sensor and seismometer which can feel the surface tilt as the dust devils tug on it like a vacuum cleaner.
It also observed atmospheric features such as weather fronts, dust storms, turbulence, infrasound and bore waves, providing a much more complete picture of the planet’s weather patterns, which will inform future missions to Mars.
NASA has shared its early plans to send astronauts to Mars for 30 days. The space agency had released a draft set of high-level objectives earlier this year. These identify 50 points falling under four categories of exploration, including transportation and habitation; Moon and Mars infrastructure; operations and science.
The space agency is calling on the industry, academia, international communities and other stakeholders to provide input on its deep space exploration objectives. It will continue to accept feedback on its plans till May 31.
“The feedback we receive on the objectives we have identified will inform our exploration plans at the Moon and Mars for the next 20 years. We’re looking within NASA and external stakeholders to help us fine-tune these objectives and be as transparent as possible throughout our process. With this approach, we will find potential gaps in our architecture as well as areas where our goals align with those from industry and international partners for future collaboration,” said Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
NASA aims to launch astronauts to the red planet by the late 2030s or early 2040s, which is a challenging feat, to say the least. Even if the right amount of funding and technology are available, the round-trip journey between Earth and Mars will take more than 500 days.
The space agency envisions using a large spacecraft that can take astronauts to Mars using a hybrid rocket stage (powered by both chemical and electric propulsion) Four astronauts will embark on the journey with two getting off on the surface of the moon. The large spacecraft needs to be like a habitat so that the four astronauts can have a safe, healthy and comfortable journey till they reach the planet.
Before the crewed spaceflight, a robotic mission will deliver many essential supplies and hardware. These will be waiting for the astronauts till they land. These supplies will include a fuelled ascent vehicle that will help the astronauts get off the surface of Mars and into the orbit of the planet.
Space is a key area of cooperation for Japan with the United States, its closest ally, amid heightened tensions with an increasingly assertive China, which itself aims to become a space power.
Tokyo has said it hopes to put one of its astronauts on the lunar surface – the first non-American – in the latter half of the 2020s as part of NASA’s Artemis programme to return humans to the moon.
Japan has an extensive space programme, mainly focused on developing launchers and space probes. But it doesn’t have a human flight programme and has relied on the United States and Russia to carry its astronauts into space. More Japanese have visited the International Space Station other than citizens of the United States and Russia.
Space cooperation was on the agenda when U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met on Monday. The allies announced progress in the Artemis programme and confirmed their intention to include a Japanese astronaut on Gateway, a human outpost near the moon.
Biden is visiting Tokyo this week as part of his first Asian trip since taking office. Japan’s space ambitions, and investment, are welcome by the United States as it tries to stay ahead of China in a potential new space race. Beijing plans to complete its first space station by the end of this year.
Japan’s space agency, JAXA, last year reopened astronaut recruitment for the first time in more than a decade to revive its pool of ageing astronauts.
Japan is due to help the European Space Agency (ESA) build the main habitat module of the U.S.-planned orbiting lunar outpost, Gateway, that will be used in moon landings.
Japan also built the Kibo experiment module on the International Space Station and resupply missions have been lifted into space by its heavy launch rockets.
Japan’s aerospace industry was dismantled at the end of World War Two but it has fostered its space industry through industrial heavyweights such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric.
MHI rockets launching from the Tanegashima Space Centre off the southwestern island of Kyushu have delivered payloads including the Michibiki satellites that have bolstered the U.S. global positioning system (GPS) in Asia.
The launch of the new H3 rocket being developed by MHI and JAXA was delayed earlier this year due to engine problems.
The growth of the U.S. private space industry centred on companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX has transformed the market for launch services.
Japan also aims to cultivate its space startup scene with businesses including space debris removal company Astroscale and Ispace, which is developing landers and rovers for lunar exploration.
Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa became the first private passenger to visit the ISS in more than a decade after launching on a Soyuz rocket in December.
Two interesting images from NASA’s Hubble Telescope show two very interesting phenomena taking place in the cosmos. The first one shows a special duo of galaxies where one is superimposed on the other and the latter shows a “stream of star formation.”
Hubble captured images of IC 4271 (also known as Arp 40), a peculiar pair of spiral galaxies which are about 800 million light-years away. In this system, the smaller galaxy is superimposed on the larger one, which is a special kind of galaxy called a “Seyfert galaxy.”
Seyfert galaxies are named for astronomer Carl K Seyfert who published a paper about spiral galaxies with bright emission lines in 1943. Today, scientists know that about 10 per cent of all galaxies may be such galaxies. Seyfert galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centres and therefore accrete metal, releasing large amounts of radiation.
A Seyfert Galaxy’s brightest radiations typically occur in light outside the visible spectrum. The Seyfert Galaxy in the pair is a Type II Seyfert galaxy, which means that it is a very bright source of infrared and visible light.
The image uses data collected during Hubble observations which were done to study the role of dust in shaping the energy distributions of low mass galaxies. The Hubble telescope was making observations of six pairs of galaxies where one was in front of the other. The Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 is sensitive to a broad range of light. This allowed researchers to map the foreground galaxy’s dust disk in high detail across UV (ultraviolet), visible and infrared spectrums.
Since the bigger galaxy is a Type II Seyfert galaxy, the image is dominated by visible and infrared wavelengths of light. The majority of the colours in the image are primary visible light, while the colour violet represents ultraviolet light and red represents red and infrared light.
A newly revised Hubble image of the Hickson Compact Group 31 (HCG 31) group of galaxies shows a stream of star formation as four dwarf galaxies interact. The bright, distorted clump of blue-white (right of centre, top half) stars is NGC 1741: a pair of colliding dwarf galaxies. A cigar-shaped dwarf galaxy to the pair’s right joins them with a thin blue stream of young blue stars.
The bright object in the centre of the image is a star situated between the Earth and HCG 13. The fourth member of HCG 31 (left of centre, bottom) is a galaxy that is connected to the other three with a stream of stars.
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft will return to launchpad 39B at the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early June for its wet dress rehearsal after three failed attempts. These wet dress rehearsals are where the space agency typically “refines the countdown procedures and validate critical models and software interfaces,” according to NASA. Engineers have addressed many of the issues that were discovered during the previous wet dress rehearsal attempts.
When completed and tested, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, aimed at heralding the next generation of human space exploration.
But the agency was forced to rehouse it in April after a hydrogen system leak affected three attempts at rehearsal. The rocket is scheduled for a launch in June as part of the Artemis Moon mission. But that will only happen if it can complete a full wet dress rehearsal first. The wet dress rehearsal includes a series of trials designed to show that the rocket and the Orion spacecraft and their ground infrastructure are ready for launch.
NASA began its first attempt on April 1 and it was supposed to wrap up in the next 48 hours after the loading of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants into the rocket and some simulated launch countdowns. But the team ran into multiple problems, mainly due to hydrogen system leaks, and was forced to rehouse the rocket in storage at the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) after two more failed attempts
Engineers also reportedly completed some of the work that was scheduled to take place in the VAB after the dress rehearsal. This forward work included opening Orion’s crew module hatch and installing certain payloads. Payload such as hardware elements for the Castillo technology demonstration, a flight kit locker and container assemblies for a space biology experiment. The next wet dress rehearsal will take place about 14 days after the huge rocket arrives at the launchpad.
For over a decade, scientists have been trying to synthesise a new form of carbon called graphyne with next to no success. But researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have finally succeeded in creating the elusive allotrope of carbon. This research fills a long-standing gap in carbon material science and opens up brand new possibilities for electronics, optics and semiconductor research.
The researchers have documented their process in a study titled, “Synthesis of γ-graphyne using dynamic covalent chemistry,” published in Nature Synthesis. The creation of different carbon allotropes (forms) has long interested scientists because of the element’s versatility and usefulness in various industries.
Carbon allotropes can be constructed in different ways depending on how hybrids of carbons and their corresponding bonds are utilised. The most well known such allotropes include graphite used in pencil and diamonds. They are created out of ‘sp2’ carbon and ‘sp3’ carbon respectively.
Scientists have used traditional methods to create various such allotropes over the years, including fullerene and graphene. Researchers working on these materials were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 and 2010 respectively.
But unfortunately, these methods do not allow for different types of carbon to be synthesised together in any kind of large capacity and this is required for creating graphyne. Due to this obstacle, graphyne remained a theoretical material speculated to have unique electrical, mechanical and optical properties.
Researchers in the field approached Wei Zhang, the co-author of the research article, and his lab group. Zhang is a professor of chemistry at CU Boulder and studies reversible chemistry. Reversible chemistry allows bonds to seld-correct, thus opening possibilities to create new kinds of ‘lattices’ (ordered structures) like synthetic polymers that resemble DNA.
The team used a process called alkyne metathesis along with thermodynamics and kinetic control to create a new kind of material that could rival the conductivity of graphene, but with control. Alkyne Metathesis refers to an organic reaction that involves the redistribution (cutting and forming) of alkyne chemical bonds. Alkynes are hydrocarbons with at least one carbon-carbon triple covalent bond.
The material has successfully been created. But the team still needs to look into many more details, including how to create it on a large scale and how to manipulate it for various different use cases. These efforts will help figure out more of the material’s electrical and optical properties, allowing it to be used in applications like lithium-ion batteries.
CST-100 Starliner, the Boeing spacecraft, has successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS) on May 20 as part of the company Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), according to The Verge. Starliner was made to transport NASA astronauts to and back from space and this is the first time it has demonstrated the capability to successfully dock at the space station after the failed first attempt with OFT.
Before any astronauts could actually go aboard Starliner, NASA wanted Boeing to demonstrate that its spaceship is able to successfully dock with ISS in the first place. But during Boeing’s first attempt with OFT in 2019, the launch went according to plan, but software glitches prevented the capsule from getting into the right orbit that was necessary for it to dock with ISS. This forced the company to abort the mission and bring back the vehicle.
Its second successful attempt at docking with OFT-2 is an important milestone for the company that has now demonstrated that its spaceship can both launch successfully aboard the Atlas V rocket (built by the United Launch Alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and dock with the space station. The next big step for the company would involve taking actual astronauts into orbit with the spaceship.
“Boeing Starliner spacecraft completes its historic first docking to the International Space Station opening a new avenue of access for crews to the orbiting laboratory,” Steve Siceloff, a communications representative for Boeing, said during the livestream of the docking, according to The Verge.
However, the launch and docking were not completely seamless. Once Starliner separated from Atlas V, two of the 12 thrusters Starliner uses for docking failed and cut off too early. Thankfully, the spaceship’s flight control system kicked in and made correcting adjustments by rerouting to a working thruster. This meant that the Starliner was able to get into a stable orbit.
After staying docked to the ISS for a few days, Starliner will detach from the space station and use its thrusters to take itself out of the orbit. Even during this process, the flight management system will be able to make up for the shortage of two thrusters. Due to the redundancies built into the spaceship, the working thrusters are enough for the Starliner to make its way back to Earth.
One of the most powerful tools the world knows when it comes to measuring the interstellar is the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is currently working on a much more large-scale mission to determine how quickly our universe is expanding. Now, new findings suggest that the universe is not expanding at a uniform rate.
US space agency NASA notes that “something weird” is going on in the universe based on the Hubble data due to there being a discrepancy in the rate of expansion of the universe as it is around us and observations made after the Big Bang. The study of how the universe expanded and how fast it did began decades ago in 1920, when measurements by Edwin P Hubble and Georges Lemaitre suggested that galaxies outside of our own were not stationary, explains NASA in a blog post In fact, these galaxies are moving away from us.
Hubble had added that these galaxies were moving at a non-uniform, increasing pace. The further a galaxy was from Earth, the faster it was moving away. Scientists have since been trying to understand the phenomenon and measure the rate of this expansion. However, with data from the Hubble now available, it seems that the said expansion is even quicker than what models had predicted.
Instead of the expected 67.5 (plus or minus 0.5) kilometers per second per megaparsec, the observations noted 73 (plus or minus 1) kilometers per second per megaparsec.
Scientists are currently studying the strange phenomenon on a set of space and time “milepost markets”. These can be used to track the expansion rate of the universe as galaxies far away continue moving further away from us. NASA has said that the Hubble has calibrated over 40 such milepost markers since the telescope’s launch in 1990.
With the new data kicking off a new assessment of our understanding of the universe’s expansion, scientists now await data from the new James Webb Space Telescope that will allow a deeper look at the matter.
“The Webb Space Telescope will extend on Hubble’s work by showing these cosmic milepost markers at greater distances or sharper resolution than what Hubble can see,” NASA said.
Boeing recently rocketed its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft into orbit successfully. The passenger spacecraft, which is set to dock soon at the International Space Station (ISS), is set to complete its mission by next week. Boeing is currently one of only two companies (along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX) that is directly funded by NASA to develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. While news is waiting on Starliner successfully reaching the ISS and completing its docking maneuver, here are some interstellar facts about the mission for you to catch up on.
Boeing has partnered directly with NASA to develop the Starliner CST-100 spacecraft. The partially reusable is designed for low-Earth orbit missions like delivering crew members to the ISS and back. The craft is manufactured by Boeing as part of the NASA CCP (Commercial Crew Program) and is set to complete its first successful mission by next week.
Currently on its second OFT (Orbital Flight Test), the Boeing Starliner will have its first-ever CFT (Crewed Flight Test) in Q4 2022 if the current mission is successful. While the company originally planned to manufacture three such space-capsules, it later revised its plans and now plans to alternate between two vessels.
The Boeing Starliner is carrying over 500 pounds of cargo (225 kg) during its currently ongoing mission, OFT-2, as per a report by Space.com. Most of this cargo is food and supplies for the current crew aboard the International Space Station.
The remainder of the cargo belongs to Boeing and consists of memorabilia like flags and pins that commemorate the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) of the United States.
Most people know that this is not the first test flight of the Boeing Starliner. It is actually the company’s third attempt at successfully completing an OFT mission. Back in December 2019, Boeing attempted to conduct its first Starliner flight, OFT-1. However, after a software glitch that kept an incorrect count of mission-time, the spacecraft used up excessive fuel too quickly, leading to it landing back in New Mexico just two days after launch.
The company then came close to a second attempt last year, but a problem with the craft’s propellant valves led to the flight never taking place, as the Starliner had to be brought back to the factory to fix the valves. Now, after successfully reaching its intended orbit, the Starliner seems to be heading towards a successful docking at the ISS in what would be its third overall attempt, and second test flight.
Despite the currently ongoing OFT-2 mission being successful so far, the test flight was not free of problems. The Boeing Starliner witnessed two failed thrusters during the launch. The first thruster went out a second after the Starliner began burning its thrusters to put itself into its final orbit. The flight control system rerouted to a second thruster, which also shut down after another 25 seconds. A third thruster then worked as intended and the Starliner’s ability to reach its planned orbit was fortunately not affected.
Boeing is currently studying the issue and claims that the failed thrusters should not affect the remainder of the mission, which includes more thruster-firing to get into orbits. Ten of the 12 thrusters Starliner needs are working, according to Boeing.
If all goes according to plan, the Starliner spacecraft will be back to Earth next week after docking with the ISS for four to five days. The landing will take place at one of five possible sites, including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
NASA and Boeing will then collectively plan on the future test flight, this time with a group of astronauts selected by NASA. This mission, the first Crewed Flight Test or CFT, is scheduled to take place by the end of this year.
A study published in PNAS this month finds how biodiversity is being impacted as a result of the degradation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Naturally, any on-ground biodiversity survey brings with it its own challenges and constraints. To augment this problem, Rappaport et al. (2022) monitored sounds coming out of the forest in different pockets and examined how well that dovetailed with the acoustic niche hypothesis.
The acoustic niche hypothesis (ANH) says that in a well-established ecosystem, different species tap into different bandwidths in order to avoid competition. So, each species sings at a unique pitch/frequency at unique times. However, in disturbed ill-formed ecosystems, a particular bandwidth is tapped into by more than one species while other bandwidths frequencies may have been left completely un-utilised.
‘The more degraded an ecosystem is, we can expect to see “holes” in the soundscape that represent local species extinctions, and more overlapping signals due to less time for adaptive/evolutionary processes for differentiation into distinct niches,’ says Danielle Rappaport, the lead author of the study, in an email with indianexpress.com. The ANH argues that there is a positive, linear relationship between how intact a habitat is (intactness being measured by aboveground biomass ie the trees etc) and the acoustic space occupancy by the faunal community.
‘An increase in ASO means that more “acoustic channels” are utilized by coexisting species in a habitat. In other words, species are emitting sounds in a greater range of hours and frequencies during the 24-hour cycle,’ Rappaport added.
This is similar to the concept of resource partitioning or niche differentiation that is often observed in terms of food. Two or more species that devour a certain fruit will eat different parts of the fruit, or search for food at different times of the day.
The team of researchers from University of Maryland measured the number of bandwidths tapped-into after three different stages of degradation: once burnt, frequently burnt, and logged. The acoustic measurements were made for each of the three sites at 1 minute and 1 hour timesteps – and, quite naturally, these soundscapes are affected by degradation brought about by logging and fire.
However, the patterns of change do not follow the predictions laid out by acoustic niche hypothesis consistently, ‘instead, acoustic analyses revealed contrasting impact of fire and logging on acoustic community structure,’ the study reports. First of all, daily ASO increased with aboveground biomass after fire, but not after logging.
The distinction in ASO in the burnt setting was largely driven by insects, for it was during the insect-dominated durations of the day that the change in percentage ASO was most significantly observed. For logged areas, the only time intervals that did show a change in percentage ASO ended up showing a negative relationship i.e. the more the time that elapsed since logging, the more the decline in ASO.
The time periods when insects dominate – mid-morning, noon and night – are rarely sampled in most surveys, as they largely focus on birds. In fact, this particular study did not notice much difference in ASO during dawn and dusk, the time periods dominated by birds.
In forests that were burnt recurrently, ASO was the lowest, and occupied the smallest amount of frequency space across all time periods. Compared to logging, ‘with recurrent fire, we see a few animal signals dominating the 24-hour soundscape, as opposed to a more differentiated soundscape that represents a more diverse animal assemblage,’ says Rappaport.
Furthermore, the paper states that in once-burnt and logged forests, one still observes frequencies below 3.7 kHz and above 5.2 kHz. But frequencies outside the midrange (3.7-5.2 kHz) are less prevalent. Apart from quantifying the total ASO, the team also evaluated the interactions and patterning of individual sound signals. Rappaport adds that ‘In the case of recurrently burned forests, the animal communication networks over the 24-hour cycle are more homogenous from day to night (fewer peaks and distinct choruses as you might expect when you think of a tropical rainforest soundscape).’
What could possibly explain this contradiction between Rappaport et al.’s study and the acoustic niche hypothesis? Why is it that, ‘contrary to the hypothesis’s predictions, less intact forests did not contain more soundscape gaps (i.e. empty acoustic niches)’?
One could be that acoustic niche partitioning is a product of long term evolution; and when there is a disturbance, such as fire or logging, acoustic niche differentiation loses its relevance. The other reason could be that the study did pay heed to the time periods when insects were active, and they tend to have more nuanced responses to disturbances. For instance, cricket species are very good at partitioning frequencies, whereas cicada species tend to have more frequency overlaps. Therefore, cicadas have evolved to live and transmit sounds at different heights, making them more vulnerable to temperature changes, such as those stemming from fire. The resultant soundscape in burnt forests is, therefore, a consequence of an intricate interaction between forest structure, microclimate and animal habitats.
Overall, the study highlights that the potential eco-acoustic studies have to monitor biodiversity change in the event of degradation, for ‘competition for acoustic space is the strongest.’ For example, this study allowed researchers to realise links between habitat conditions and animal communication other than that of just birds. In future, studies measuring acoustic differentiation can be clubbed with satellite measurements and ground-based assessments to shed light on biodiversity responses especially in the hyper diverse tropics (see, for e.g., Aide et al. 2017 or Planque et al. 2008), the team argues.
The author is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and a freelance science communicator. He tweets at @critvik
Boeing Co and NASA launched the long-delayed Starliner space capsule for a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station, following two earlier failed attempts for a program that has bedeviled the company and left SpaceX as the only American option for ferrying astronauts.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched the craft, without crew, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET Thursday for a day-long cruise to the space station.
The CST-100 Starship is scheduled to arrive about 24 hours later on Friday and plans to test multiple docking technologies that Boeing was unable to perform during a December 2019 flight cut short by software flaws.
Boeing and NASA engineers are exploring why two of the 12 thrusters situated at the aft of the spacecraft failed during a key maneuvering burn, although flight computers quickly switched to other thrusters, NASA’s commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said in a news briefing hours after the launch. The thrust system is also used in early phases of the Starliner’s approach to the space station and when it de-orbits to commence its return to Earth.
“The system is designed to be redundant and worked as designed, and now the team is working on why we had those anomalies occur,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner manager. Engineers may be able to resolve the thruster issues during the flight, Stich said.
A system that removes heat from the spacecraft interior, called a sublimator, also performed “sluggishly” during the ascent and will be probed, Stich said.
The test flight comes at a critical moment for Boeing, which is trying to overcome years of challenges with Starliner’s development. Boeing has tallied $595 million in extraordinary charges to cover Starliner delays, including $185 million last October. Moreover, Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun is under fire from customers and investors as Boeing struggles to meet deadlines and technical standards across its product lineup.
“We wouldn’t be here right now if we weren’t confident this would be a successful mission,” astronaut Butch Wilmore said Wednesday during a prelaunch news briefing with NASA officials. Wilmore was joined by astronauts Sunita Williams and Mark Fincke; the three have been working with Boeing on the development, and each is hoping to be selected for a future Starliner flight.
NASA is keen to gain a second transport option for its commercial crew program, a goal set eight years ago with contract awards to Boeing and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to build and operate vehicles to fly astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX has flown four astronaut rotations to the ISS, with its last launch on April 27 and the fifth planned for September.
Getting the vessel aloft has been just one of multiple challenges confronting Boeing, including delays in delivering its flagship wide-body commercial aircraft, the 787, and parts shortages that have slowed output of the best-selling 737 Max. Boeing is also involved with the ongoing work to ready a separate NASA project, the massive SLS rocket for moon missions, for a launch after years of delays and cost overruns.
If the flight test doesn’t uncover any additional large issues, the plan is to have the program ready for a flight test with astronauts by the end of 2022. Starliner’s regular ISS crew rotations would then begin in 2023, barring further glitches.
The last Starliner launch attempt, in August, was scrubbed after multiple valves on the propulsion system used in space became unresponsive shortly before the planned flight. That prompted extensive testing and led engineers to better seal the valves and prevent moisture seepage, which was believed to have contributed to a chemical reaction that prevented their operation.
The prior 2019 attempt, in which the Starliner spent 48 hours in orbit, was marred by what a NASA review panel later deemed two “critical software defects.” The Starliner suffered a problem with its mission timing software shortly after reaching space, with the craft showing an elapsed time 11 hours different from the actual mission time. That caused it to fire multiple thrusters too early, burning too much propellant to allow for the craft to continue to the space station. Five months later, Boeing said it wanted to perform a second uncrewed demonstration flight.
Researchers at the University of Florida say they have grown plants in moon soil and uncovered what one of the researchers calls the “stuff of exploration dreams.”
It is the first time that scientists have shown that life can emerge from regolith, the material found on the moon’s surface.
They say their findings, which were published in the journal Communications Biology, could have implications for future lunar exploration.
Rob Ferl, who co-authored the study, said the research could help astronauts on lunar missions grow their own food and reduce the need for frequent supplies from Earth.
“When humans move as civilizations, not just to explore for a couple of days, but when we go to stay somewhere, we always take our agriculture with us,” Ferl said.
Aside from providing a level of food security in space, the research has other potential benefits. It may also help astronauts purify the air, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce clean water.
The researchers planted Arabidopsis (rock cress) seeds in lunar soil that was gathered about 50 years ago, during three separate Apollo missions: Apollo 11 and 12 in 1969 and Apollo 17 in 1972.
They sectioned the soil off into 1-gram (0.036-ounce) containers. They added water, light and nutrients. They also planted a second group of seeds in volcanic ash, a substance that is similar to lunar soil, to serve as a control group.
After less than 48 hours, the scientists saw growth in both groups, but noted some days later that the plants in the lunar soil appeared to be under stress. The plants in regolith looked stunted compared with those in the volcanic ash.
But Ferl said the fact that the plants were able to grow at all made the discovery a positive one.
“The bottom line is that, until it was actually done, nobody knew whether plants, especially plant roots, would be able to interact with the very sharp, very antagonistic soils that the lunar regolith presents,” Ferl said.
The experiment itself was easy, but acquiring the necessary materials to facilitate it was hard.
They only had a tiny amount of lunar soil to work with — 12 grams, or about a tablespoon — and had to apply multiple times, over more than a decade, to get it from the US space agency, NASA.
“These samples are precious natural treasures,” co-author Anna-Lisa Paul said. “When we work with them, we change them. Once [they come into contact with] air and water, they are no longer pristine and they lose some of that archival nature, which has been very, very highly protected.”
The discovery is significant, perhaps now more than ever, with NASA and the European Space Agency hoping to return people to the moon on the Artemis program.
There are plans to launch a first uncrewed Artemis mission in 2022 and crewed missions later this decade.
And other countries are looking to visit the moon in the coming years, including Japan and China.
But the scientists still don’t know how plants from Earth will interact with a real, rather than simulated, lunar environment. The moon is extremely dry compared with Earth, and that could change the plants’ ability to grow.
“There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it,” US President Joe Biden said after Russia’s war in Ukraine upended global geopolitics. Far from Earth, that transition is already happening.
Just like in the era of Sputnik and Apollo more than half a century ago, world leaders are again racing to achieve dominance in outer space. But there’s one big difference: Whereas the US and the Soviet Union hashed out a common set of rules at the United Nations, this time around the world’s top superpowers can’t even agree on basic principles to govern the next generation of space activity.
The lack of cooperation between the US and China on space exploration is particularly dangerous in an era where the cosmos are becoming more crowded. Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos along with emerging markets such as Rwanda and the Philippines are launching more and more satellites to bridge the digital divide and explore commercial opportunities.
The stakes are even higher when it comes to the US and China, which are erecting economic barriers in the name of national security as ideological divisions widen over the pandemic, political repression and now Vladimir Putin’s war. Their inability to cooperate on space risks not only an arms race, but also clashes over extracting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of resources on the moon and elsewhere.
“Our concern in the West is more about who sets the rules of the road, particularly access to resources,” said Malcolm Davis, a former official with Australia’s defense department who now researches space policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“The biggest risk is you have two opposite set of rules,” he said. “You could have a Chinese company on the moon in the 2030s claiming territory with a resource on it, in the same way the Chinese have claimed the entire South China Sea.”
The geopolitics of space, once a frontier that brought rivals together for the good of humankind, are now mirroring the competition on Earth pitting the US and its allies against China and Russia. And just as Beijing and Moscow have blamed American military alliances in Europe and Asia for stoking tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan, Chinese state-run media has warned the US now wants to set up a “space-based NATO.”
At the center of the dispute is the US-drafted Artemis Accords, a non-legally binding set of principles to govern activity on the moon, Mars and beyond. The initiative, which NASA says is grounded in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, forms the foundation of the space agency’s effort to put astronauts on the moon this decade and kick-start mining operations of lucrative lunar elements.
So far 19 countries have agreed to support the accords, including four — Romania, Colombia, Bahrain and Singapore — that signed up after Putin’s invasion spurred a US-led effort to isolate Russia. Underscoring the divide, Ukraine was an early Artemis club member after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government signed in late 2020.
The accords are part of an effort by the Biden administration to establish “a broader and comprehensive set of norms” for space, Vice President Kamala Harris said in an April 18 speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base, about 160 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.
“As we move forward, we will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner,” she said. “The United States is committed to lead the way and to lead by example.”
China and Russia have led opposition to the accords, vowing greater space cooperation in early February as part of a “no limits” partnership when Putin visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing shortly before the war began. They are jointly promoting an alternative project on the moon they say is open to all other countries: the International Lunar Research Station.
One of China’s main problems with the Artemis Accords is a provision allowing nations to designate areas of the moon as “safety zones” — regions on the lunar surface that others should avoid. For the Americans and their Artemis partners, the exclusive areas are a way to comply with obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries to avoid “harmful interference” in space.
To China, however, the safety zones are thinly disguised land grabs in violation of international law. Beijing wants any rule-making to be settled at the UN, where it can count on support from a wider group of countries eager for friendly ties with the world’s second-biggest economy.
“It’s time the US woke up and smelled the coffee,” the official China Daily proclaimed in a January editorial that criticized how NASA “invented” the concept of safety zones to allow governments or companies to reserve areas of the moon. “The world is no longer interested in its divisive, hegemonic schemes.”
China has good reason to be suspicious of US efforts in space. American legislation first passed in 2011 prevents NASA from most interactions with its Chinese counterpart, and the US has blocked China from taking part in the International Space Station — a move that simply prompted Beijing to build its own.
“China was left out of that order and now it’s going its own way,” said Lincoln Hines, an assistant professor at the US Air War College who has studied the Chinese space program. “That raises the challenge as to whether you can have a coherent system of rules in outer space when you have two different visions of order and there isn’t any cooperation.”
The head of the Russian space program, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin, in late April suggested that Russia had decided to quit the International Space Station because of Western sanctions on Russia from its invasion of Ukraine.
While Russia’s space program was already in decline before Putin’s war, China is swiftly moving toward Xi’s goal of matching US capabilities in space. China became the first country to send a probe to the far side of the moon in 2019, and last year it became only the second nation after the US to land a rover on Mars.
On March 10, China launched a Long March rocket from the southern island province of Hainan to deliver cargo to the Tiangong, the orbiting spacecraft that Beijing plans to complete this year — making China the only country to operate its own space station. The following month, Xi ordered officials to build a world-leading spacecraft launch site in Hainan.
“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream,” Xi said in the introduction to a white paper on China’s space program released in January, which said China plans to launch a robotic lunar mission around 2025. China may be able to send astronauts to the moon for the first time by 2030, Ye Peijian, chief designer of China’s first lunar probe, told state media at the time.
“China wants really badly to be seen as the NASA of the future,” said Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law. “It wants to be that leader. China feels that it’s China’s time.”
As the US, China and other nations target the moon, the need to establish rules to avoid conflict is becoming more urgent.
NASA in April conducted tests for the launch of Artemis I, the first American spacecraft to aim for the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. While this mission will be fully robotic, NASA’s goal is to send astronauts to the moon around 2025 — including the first woman — and build a base camp on the lunar surface.
Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will conduct a test flight from Texas in the next few months of the company’s new Starship rocket, which SpaceX plans to use to take humans to the moon and Mars.
Japan and South Korea, both Artemis Accords signatories, have lunar missions in the works. So does India, the largest space-faring nation yet to commit to either the American or the Sino-Russian teams. Putin also vowed last month to “restore the moon program.”
Speaking at a Congressional hearing this week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned of growing tensions in space between the US and China.
“They now have a space station and it’s got impressive technology,” he said. “They have declared that they are going to the moon. And I think we are — not unlike the space race we were in with the Soviet Union — I think we are going to have that space race with the Chinese government in the future.’’
Unlike Earth, the moon may contain large amounts of helium-3, an isotope potentially useful as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants because it’s not radioactive. Chinese state media in 2019 said the moon is “sometimes referred to as the Persian Gulf of the solar system,” with experts believing 5,000 tons of coal could be replaced by about three tablespoons of helium-3.
While there’s not yet proof that helium-3 can do what boosters claim, Chinese researchers are already looking for the element in moon rocks brought back to Earth in late 2020 by one of China’s lunar missions. The moon could also prove valuable as a source of water, taken from ice at the lunar poles, to make rocket fuel that could power missions to Mars and other places in the solar system.
For now, the US appears to be ahead in winning over nations to its interpretation of rules for operating in space. As the Artemis Accords gain new signatories, China is still waiting for another leader besides Putin to team up on the International Lunar Research Station.
Chinese state media reported in March that negotiations were underway with the European Space Agency, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia about taking part in the rival moon base. But Russia’s war in Ukraine will likely make the project much less appealing to some nations.
The European Space Agency on March 17 suspended a plan to send a Russian-made lander to Mars in September or October, following UK-based satellite operator OneWeb Ltd.’s cancellation of plans to launch its low-Earth orbit satellites aboard Russian rockets.
“The impact on the Russian space program is going to be disastrous,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, which is operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.
Although China doesn’t need Russian expertise, Xi’s long-term strategic calculus means Beijing is unlikely abandon Moscow in an effort to win more potential partners. Putin’s top space official has already called for greater cooperation with China.
“We work well with our Chinese friends,” Roscosmos director Rogozin said in an interview with Chinese state-run broadcaster CGTN released on April 4. “To be friends in space, we must be friends on Earth.”
The same appears to hold true for adversaries. In a sign of what could go wrong without a common set of rules in space, the US and China traded accusations in recent months over two incidents last year involving satellites launched by Musk’s SpaceX that Beijing said came dangerously close to its orbiting space station.
After China lodged a complaint with the UN, the US said a notification wasn’t necessary — implying Beijing exaggerated the risk. That irked China even more, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the US didn’t reply to emails to discuss the incident and wasn’t “showing the due responsible attitude as a space power.”
The episode points to China’s bigger problem with the Artemis Accords: Beijing is upset about being left out of the process and pressured to accept principles that were crafted by the US instead of at the UN, according to Jessica West, senior researcher and managing editor for the Space Security Index project at Project Ploughshares, the peace research institute of The Canadian Council of Churches.
The conflict over who makes the rules, she added, shows the world has lots of work left to avoid a clash in space.
“I’m not sure people expected the explosion of space activity that happened,” West said. “We’re just not adequately prepared.”
NASA’s teams at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida continue to prepare the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft back to launch pad 39B for its next wet dress rehearsal. A few weeks ago, the massive rocket and the spacecraft were rolled out of the launch pad to make way for other launches after three failed rehearsal attempts.
SLS is technically scheduled for its first launch in June 2022 but that is still up in the air since it hasn’t yet completed a wet dress rehearsal. These rehearsals involve a set of key trials which are designed to show that Artemis 1’s SLS rocket, the Orion Spacecraft and their ground infrastructure are ready for launch.
The first wet dress rehearsal began on April 1 and was supposed to wrap up 48 hours later but the team ran into many problems. These problems continued into the second and third efforts till the rocket finally had to be rolled off the launch pad to make way for other launches.
NASA announced on May 13 that its teams are re-tightening bolts on the “umbilical lines” to the rocket to address the hydrogen leak identified during one of the wet dress rehearsal attempts. Engineers have confirmed that the bolts are no longer relaxing by themselves, and this should mean that the system should remain tightly sealed during propellant loading.
The team also replaced the helium check valve on the “interim cryogenic propulsion stage” (ICPS). During this, they found a damaged rubber O-ring seal in the area that separates the ICPS from the mobile launcher during launch. This ring came loose and entered the valve, preventing it from sealing correctly. The team is now working to determine the root cause of this to prevent recurrences.
The teams also determined that there was no water damage to the Orion spacecraft due to the heavy thunderstorm at the spacecraft during the initial wet dress rehearsal attempt. The teams then retracted the platforms inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the SLS rocket is stored, in preparation to roll the SLS and Orion back to the launchpad.
There is still some work left to be done inside the VAB, post which, NASA will announce the dates for rolling out to the rocket for the next wet dress rehearsal.
The moon didn’t just put on a show for us here on Earth during the lunar eclipse yesterday: astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) also had a great view of the event. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti shared a series of stunning images of the eclipse as seen from ISS on Twitter.
One of the photos shows the lunar eclipse happening, framed between the blades of the space station’s solar panels and a massive blue expanse that is Earth. In another picture, the lunar eclipse is sandwiched between the blades of the solar panel. In all the images, you can see the shading of the moon’s surface caused by the shadow of the earth.
Yesterday’s lunar eclipse was special for many reasons. The first is that it was a full eclipse, which is a rare event by itself and the other is the fact that it coincided with the “supermoon,” which is when the full moon appears biggest in the sky because it is at its closes point to the earth in its orbit around Earth.
Cristoforetti also shared another image in a separate tweet showing just the moon juxtaposed against the darkness of space, peeking above the curvature of the Earth and its atmosphere which looks almost like a blue glow surrounding the planet.
Even though the total lunar eclipse wasn’t visible to stargazers from India, various sources livestreamed the event from many different locations around the world. But don’t worry if you missed it. Some of those livestreams are still available for viewing as recorded videos. You can also see some of the beautiful images of the eclipse clicked by photographers from different locations.
A team of researchers has reportedly investigated a meteorite from Mars using neutron and X-ray tomography, revealing that the meteorite had limited exposure to water, which according to the scientists makes the chances of life existing at that specific time and place unlikely. This technology will also likely be used by NASA when they examine samples from the red planet in 2030.
NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021. After collecting various samples from the planet, it will leave them there for a future mission to collect and retrieve them to Earth. But getting these samples back to earth is a difficult task that would require autonomously launching a rocket full of samples from the surface of Mars to a spacecraft orbiting Mars so that it can bring the samples back.
But, in the meanwhile, material from Mars is already being studied right here on Earth: by using meteorites which originated from the red planet. An international research team led by Lund University has studied a meteorite that is approximately 1.3 billion years old using advanced scanning techniques.
The researchers have published their findings in a research article titled, “The scale of a martian hydrothermal system explored using combined neutron and x-ray tomography,” published in the journal Science Advances.
To find out whether there were any major hydrothermal systems where the meteorite was on Mars, the researchers used neutron and X-ray tomography. X-ray tomography is commonly used to examine objects without damaging them and neutron tomography was used because neutrons are sensitive to hydrogen.
If the meteorite contains hydrogen, this would make it possible to study it in three dimensions to see where the hydrogen is located. Hydrogen is of interest in this case because it is a constituent of water, which is a prerequisite for life to exist as we know it. The research’s results show that only a small part of the sample seems to have reacted with water, leading the researchers to the conclusion that there probably wasn’t a large hydrothermal system that affected the meteorite.
According to them, a more probable explanation is that the meteorite’s reaction with water happened when small accumulations of underground ice melted during a meteorite that happened about 630 million years ago. But this does not rule out the possibility that there could have been life at other times and other places on Mars.
The first lunar eclipse of 2022 was visible in many parts of the world earlier today. This is also called as a Blood Moon or a Super Moon. The full moon is closest to the Earth (supermoon) and it coincided with a full lunar eclipse (blood moon), which is why these names are used as well. While the Lunar eclipse was not visible in India, there are several pictures available of the event.
Here, we have put together some pictures of the lunar eclipse taken from different locations so you can see what it looked like.
During the eclipse, it looked like the moon had a faint reddish glow as the red wavelengths of solar light filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere to reach the moon’s surface and reflect back. During different moments of the eclipse, it also looked like the moon took on shades of orange and brown due to the same reason.
Unfortunately for stargazers in India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, the eclipse was not visible from here. But that wasn’t necessarily a problem since the event was being live streamed from a variety of locations. Those livestreams are still available as recorded videos if you fancy a look.
For some regions where a full lunar eclipse was not visible, like parts of the Middle East and New Zealand, people could still catch a glance of a penumbral lunar eclipse. This happens when the moon turns slightly darker as the penumbra (between a perfect shadow and light) is cast upon the moon. This penumbral eclipse started a full hour before and ended a full hour after the partial eclipse.
This won’t be the last total lunar eclipse of the year. According to NASA’s calendar for lunar eclipses between 2021 and 2030, another total lunar eclipse is scheduled to happen on November 8 this year. But unlike the eclipse that happened earlier today (May 16), it is more likely that the one in November will be visible on the Indian subcontinent. Some parts of India will be able to witness the eclipse just as the sun sets and the moon rises.
In a world where artificial intelligence (AI) meets human intelligence, a lot can transpire and impact our lives. This is exactly what Bengaluru-based Gaurav Vaz, co-founder of podcast company All Things Small, aims to document in the recently begun podcast series Paradigm Shift on Spotify. Hosted by renowned cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, the podcast captures the use of AI in India across different sectors, including education, healthcare, weather, language, agriculture and wildlife.
Bhogle, who dabbled with science and technology in his previous podcast Mission ISRO, feels science has always been in the air for him. Talking about how science was an integral part of his life, Bhogle says: “I grew up in an environment where science was respected. My father was a chemistry teacher and I grew up on a university campus so there were a lot of discussions about science around me. And I love the history and the thought process that goes behind innovation. I would definitely love to do a podcast about scientific inventions and the great people behind those inventions.”
Crop loss due to inaccurate weather predictions, an individual facing criminal proceedings with very little knowledge over language, diagnosis of health disorders, – the podcast gives insights on eight such fascinating scenarios to show how AI can be a game-changer in different fields in India.
“We are mostly conditioned to witness how AI works in the West in the form of self-driving cars or a robot serving meals. Paradigm Shift is based on true stories of how the absence of AI has impacted the livelihoods of many in our society and how we can use AI in enhancing the quality of life. From language translations to detecting early cancer risk, the podcast shows how AI mitigates risks through advanced and accurate predictions,” says Vaz.
Bhogle also believes that the real unsung heroes of India and their works are missing in the public eye. “In the showbiz driven world, a lot of great things done by great people go unrecognised in the mainstream and social media. After reading inspiring stories of Mission ISRO and Paradigm Shift, I believe the real heroes are our defense personnel, innovators, scientists and farmers. These stories are moving and it reaffirms to me that great work is done by simple people,” he says.
Commenting on whether AI could replace humans in the future, Bhogle says: “Although I am no expert on AI, I think it is allowing us to find correlation that what we didn’t know existed. We usually dealt science with hypotheses followed by experiments. However AI is showing us things far beyond what we know and we don’t need to start with an hypothesis but find a correlation between big data and technology. All I know is, I am just a narrator of these stories at the end of the day.”
There are many things in space that humanity is yet to fully understand and one of these is are ‘planes of satellite galaxies’ around the Milky Way and surrounding galaxies. But researchers at the University of Nottingham propose that there are ‘invisible barriers’ in space, which likely led to the creation of these planes. The Lambda-CDM model posits that smaller galaxies orbiting larger galaxies should be distributed randomly in a haphazard manner around the larger ones. But instead, scientists often observe that these smaller galaxies are often arranged in flat planes around the larger ones, similar to the rings of Saturn.
These observations are in contravention of the standard model, which is what prompted the researchers to propose a new model where there are invisible walls or invisible barriers in space. The scientists have documented their proposal in a pre-print research article titled, “Dark sector domain walls could explain the observed planes of satellites,” which can be found on arXiv.
They propose that these barriers are created by a ‘fifth force’ that is a result of a new kind of particle called a symmetron. Currently, the concept of symmetrons and the fifth force is purely theoretical. The symmetron field is proposed as a field that permeates the universe and gives rise to a new fifth force. It is also a candidate for the explanation of dark energy and an explanation for why the universe is accelerating.
It is named the symmetron field because it has symmetry in regions of high density. But in regions of low density, this symmetry is broken and a fifth force is mediated. This could explain how these ‘planes of satellites’ remain stable within their disks since the symmetron field would still be symmetric, creating no net force.
But as soon as these satellites move outside of the disk, a symmetron force could be exerted on them, bringing them back to the disk.
The University of Nottingham researchers have run a few simple simulations with these symmetron fields that currently seem to provide an explanation for the creation of these ‘planes of satellites’. The authors also state that there needs to be further research in the field before this model can be further validated.
Lunar Eclipse 2022: The first lunar eclipse of 2022 is now over, and pictures of the event are out, with the Moon taking on a stunning red colour. The eclipse, which was not visible in India, will be over by 12.30 IST and is now in the final phases.
This is also called a Super Moon and a Blood Moon as well. A Super Moon is a full moon and appears to be bigger than usual as it is closer to Earth thanks to its orbital position. It’s called a Blood Moon because Earth’s satellite takes on a reddish colour due to the Rayleigh scattering effect. This is because the Earth blocks sunlight from reaching the moon, but since the colour red has a longer wavelength some of it can still reach our satellite and making the moon appear red.
The ‘reddish tinge’ is more pronounced when there is more dust in the sky, according to NASA. The eclipse was visible in the eastern half of the United States and all of South America, some part of Europe and Africa as well. Most of Asia could not view the celestial event.
Yes, unlike a solar eclipse one can view the lunar eclipse with their eyes, no extra protection is needed. Those who have a telescope or a pair of binoculars can always get a 'closer look'. In India too, while there's no lunar eclipse tonight, one can always catch a glimpse of the full moon later tonight, provided the sky is clear.
The next lunar eclipse takes place on November 8, 2022. This one is visbile in Asia, Australia, Pacific and Americas. This is also a total lunar eclipse. Only parts of India will be able to see the November eclipse at Moonrise, according to NASA's chart.
The lunar eclipse of May 2022 is a 'total lunar eclipse.' The reason is because thee Moon moves into the inner part of Earth’s shadow, or the umbra and is totally covered. This is also the reason the Moon turns red because the Earth's atmosphere scatters the sunlight from reaching the moon and only red light--which has a longer wavelength-- reaches it. In a partial lunar eclipse, there is imperfect alignment of Moon, Sun and Earth, according to NASA.
The lunar eclipse of May 2022 is a 'total lunar eclipse.' The reason is because thee Moon moves into the inner part of Earth’s shadow, or the umbra and is totally covered. This is also the reason the Moon turns red because the Earth's atmosphere scatters the sunlight from reaching the moon and only red light--which has a longer wavelength-- reaches it.
In a partial lunar eclipse, there is imperfect alignment of Moon, Sun and Earth, according to NASA.
The lunar eclipse is not visible everywhere on Earth. And nor do we see an eclipse each month. The reason the Moon's orbit around the planet is tilted relative to Earth's orbit around the Sun. This is the reason why we have occasional eclipses instead of eclipses every month, according to NASA.
The lunar eclipse is not visible everywhere on Earth. And nor do we see an eclipse each month. The reason the Moon's orbit around the planet is tilted relative to Earth's orbit around the Sun. This is the reason why we have occasional eclipses instead of eclipses every month, according to NASA.
The lunar eclipse is not visible everywhere on Earth. And nor do we see an eclipse each month. The reason the Moon's orbit around the planet is tilted relative to Earth's orbit around the Sun. This is the reason why we have occasional eclipses instead of eclipses every month, according to NASA.
A lunar eclipse takes place when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, resulting in a total blocking of sunlight reaching the moon. But this also ensures that the moon takes on a reddish hue. In fact, this lunar eclipse is also called a 'Blood Moon' given how prominent the colour red is. You can see in the picture above, the moon is already red in Los Angelese. So why does the Moon turn red? Well it is because of the 'Rayleigh scattering' effect. Only the red light which has a longer wavelength is able to travel to the moon as the Earth’s atmosphere scatters sunlight during the eclipse. NASA notes that the 'more dust or clouds in Earth’s atmosphere during the eclipse, the redder the Moon will appear.'"
A lunar eclipse takes place when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, resulting in a total blocking of sunlight reaching the moon. But this also ensures that the moon takes on a reddish hue. In fact, this lunar eclipse is also called a 'Blood Moon' given how prominent the colour red is. You can see in the picture above, the moon is already red in Los Angelese.
So why does the Moon turn red? Well it is because of the 'Rayleigh scattering' effect. Only the red light which has a longer wavelength is able to travel to the moon as the Earth’s atmosphere scatters sunlight during the eclipse. NASA notes that the 'more dust or clouds in Earth’s atmosphere during the eclipse, the redder the Moon will appear.'
The Lunar eclipse is not visible in India. But as we've pointed out there are livestream channels to watch the event. Of course, the best one is from NASA, the US space agency. We have embedded the link on top below. NASA is streaming the event live from various locations where the eclipse is visible.
The Lunar eclipse is not visible in India. But as we've pointed out there are livestream channels to watch the event. Of course, the best one is from NASA, the US space agency. We have embedded the link on top below. NASA is streaming the event live from various locations where the eclipse is visible.
The first lunar eclipse of 2022 has begun. As per Indian time, the eclipse began at 7:02 am IST on the morning of May 16 and will end at 12:20 in the afternoon. However, the lunar eclipse cannot be viewed from the Indian subcontinent. The eclipse is visible in the eastern half of the United States and all of South America. Totality will be visible in much of Africa, western Europe, Central and South America, and most of North America, according to NASA. However, there are global livestreams, including one by NASA where one can see the total lunar eclipse. This is also being called a blood moon given the moon takes on a reddish tinge during a total lunar eclipse.
Many parts of the world will be able to witness what is called a “super flower blood moon” tomorrow (May 16). The eclipse will be most visible between 8.30 AM and 9.30 AM IST on May 16. But there is a catch: it will not be visible to viewers in India. But that doesn’t mean you can’t catch a glimpse of it at all. Here, we have put together some of the ways you can live stream the lunar eclipse from different parts of the world.
Today, the full moon will be closest that it comes to Earth in its elliptical orbit, making it a “supermoon.” That moment will also coincide with a full lunar eclipse, hence it will be a “blood moon” as well. In certain parts of the world, a full moon is also called a “flower moon” since it coincides with Spring flowers. Hence the full nomenclature: super flower blood moon.
During the total eclipse, the moon will have a faint reddish glow as the red wavelengths of solar light filter through our atmosphere to reach the moon’s surface and reflect back for us to view it. During different moments of the eclipse, it could also look like the moon is taking on shades of orange, yellow or brown. But unfortunately for stargazers in India, the eclipse will not be visible in the entire subcontinent. But that is not to say that you won’t be able to watch it! Here are a few services you can use to live stream the eclipse from locations that can view it.
NASA Science Live will be live streaming the eclipse through their YouTube channel between 11 PM and 12 AM ET on may 15 (8.30 AM to 9.30AM IST on May 16). The stream will display telescope views of the eclipse from around the world while NASA experts speak about both the eclipse and the space agency’s plans to put humans back on the moon with the Artemis program. Users can also submit the questions that they want to ask by using the hashtag #askNASA. You can view NASA’s live stream below.
The Sociedad Astronómica de Álava is a non-profit organisation that has an astronomical observatory. They will be live streaming the super flower blood moon from the Álava province in Spain’s Basque Country. You can view it below.
The Virtual Telescope Project gives remote online access to a powerful set of robotic telescopes for users across the world to enjoy an astronomical experience. The project will be live streaming the lunar eclipse from Rome in Italy. You can view the live stream below.
Time and Date is a Norwegian site that provides information about the time and time zones for regions across the world. They will be hosting a live stream of the lunar eclipse on their YouTube channel with views from multiple locations including Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, New York, USA; Sudbury, Canada; and Santiago, Chile. You can watch their live stream below.
If you miss this total lunar eclipse, the next one is scheduled to happen on November 8 this year, according to NASA’s lunar eclipse calendar. But during that one, a partial eclipse will be visible from India as the moon sets.
A study from the University of Paris this year has shown that Mars could have harboured liquid oceans 2 billion years ago (Ga). And thereby hangs a tale.
We observe ancient shorelines, indicating the presence of a large standing body of liquid water, but little to no erosional activity in the form of rivers/valleys. We observe rock deposits from tsunamis that occurred in the past; but tsunamis would not have been possible had the ocean been completely frozen. This paradox has been under the scanner of many planetary science studies (see, for example, Turbet and Forget (2019)).
What explains these apparent discrepancies? A liquid ocean might have been possible if temperature was just above the freezing point i.e. 4.5 °C. At first there seems to be a clear mutual exclusivity between warm-and-wet and cold-and-dry. The conditions on Mars 3.4-3.0 Ga (billion years ago; a period also known as the Late Hesperian in Mars’s geologic history) could either have been this or that.
A possible solution to this puzzle could be that the climate was cold-and-wet. So far, studies had shown that was not possible. A 2016 review argued that the ancient climate of Mars was largely cold, because of low solar radiation, and could not have sustained an ocean. On the other hand, another 2021 study maintained that the planet had a warming mechanism capable of harbouring lakes and rivers.
In this study, Schmidt et al. (2022) reconstructed the past climate of Mars using a three-dimensional model that was based on an Earth climate model. This model for Mars is capable of estimating the interaction between atmosphere and ocean circulation as well as surface water. Furthermore, the model also accounted for the fact that the Sun’s brightness was 79% of what it is today. Glacial flux, i.e. the runoff of glacial melt to the ocean, was considered as well.
It was found that in the cold-and-wet scenario, the globally averaged surface temperature is below 0 °C. But, the northern ocean surface temperature is ~7 °C and well above the freezing point. The southern hemisphere, on the other hand, is under ice cover. The presence of an ocean in the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet is explained by a few things.
One, while the average surface temperature for the whole planet is well below 0 °C, the ocean remains above the freezing point because of its low altitude (the more the altitude, the lesser the temperature; and vice versa). The other contributing factor is ocean circulation, that transports heat. 40 showed how ocean gyres, a group of ocean currents, transported heat towards the poles. ‘Surface temperature increase due to the active circulation of the ocean,’ and the consequent ‘warming is globally present at all latitudes but locally higher near the northern polar ocean, from 1 ◦C up to 4.5 ◦C,’ Schmidt et al. (2022) state.
Another reason for the above-freezing point temperatures lies in the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The atmosphere of Mars was – and still is – dominated by carbon dioxide. The blanket of carbon dioxide also had 10% hydrogen gas (H2) in good measure that produces a greenhouse effect, thereby increasing surface temperatures. The paper argues that hydrogen gas could have been a product of volcanic activity. While hydrogen gas produced from volcanic activity is ‘not expected to persist for more than 1 million years,’ it has been established that volcanic activity would have spanned a period of 3.8-0.2 Ga.
Finally, it was found that 60% evaporation in the ocean water is pretty much balanced by precipitation. There is also ‘significant glacier return flow’ from the cold highlands, where precipitation occurs largely in the form of snow, back to the ocean. These explain why we have an ocean, but not many river valleys – which would have been the case had the climate been warm and wet. By contrast, the southern hemisphere was covered almost entirely by extensive, thick, ice sheets.
The findings of the model are well corroborated by the observed geology, such as ancient shorelines or presence of widespread sedimentary rocks in the northern plains of Mars. This was also a time marked with ‘extensive [glacial] outflow channels,’ that would have stemmed from deglaciation or the collapse of icy reserves of water at high altitudes (aquifer disruption).
A few questions, however, still remain. One, did life exist on the planet some 3 billion years ago? One cannot be sure. The hydrological cycle is similar to today’s Earth, after all, replete with pressure and temperature conditions, liquid water, ocean, snow, glaciers. In fact, some of the regions of Mars bear resemblance to Alaskan glaciers and Antarctic ice streams. And as this study demonstrates, there was a large standing body of water, and for a fairly long duration to allow for life. However, this may not have been sufficient, Schmidt says, as the atmosphere was still starved for oxygen.
Lastly, where did all the water go? There is the possibility of breakdown of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and formally finally being ejected into space. Additionally it has been proposed, by a 2021 study, that ancient Martian water is either present as ice under the surface, or has been consumed by rock and mineral forming processes, making the crust very hydrated.
“The author is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and a freelance science communicator. He tweets at @critvik”
Lunar Eclipse 2022: Following the first partial solar eclipse of the year, we are now nearing the first lunar eclipse of 2022. This lunar eclipse will be visible from various parts of the Earth. The eclipse is set to occur on May 15 and 16 this year and will be a ‘Supermoon’ as well with the moon set to look bigger and it will take on a reddish colour. A ‘Supermoon’ is a full moon, but when the moon appears to be bigger than usual. Ahead of the lunar eclipse, here’s all you need to know about it.
The first lunar eclipse of 2022 is set to occur this weekend, which is May 15 and May 16. As per Indian time, the eclipse will occur at 7:02 am IST on the morning of May 16 and will end at 12:20 in the afternoon. However, the lunar eclipse will not be visible in India. According to NASA, the eastern half of the United States and all of South America will have the opportunity to see every stage of the lunar eclipse. Totality will be visible in much of Africa, western Europe, Central and South America, and most of North America, notes the US space agency.
If you are unable to watch the eclipse from your area due to any reason, you can watch the same live by visiting the official NASA website. NASA will also be live-streaming the event on its social media platforms and the official YouTube Channel.
A lunar eclipse takes place when the moon and the Sun are on the exact opposite sides of the Earth, resulting in a complete blockage of sunlight on the moon. This year, the lunar eclipse will also cause what is popularly known as the ‘Blood Moon’ phenomena. During a Blood Moon, a reddish tint is visible on the surface of the moon, which gives it a unique appearance. The reddish tint is due to the ‘Rayleigh scattering’ where only the red light which has a longer wavelength is able to travel to the moon as the Earth’s atmosphere scatters sunlight during the eclipse.
NASA notes that the “more dust or clouds in Earth’s atmosphere during the eclipse, the redder the Moon will appear. ” The May 16 lunar eclipse will be the first of two lunar eclipses set to take place this year. The second one will take place on November 8.
The world got a look Thursday at the first wild but fuzzy image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Astronomers believe nearly all galaxies, including our own, have these giant black holes at their centre, where light and matter cannot escape, making it extremely hard to get images of them. Light gets chaotically bent and twisted around by gravity as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust.
The colorised image unveiled Thursday is from the international consortium behind the Event Horizon Telescope, a collection of eight synchronised radio telescopes around the world. Previous efforts had found the black hole in the centre of our galaxy too jumpy to get a good picture.
The University of Arizona’s Feryal Ozel called the black hole “the gentle giant in the centre of our galaxy” while announcing the new image.
The Milky Way black hole is called Sagittarius A(asterisk), near the border of Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations. It is 4 million times more massive than our sun.
This is not the first black hole image. The same group released the first one in 2019 and it was from a galaxy 53 million light-years away. The Milky Way black hole is much closer, about 27,000 light-years away. A light year is 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion kilometres).
The project cost nearly $60 million with $28 million coming from the US National Science Foundation.
Written by Benjamin Mueller
Five years ago, Tal Iram, a young neuroscientist at Stanford University, approached her supervisor with a daring proposal: She wanted to extract fluid from the brain cavities of young mice and to infuse it into the brains of older mice, testing whether the transfers could rejuvenate the aging rodents.
Her supervisor, Tony Wyss-Coray, famously had shown that giving old animals blood from younger ones could counteract and even reverse some of the effects of aging. But the idea of testing that principle with cerebrospinal fluid, the hard-to-reach liquid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, struck him as such a daunting technical feat that trying it bordered on foolhardy.
Iram persevered, working for a year just to figure out how to collect the colorless liquid from mice. On Wednesday, she reported the tantalizing results in the journal Nature: A week of infusions of young cerebrospinal fluid improved the memories of older mice.
The finding was the latest indication that making brains resistant to the unrelenting changes of older age might depend less on interfering with specific disease processes and more on trying to restore the brain’s environment to something closer to its youthful state.
“It highlights this notion that cerebrospinal fluid could be used as a medium to manipulate the brain,” Iram said.
Turning that insight into a treatment for humans, though, is a more formidable challenge, the authors of the study said. The earlier studies about how young blood can reverse some signs of aging have led to recent clinical trials in which blood donations from younger people were filtered and given to patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
But exactly how successful those treatments might be, much less how widely they can be used, remains unclear, scientists said. And the difficulties of working with cerebrospinal fluid are steeper than those involved with blood. Infusing the fluid of a young human into an older patient is probably not possible; extracting the liquid generally requires a spinal tap, and scientists say that there are ethical questions about how to collect enough cerebrospinal fluid for infusions.
While there are theoretically other ways of achieving similar benefits — such as delivering a critical protein in the fluid that the researchers identified or making a small molecule that mimics that protein — those approaches face their own challenges.
Jeffery Haines, a biochemist who has studied cerebrospinal fluid and multiple sclerosis at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said that the study had elegantly identified how certain ingredients in the fluid might promote memory. But he said the general public’s appetite for anti-aging drugs was outpacing the science.
“In general, people are looking for the Holy Grail of aging, and they think there is going to be a magical factor that’s being secreted that’s just going to reverse this thing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that simple.”
Cerebrospinal fluid made for a logical target for researchers interested in aging. It nourishes brain cells, and its composition changes with age. Unlike blood, the fluid sits close to the brain.
But for years, scientists saw the fluid largely as a way of recording changes associated with aging, rather than countering its effects. Tests of cerebrospinal fluid, for example, have helped to identify levels of abnormal proteins in patients with significant memory loss who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists knew that there were also health-promoting proteins in cerebrospinal fluid, but identifying their locations and precise effects seemed out of reach.
For one thing, scientists said, it was difficult to track changes in the fluid, which the body continuously replenished. And collecting it from mice while avoiding contaminating the fluid with even trace amounts of their blood was extremely challenging.
“The field has lagged decades behind other areas of neuroscience,” said Maria Lehtinen, who studies cerebrospinal fluid at Boston Children’s Hospital and is the co-author of a commentary in Nature about the new mouse study. “Largely this is because of the technical limitations in studying a fluid that’s deep inside the brain, and that turns over continuously.”
Iram was undaunted. She set about taking the liquid from 10-week-old mice, cutting above their necks and drawing out fluid from a tiny cavity near the back of the brain while trying not to puncture any blood vessels or poke the brain itself.
When she was successful, Iram said, the result was about 10 microliters of cerebrospinal fluid — roughly one-fifth of the size of a drop of water. To collect enough for infusions, she had to do the procedure on many hundreds of mice, taming the technical challenges that Wyss-Coray had warned of by sheer force of repetition.
“I like doing these types of studies that require a lot of perseverance,” Iram said. “I just set on a goal, and I don’t stop.”
To infuse the young cerebrospinal fluid into old mice, Iram drilled a tiny hole in their skulls and implanted a pump below the skin on their upper backs. For comparison, a separate group of old mice was infused with artificial cerebrospinal fluid.
A few weeks later, the mice were exposed to cues — a tone and a flashing light — that they had earlier learned to associate with shocks to their feet. The animals that had received the young cerebrospinal fluid infusion tended to freeze for longer, suggesting that they had preserved stronger memories of the original foot shocks.
“This is a very cool study that looks scientifically solid to me,” said Matt Kaeberlein, a biologist who studies aging at the University of Washington and was not involved in the research. “This adds to the growing body of evidence that it’s possible, perhaps surprisingly easy, to restore function in aged tissues by targeting the mechanisms of biological aging.”
Iram tried to determine how the young cerebrospinal fluid was helping to preserve memory by analyzing the hippocampus, a portion of the brain dedicated to memory formation and storage. Treating the old mice with the fluid, she found, had a strong effect on cells that act as precursors to oligodendrocytes, which produce layers of fat known as myelin that insulate nerve fibers and ensure strong signal connections between neurons.
The authors of the study homed in on a particular protein in the young cerebrospinal fluid that appeared involved in setting off the chain of events that led to stronger nerve insulation. Known as fibroblast growth factor 17, or FGF17, the protein could be infused into older cerebrospinal fluid and could partially replicate the effects of young fluid, the study found.
Even more strikingly, blocking the protein in young mice appeared to impair their brain function, offering stronger evidence that FGF17 affects cognition and changes with age.
The study strengthened the case that breakdowns in myelin formation were related to age-associated memory loss. That is something of a departure from the long-standing focus on the fatty insulation in the context of diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Some scientists said that knowing one of the proteins responsible for the effects of young spinal fluid could open the door to potential treatments based on that protein. At the same time, recent technological advances have brought scientists closer to observing changes in cerebrospinal fluid in real time, helping them “peel back the layers of complexity and mystery surrounding this fluid,” Lehtinen said.
The United Kingdom is reportedly planning to build a solar power station in space and use it to beam energy down to Earth using lasers, according to Space.com. Over 50 British organisations including manufacturer Airbus, Cambridge University and satellite maker SSTL have reportedly joined the UK Space Energy Initiative.
The UK Space Energy Initiative was launched last year to explore options to develop a space-based solar plant. The initiative is aimed at helping the UK meet its target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 more cost-effectively than existing technologies. It bases its plans on an engineering study conducted by consultancy Frazer-Nash and commissioned by the UK government last year.
Space.com reports that the initiative’s chairman, Martin Soltau, said that all technology required to develop a space-based solar power plant already exists and that the challenge is the scope and size of the project. Soltau also said that the initiative has established a 12-year development plan that could see a demonstrator power plant. This plant will be assembled by robots in orbit and will beam gigawatts of power from space to Earth as early as 2035, according to him.
British engineering firm International Electric Company has developed a modular concept called CASSIOPeiA or Constant Aperture, Solid-State, Integrated, Orbital Phased Array. The initiative is currently exploring this concept. ‘Modular’ here means that the orbiting power plant could be expanded after the demonstration phase.
The demonstrator would be giant, several miles across, and would require 300 rocket launches the size of SpaceX’s Starship to deliver to orbit. Once deployed, it would orbit 36,000 kilometres with a constant view of the sun as well as of Earth.
The satellite will collect solar energy using large, lightweight mirrors and concentrating optics onto photovoltaic cells, just like conventional solar cells on earth. The satellite will produce direct current electricity that will then be converted into microwaves using a solid-state radio frequency power amplifier and transmitted as a microwave beam down to Earth.
The reason the UK is considering this is that such a plant would produce so much more electricity than a solar power plant of a similar size on Earth. In fact, if you compare two power plants of the exact same size with one on Earth in the UK and one in space; the one in space would be able to generate over 13 times the energy.
Also, such a power plant will not face any ‘intermittency problems,’ because the sun will always be shining on it in space. On Earth, renewable energy generation plants face this problem because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t constantly blow all the time. Due to this, such energy plants have to be complemented by battery storage to prevent power loss during unfavourable weather.
To receive this energy from space, the system would need a giant Earth-based antenna, which is called the rectenna. The rectenna receives the microwave radiation sent from space and converts it into electrical energy that can be used for high-voltage transmission. The initiative claims that there is no risk to the public from this radiation.
Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos, has announced the crew flying on its NS-21 mission. The six passengers going on a spaceflight on the company’s New Shepard spacecraft will include electrical engineer and former NASA test lead Katya Echazarreta, who will become the first Mexican-born woman and youngest American woman to fly to space. She will be flying as part of Space for Humanity’s sponsored Citizen Astronaut Program.
The rest of the crew will include Blue Origin investor and NS-19 astronaut Evan Dick, business jet pilot Hamish Harding, civil production engineer Victor Correa Hespanha, venture capitalist Jaison Robinson and explorer and venture capitalist Victor Vescovo.
Blue Origin has not yet released a scheduled date for the spaceflight. It also hasn’t disclosed how much the passengers paid to fly on the mission. Usually, such opportunities to fly on private space flights are reserved for really wealthy passengers who can afford to pay their way there but one person has joined as part of Space for Humanity’s sponsored citizen astronaut program after following a rigorous application process, and another person’s seat was sponsored by the Crypto Space Agency.
Below are the descriptions of the six crew members as given by Blue Origin:
Echazaretta was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to Blue Origin, she is part of the mission to provide representation for women and minorities interested in STEM fields. She co-hosts the YouTube series Netflix IRL and “Electric Kat” on the CBS show “Mission Unstopabble”. She is also currently pursuing a Master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University after completing her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCLA in 2019.
Dick is an engineer, investor and Managing Member of Dick Holdings. At the completion of the mission, he will become the first person to fly aboard New Shepherd twice, after having flown on the NS-19 mission on December 11, 2021. He formerly served as a senior vice president for D E Shaw and as managing director of Highbridge Capital Management. He supports the Darwin Foundation, Population Relied International Corp and Starfighters Aerospace, either through volunteership or through charity.
Harding is the chairman of Action Aviation, a business jet brokerage company that he founded in 2005. He is also a business jet pilot. In 2019, he broke the round-the-world record in a Gulfstream G650ER for flying over the North and South poles with International Space Station commander Terry Virts. In 2021, he dived to a depth of 36,000 feet in a Challenger Deep, a two-person sub, with Victor Vescovo.
Correa is a 28-year-old civil production engineer from Brazil. His seat is sponsored by the Crypto Space Agency, whose mission is to “combine the space industry’s technology with the innovation and financial power of the crypto markets to accelerate humankind’s off-world future.” He will also be the second Brazilian to ever fly to space.
Robinson founded commercial real estate company JJM investments and co-founded Dream Variations Ventures, which invests in technology and sports start-ups. He is a scuba diver and a skydiver who has broken the sound barrier in a Mig-29 fighter jet. He has also spent a week hiking in Antarctica and climbed the tallest waterfall in the world in Venezuela.
Vescovo is the cofounder of private equity investment firm Insight Equity. He has completed the “Explorer’s Grand Slam”, which entails summiting the world’s top seven peaks and skiing to the North and South Poles. He has also visited the deepest point in the world’s five oceans and executed the deepest wreck dive in history. He holds degrees from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard Business School, and served 20 years in the US Navy Reserve.
A rare outburst from a galaxy over 236 million light-years away could have been caused by a spontaneous flip of the magnetic field surrounding its central black hole, according to a study by an international research team. The team used UV and X-ray measurements from NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and ESA’s (European Space Agency) XMM-Newton satellite, along with visible light and radio observations from other sources. A research article documenting the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
In March 2018, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae alerted astronomers that a galaxy called 1ES 1927+654 had brightened by nearly 100 times in visible light. A further search showed that the eruption had begun months earlier, towards the end of 2017.
When NASA’s Swift space observatory, which studies gamma-ray bursts, X-ray, UV and visible light, first examined the galaxy in May 2018, its UV emissions were elevated 12 times but kept steadily declining, indicating that there was an earlier unobserved peak. In June, the galaxy’s higher-energy X-ray emission disappeared.
Big galaxies often host supermassive black holes at their centre. When matter falls towards these black holes, it collects into a vast flattened structure called the accretion disk. The material slowly spirals inwards, heats up and emits visible, UV and lower-energy X-ray light. A cloud of extremely hot particles near the black hole, called the corona, produces higher-energy X-rays. The brightness of these emissions from the black hole depends on how much material streams towards it.
“An earlier interpretation of the eruption suggested that it was triggered by a star that passed so close to the black hole it was torn apart, disrupting the flow of gas. We show that such an event would fade out more rapidly than this outburst,” said co-author Josefa Becerra González, of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics, in a NASA press statement.
The disappearance of the higher-energy X-ray emissions in this case gave astronomers an important clue: they suspect that the black hole’s magnetic field creates and sustains the corona–a cloud of extremely hot particles– so any magnetic change could impact its X-ray properties.
“A magnetic reversal, where the north pole becomes south and vice versa, seems to best fit the observations. The field initially weakens at the outskirts of the accretion disk, leading to greater heating and brightening in visible and UV light,” said co-author Mitchell Begelman, a professor in the department of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder in a press statement. Begelman and his colleagues at the University of Colorado developed the magnetic model.
As the flip happens, the magnetic field becomes so weak that the black hole can no longer support the corona, leading to the X-ray emissions vanishing. Slowly, the magnetic field begins strengthening in its new orientation. In October 2018, about four months after they disappeared, the X-rays came back. This indicated that the corona has been fully restored. By the summer of 2021, the galaxy had completely returned to its pre-eruption state.
According to NASA, magnetic reversals are likely to be common events in the universe as geological records show that the Earth’s field flips unpredictable, reversing a few times every million years in the recent past. The Sun undergoes a magnetic reversal much more often as part of its normal cycle of activity. It switches its north and south poles roughly every 11 years.
Researchers have used 3D scanning technologies to reveal what according to them is the largest collection of ancient Native American cave art discovered in North America. The drawings were discovered in the “19th unnamed cave” in Alabama in the United States. Its location remains secret and it has been named arbitrarily for the same reason: to protect it from vandalism and other forms of destruction, since it is too precious of an artefact.
The researchers documented their findings in a research article titled, “Discovering ancient cave art using 3D photogrammetry: pre-contact Native American mud glyphs from 19th Unnamed Cave, Alabama,” published in the journal Antiquity.
“They probably depict characters from previously unknown religious narratives, likely of the Middle Woodland period. The most striking aspects of these cave art images are their size and context. Among the 19th Unnamed Cave mud glyphs are the largest cave art images known in North America. They are so large that the makers had to create the images without being able to see them in their entirety. Thus, the makers worked from their imaginations, rather than from an unimpeded visual perspective,” wrote the researchers in the article.
The 19th unnamed cave comprises more than 5 kilometres of underground passageways with the entrance at 219 metres above mean sea level. This entrance is approximately 10 metres high and 15 metres wide. An intermittent stream flows out of the cave, because of which no intact archaeological materials survived at the cave’s entrance.
From the ‘main hall’ of the cave, a passage climbs up to a 25 x 20 metre chamber that is bounded by flowstone formations. The mud glyphs are inscribed on the ceiling of this “room” which is only 125 centimetres above the floor at its highest.
In late 2017, Stephen Alvarez of the Ancient Art Archive capitalised on the advances in 3D photogrammetry to create a high-resolution three-dimensional topographic record of the glyphs drawn in the chamber. Photogrammetry is a software-based 3D modelling technique that makes use of photographs.
You first start by taking many photographs of the target object or location, with each photograph overlapping the next by about 60 to 80 per cent. The photogrammetry software then compares the images and overlaps and calculates the camera positions used to produce the images. The software then triangulates the pixels in a 3D space to create a ‘point cloud’.
That cloud is rendered into a highly accurate mesh of the surface being modelled and the mesh is textured with the texture from the original images to make it look like a photorealistic 3D model. The resulting model from this technique is then calibrated by measuring known distance. For the 19th unnamed cave, the researchers created three interlinked models: one of the undecorated cave passages and two of the engraved ceiling.
The first ceiling model was photographed using a Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR, which has a 30.4-megapixel sensor, and a Canon L series 24-70mm f2.8 lens set to 24mm. For the first model, the researchers used angled lighting which made some glyphs more obvious while obscuring others. But this was not a problem as the first model was created to provide a ‘roadmap’ for the second, higher-resolution model.
For the second model, the researchers use a flat light and a Canon 5DS DSLR camera with a 50megapiel sensor and a Sigma 24mm Art Series lens. These photographs were shot with an 80 per cent overlap and were used to create a really high-resolution model of the cave ceiling. The third model was of the entire cave space from the entrance to the section with the drawings. This was a lower resolution model shot with the camera in the first model and way fewer photographs.
Global warming is inevitably going to change biogeography, causing shifts in habitats. Species will come in contact with other species with whom they had no prior contact whatsoever. Mammals and viruses will be no exceptions, and the number of pathogens jumping from one mammal species to another related species (most viruses are transferred only between related species) will only increase, according to a new study in Nature by a team of climate scientists and biologists.
In this study, Carlson et al. (2022) ask a pertinent question: will climate change increase the risk of viral transmission in the future? Global warming will drive species intolerant to high temperatures to cooler climes. In particular, this refers to the high-altitude regions of the tropics, for the tropics have the highest biodiversity. This will bring together species of wildlife that have, thus far, been geographically isolated. By even the most conservative estimates, ‘many species’ geographic ranges are projected to shift a hundred kilometres or more in the next century.’ Further, the study says that even if the cap on increasing temperatures by no more than 2 °C is observed, the instances of species running into each other for the first time is likely to double.
Given that these host-animals will introduce their pathogens to newer environments, what implications might it have for first-time viral transmissions to other species, including humans?
The exercise entailed developing models that simulated changing habitats and virus jump-overs over a five-year period. The model pertaining to changing biogeography tries to find out where most mammal species would move in the event of global warming. The focus on mammals is explained by their direct relevance for human health, besides the fact that they have the most complete biodiversity data available. This is supplemented by the parallel model on viral transmission that builds up on a previous study. Given the information about species coming into contact with each other for the first time, the viral transmission model tries to measure the instances of cross-species viral spill overs.
These first-time-contacts will be the highest in the tropics i.e. Asia or Africa. There are two reasons for this. One, the tropics have the highest biodiversity and the highest population density, increasing the risk of transmission. Two, when species migrate latitudinally, they tend to carry the same species that already existed in their community earlier. On the other hand, migrations along altitudes at the same latitude tends to bring more previously geographically isolated species in contact and give rise to newer community compositions.
Bats will have a significant role to play in such a scenario, because (a) they harbour a diverse range of viruses, (b) are airborne mammals, and their ‘dispersal capacity’ likely to be hindered by changing biogeography, and (c) constitute nearly twenty percent of the mammalian fauna. Factors like the inability to fly, body size, nutritional requirements do place their own constraints on an individual or species. The study argues that these constraints are going to reduce the number of first encounters by 61% and associated viral sharing events by 70%. However, unlike other flightless mammals, where the inability to fly renders them incapable of colonising newer areas to their fullest potential, bats are rather unbridled.
A case in point is the coronavirus pandemic, which, according to many studies, had its origins in zoonotic transmission. In case of both the 2002 SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus) and the 2012 MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus) outbreaks, the scientific consensus is that the viruses had originated in bats. Then, they jumped over to civets (for SARS-CoV) and dromedary camels (MERS – CoV), and then, finally, to humans. Genomic sequences of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV (1); the coronavirus we are most familiar with as of now) bear close resemblance to SARS-like coronaviruses that originated in bats. Again, bats might have been the original hosts of the nCoV, and an animal sold in Wuhan, China, acted as an intermediate to humans.
Studies over the last few decades have well-testified to the ability of bats to traverse large distances over small timescales. Carlson et al. (2022) observe that even nonmigratory bats can travel hundreds of kilometres within a lifetime, whereas small mammals are able to cover only a fraction of that distance. This also means that bats can breed and mate over continental scales – and, therefore, transmit even more viruses.
This ultimately has repercussions for human health. Even in the best-case scenario, wherein temperature increase does not surpass 2 °C, a ‘total of 0.3 million first encounters would lead to 15311 novel sharing events.’ In order to illustrate this, the study modelled the potential spill over of Ebola virus (ZEBOV). They found that even accounting for no more than a 2 °C increase in temperature and constraints imposed by the species’ physiology, the thirteen host species of ZEBOV are likely to ‘produce almost one hundred new viral sharing events,’ taking viruses like ZEBOV far beyond their current confines. Tropical areas with high human populations — like the Sahel, the Ethiopian highlands and the Rift Valley, India, eastern China, Indonesia and Philippines — are the ones where we are likely to witness maximum viral sharing by 2070.
Researchers caution that the inevitability of this scenario should not be misinterpreted ‘as a justification for inaction.’ Rather, nations and governments should buttress their public health infrastructure systems as well as their wildlife disease surveillance in order to shield themselves against these as-yet-unforeseen impacts of climate change.
The author is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and a freelance science communicator. He tweets at @critvik
Astronomers have spotted a “black widow binary”— a unique system that consists of a pulsar (rapidly spinning neutron star) that is circling and slowly consuming a smaller companion star, just like the female black widow spider does to its mater, hence the name. Astronauts have previously identified about two dozen black widow binaries in the milky way galaxy but the newest candidate has the shortest orbital period yet identified.
The discovery has been reported in a research article titled, “A 62-minute orbital period black widow binary in a wide hierarchical triple,” published in Nature Communications.
Named ZTF J1406+1222, the system has a pulsar and a companion star that circle each other every 62 minutes. Another thing that makes the system unique apart from the short orbital period is the fact that it seems to host a third far-flung star that orbits the other two every 10,000 years.
This possibly ‘triple black widow’ has raised questions about how it could have formed. The MIT researchers who made the discovery have proposed a theory: Just like with most black widow binaries, the triple system likely arose from a dense constellation of old stars known as a globular cluster.
The particular cluster from which this system formed may have drifted towards the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky way. The gravity of this central black hole must have been enough to pull the cluster apart while leaving the triple black widow intact.
“It’s a complicated birth scenario. This system has probably been floating around in the Milky Way for longer than the sun has been around. It is really unique as far as black widows go because we found it with visible light, and because of its wide companion, and the fact it came from the galactic centre,” said Kevin Burdge, a Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Department of Physics, in a press statement.
Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that are the collapsed cores of massive stars. They have an incredibly fast rotational period, spinning around every few milliseconds and emitting flashes of high energy gamma and X-rays while doing so.
Typically, pulsars spin down and die quickly as they burn huge amounts of energy in a short amount of time. But every once in a while, a passing star can ‘refuel’ them. As a star nears a pulsar, the latter’s gravity pulls material off the star, providing new energy to spin the pulsar back up. This ‘reignited’ pulsar then starts reradiating energy that strips the star further until it is completely destroyed.
Every black widow binary discovered to date was detected due to the gamma and X-ray flashes from the pulsar. But for this system, Burdge cam upon it through the optical flashing of the companion star.
This was possible because the companion star’s dayside (the side always facing the pulsar) can be many times hotter than the night side due to the radiation it receives from the pulsar. Burdge reasons that if astronomers observed a star whose brightness was changing periodically by a huge amount, it would be a strong signal that it was a binary with a pulsar.
The third long-duration team of astronauts launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA safely departed the orbiting outpost early on Thursday to begin their descent back to Earth, capping a six-month science mission.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three U.S. NASA astronauts and a German astronaut from the European Space Agency undocked from the ISS at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT) to embark on a return flight expected to last about 23 hours.
Live video showing the capsule drifting away from the station as the two vehicles soared high over Australia was shown on a NASA webcast.
Wearing helmeted white-and-black spacesuits, the four astronauts were seen strapped into the crew cabin shortly before the spacecraft separated from the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth.
A series of several brief rocket thrusts then autonomously pushed the capsule safely clear of the ISS and lowered its orbit to line up the spacecraft for later atmospheric re-entry and splashdown.
If all goes smoothly, the Crew Dragon craft, dubbed Endurance, will parachute into the sea off the coast of Florida at 12:43 a.m. EDT on Friday (10.13 PM IST).
The Endurance crew, consisting of American astronauts Tom Marshburn, 61, Raja Chari, 44 and Kayla Barron, 34, along with ESA crewmate Matthias Maurer, 52, arrived at the space station on Nov. 11.
Their departure came about a week after they welcomed their replacement team aboard the station, also currently home to three Russian cosmonauts on a long-term mission. One of those cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, assumed command of the ISS from Marshburn in a handover before Thursday’s undocking, NASA said.
Earlier in April, a separate all-private astronaut crew launched by SpaceX to the space station under contract for the Houston-based company Axiom Space left the orbiting laboratory, concluding two weeks in orbit.
The NASA-ESA team flying home on Thursday was officially designated “Crew 3,” the third full-fledged long-duration group of astronauts that SpaceX has launched to the space station for the U.S. space agency.
They will be carrying some 550 pounds of cargo with them on their flight back to Earth.
SpaceX, the California-based company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmarker Tesla Inc who recently clinched a deal to buy social media platform Twitter, has launched a total of seven human spaceflights over the past two years.
Astronomers have discovered eight new “echoing black hole binaries” in our galaxy with a new automated search tool that they call “Reverberation Machine.” These are systems with a star orbiting, and sometimes being eaten away by a black hole. Previously, only two such systems in the Milky Way were known to emit “X-ray echoes” that could be detected.
There are millions of black holes scattered across our galaxy. They are extremely strong wells of gravity that bend space and time. Nothing that falls in, even light, can escape from it. This makes them dark by definition, and difficult to detect. But as a black hole pulls in gas and dust from an orbiting star, it can give off bursts of X-ray light that bounce and echo off the gas spiralling into it and briefly illuminating the black hole’s surroundings.
The astronomers have published their findings in a research article titled, “The NICER “Reverberation Machine”: A Systematic Study of Time Lags in Black Hole X-Ray Binaries,” published in The Astrophysical Journal.
By comparing these X-ray echoes across systems, the team has pieced together a general picture of how a black hole evolves during an outburst. They observed that a black hole first undergoes a “hard: state, where it whips up a corona of high-energy photons along with a jet of relativistic particles that is then launched away at close to the speed of light.
At one point, the black hole gives off one final high-energy flash before transitioning to a “soft,” low-energy state. This flash could be a sign that the black hole’s corona (region of high-energy plasma right outside a black hole’s boundary) briefly expands and ejects a burst of high-energy particles before disappearing altogether.
These new findings could help scientists explain how larger, supermassive black holes at the centre of a galaxy can eject particles across vastly cosmic scales to shape a galaxy’s formation.
“The role of black holes in galaxy evolution is an outstanding question in modern astrophysicsInterestingly, these black hole binaries appear to be ‘mini’ supermassive black holes, and so by understanding the outbursts in these small, nearby systems, we can understand how similar outbursts in supermassive black holes affect the galaxies in which they reside,” says Erin Kara, assistant professor of physics at MIT, in a press statement.
Kara and her colleagues use X-ray echoes to map a black hole’s surroundings, similar to the way in which bats use echolocation to navigate their vicinity. Bats emit sounds that bounce off obstacles and return to the bat as an echo. The nocturnal animal can then calculate the distance between it and the obstacle based on the time it takes for the echo to return to them, helping them map their surroundings.
Similarly, the research team is looking to map the immediate vicinity of a black hole using X-ray echoes. These echoes present time delays between two types of X-ray light: light emitted directly from the corona, and light from the corona that bounces off the gas and dust spiralling into the black hole.
The researchers can observe the time at which a telescope receives light from the corona and compare it to when it receives the X-ray echoes to calculate an estimate of the distance between the corona and the accretion disk (disk-like flow of plasma, gas, dust and other matter around a black hole).
Observing how these time delays change over time will reveal how a black hole’s corona and disk evolve as the black hole consumes stellar material.
As a side project, Kara is working with MIT education and music scholars to convert these X-ray echo emissions into sound waves that can be heard by humans. You can listen to these waves in the video below.
The team identified a common theme of evolution in all systems. In the initial hard state, when the corona and high-energy particles dominate the black hole’s energy, they detected time lags that were short and fast, in the order of milliseconds. This state lasts for several weeks. After that, a transition occurs over several days, in which the corona and jet sputter and die out.
Then, the soft state dominated by lower-energy X-rays from the black hole’s accretion disk takes over. During this transition period, the astronomers discovered that time lags became longer for a short period in all ten systems, implying that the distance between the corona may briefly expand outward and upward in a high-energy burst before the black hole finishes consuming a bulk of the stellar material and goes quiet.
Ahead of the Artemis missions that will send humans back to the moon, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center received samples of the lunar surface that were preserved in a freezer at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts returned them to Earth in December 1972.
The research is part of the space agency’s Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), which is an effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program in preparation for the Artemis missions to the Moon’s south pole.
The process of getting the samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard is not simple. It began over four years ago when NASA’s Julie Mitchell and her Artemis curation team at Johnson began designing and retrofitting a facility to process the samples. They employed a new technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.
Samples were also sent to researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and the University of Arizona, Tucson
“We started this in early 2018 and there’s been a lot of technical challenges that we’ve had to overcome to get to this point. This was seen as a practice run for preparing a facility for future cold sample processing. By doing this work we’re not just facilitating Artemis exploration, but we’re facilitating future sample return and human exploration into the rest of the solar system,” said Mitchell, in a press statement.
After the facility was ready, Apollo sample curator Ryan Zeigler and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions designed by Mitchell’s team to keep the samples frozen during processing. These included decreased visibility due to frost and challenges manipulating the sample while working with thick gloves in a nitrogen-purged glove box. All of this took place inside a walk-in freezer maintained at minus 20 degrees celsius.
The ability to keep samples frozen will be important for Artemis as astronauts could potentially return ice samples from the Moon’s south pole. Once the frozen samples were processed and subdivided at Johnson by lunar sample processor Jeremy Kent, the samples were express shipped in a cooler with dry ice, opened at Goddard and stored in a secure freezer.
Jamie Elsila, a research scientist at the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at Goddard, is focusing on the study of small, volatile organic compounds during her research and analysis of the samples. Previous research has shown that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential to life on earth.
Natalie Curran, principal investigator for the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, will focus on understanding the history that the samples experienced during their lifetime on the moon. Unlike on earth, the Moon has a harsh environment that does not have an atmosphere to protect the surface from exposure to space.
Curran’s work will involve the use of noble gases like argon, helium, neon and xenon to measure the duration that the sample has been exposed to cosmic rays, which will help thee researchers understand the history of the sample.
Elsila and Curran have both frozen and non-frozen samples in their possession. When the samples were brought to Earth, a portion was stored at room temperature and another portion was frozen so that the two groups can be compared. The researchers will analyse both groups to see if there are differences in organic content.
Understanding any variations that occur due to the different storage methods will help scientists make decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts.
A new climate simulation by NASA suggests that enormous volcanic eruptions called “flood basalt eruptions” could significantly warm Earth’s climate and destroy the ozone layer which shields us from the Sun’s harsh ultraviolet radiation. Previous studies have indicated that these volcanoes could help cool the climate but this simulation contradicts that
It also suggests that these eruptions may have helped warm the climate on Mars and Venus but that they may have also doomed the long-term habitability of these planets by contributing to water loss. The study titled, “Volcanic Climate Warming Through Radiative and Dynamical Feedbacks of SO2 Emissions,” was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Flood basalts are regions where a series of eruptive episodes lasting as long as centuries happen. Some that happened on earth in the past happened at the same time as mass-extinction events and many are also correlated with extremely warm periods in earth’s history.
“Eruptions like the one we simulated would emit massive amounts of sulfur dioxide gas. Chemistry in the atmosphere quickly converts these gas molecules to solid sulfate aerosols. These aerosols reflect visible sunlight, which causes the initial cooling effect, but also absorb infrared radiation, which warms the atmosphere aloft in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere,” said Scott Guzewich, lead author of the paper, in a press statement.
According to Guzewich, the researchers also saw a 10,000 per cent increase in stratospheric water vapour, which is a greenhouse gas that emits infrared radiation that warms the planet’s surface.
The researchers simulated a four-year-long phase of the Columbia River Basalt (CRB) eruption that occurred between 15 and 17 million years ago in the United States. This model predicted the effects of the eruption on the troposphere (lowest layer of the atmosphere which has most of the water vapour and weather) and the stratosphere (the relatively dry and calm next layer).
These CRB eruptions were likely a mix of explosive events that sent volcanic material high into the troposphere and lower atmosphere. The simulation assumed that these explosive events happened four times per year and released about 80 per cent of the eruptions’ sulphur dioxide. The researchers found that there was a net cooling for around two years before a warming effect overwhelmed the cooling.
According to Guzewich, the circulation of the stratosphere changes in a way that discourages ozone formation. Also, the added water vapour in the stratosphere contributes to the destruction of ozone.
In the span of a few minutes, a solar flare can release enough energy to power the whole world for over 20,00 years. These flares are triggered by a process called magnetic reconnection, a phenomenon that scientists have been trying to understand for more than half a century. Fully understanding it can give new insights into nuclear fusion and will also help provide better predictions for solar particle storms that can affect technology here on Earth.
Now scientists with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) may have finally figured out this puzzle. They have developed a theory for how the most explosive type of magnetic reconnection–called fast magnetic reconnection–happens and how it takes place at such a consistent speed.
The scientists have published their research in an article titled, “First-principles theory of the rate of magnetic reconnection in magnetospheric and solar plasmas,” in the Nature Communications Physics journal.
According to the new theory developed by them, fast reconnection is likely sped up by the Hall Effect. The Hall effect describes how voltage differences are produced across a conductor when it is subjected to a magnetic field applied in a certain way. This phenomenon is used in a lot of everyday technology, including the sensor in your phone that knows to switch off the screen when its cover is closed.
According to the theory, charged particles in a plasma stop moving as a group during fast magnetic reaction and begin moving separately, giving rise to the hall Hall effect, which leads to the creation of an energy vacuum. The magnetic fields around this energy vacuum apply pressure to it, causing it to implode. This releases large amounts of energy at a predictable rate.
MMS will use four spacecrafts flown around the Earth in a pyramid formation to test this theory. With these spacecrafts, MMS can study magnetic reconnection in plasma at a higher resolution than would have been possible on earth
Small launch firm Rocket Lab USA Inc on Monday captured a falling rocket stage out of the air with a helicopter before dropping it in the ocean, appearing to achieve a partially successful test of the company’s novel cost-savings approach to recovering used rockets for multiple mission to space.
The demonstration, involving parachutes and a long cable hanging from a helicopter, sought to check off a key milestone for the Long Beach, California-based company as it ventures to slash the cost of sending things into space, an industry trend pioneered by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
After lifting off to send 34 satellites toward orbit at 10:50 a.m. (2250 GMT) in New Zealand, the Long Beach, California-based company’s four-story-tall Electron booster stage fell back through Earth’s atmosphere and deployed a series of parachutes to brake its speed.
At high altitudes above the South Pacific, just off the New Zealand coast, a helicopter hanging a long, vertical cable from its underside was steered by two pilots over the booster, which had stretched to its side a capture line as it descended under a parachute at roughly 22 miles (35 km) per hour.
The helicopter cable latched onto the booster’s capture line, as seen on the company’s live stream, prompting cheers and applause from Rocket Lab engineers in the company’s mission control center in Long Beach.
But the cheers from engineers turned to audible groans as the helicopter pilots were forced to release the rocket from the cable and dunk it into the Pacific Ocean after noticing “different load characteristics” than what had been experienced during previous capture tests, a Rocket Lab spokesperson later confirmed.
A fully successful test would have involved carrying the rocket booster back to land or onto a barge without having it touch ocean water.
“No big deal,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck wrote on Twitter. “The rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now.”
It was not immediately clear whether Rocket Lab planned to reuse the booster.
A team of researchers at the Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration has determined that the olivine-rich bedrock in the Gusev crater and in and around the Jezero crater on Mars may be a special type of rock called “ignimbrite”. This rock is both igneous and sedimentary and forms due to explosive eruptions from volcanoes. The results of their study have been published in a research article in the journal Icarus.
If the team’s hypothesis is current, it will lead to a better understanding of the olivine-rich bedrock in other places on Mars. Bedrock rich in olivine and carbonate links the Gusev crater, which was explored 16 years ago by NASA’s Spirit rover, and the Nili Fossae region, where the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is currently exploring. Both locations have the highest abundance of olivine yet observed on Mars.
Olivine is a magnesium iron silicate mineral that is the primary component of Earth’s upper mantle and is also common in Mars’s mantle. It is named olivine for its typical olive colour that may also appear reddish to the oxidation of iron.
The similarities in composition and morphology between the olivine-rich rocks in the two widely-separated regions of Mars have not yet been investigated before. But this study seems to indicate that they formed in a similar way. Even though this mineral is common in the mantle of Mars, there is yet to be a conclusive explanation for the beds on the surface of the planet.
Scientists have proposed scenarios ranging from lava flows to a giant meteor impact dredging up the mineral in the past. The research team tried testing a hypothesis which involved volcanic ash being gently deposited by plumes of smoke but their observations pointed towards a much more violent history.
The team examined mosaics of images from the Spirit rover’s Microscopic Imager and noticed rocks with an unusual texture. The team then consulted an online library with images of rocks on Earth and came across some volcanic rocks with textures that looked remarkably similar to those in the mosaics from Mars.
The images of rocks from earth featured ignimbrites, which form as the result of flows of pyroclastic ash (fast-moving mixture of rock fragments, gas, and ash), pumice and blocks from the largest volcanic explosions on Earth.
“That was a eureka moment. I was seeing the same kind of textures in the rocks of Gusev crater as those in a very specific kind of volcanic rock found here on Earth. Imagine a ground-hugging cloud of hot gases and nearly molten ash and pumice flowing through the landscape for dozens of miles and piling up in layers up to hundreds of feet thick in just a few days,” said Steve Ruff, who lead the research group, in a press statement.
After forming, ignimbrite deposits slowly cool over months or years, leading to the formation of intricate networks of fractures known as cooling joins. These form as the thick piles of ash and pumice contract. The team noticed similar fracture patterns in the olivine-rich bedrock deposits on Mars, backing up the ignimbrite hypothesis further.
According to Ruff, the olivine-rich composition is unusual for ignimbrites on Earth but there is evidence for such a composition in the oldest specimens. The hypothesis of ancient olivine-rich ignimbrites on Mars could point toward a particular style of volcanic eruption that happens early in a planet’s geological lifecycle.
A team of astronomers has analysed the Hubble Space Telescope’s observations of over 25 hot Jupiters to answer five questions that are essential for your understanding of exoplanet atmospheres. Hot Jupiters refers to a class of gaseous exoplanets that are physically similar to Jupiter but are really close to their stars, giving them really high surface temperatures.
Until recently, the field of exoplanet science has long focused on just the detection and characterisation of exoplanets. This new study led by researchers at University College London (UCL) used a large amount of archival data to analyse the atmospheres of 25 exoplanets.
“Our paper marks a turning point for the field: we are now moving from the characterisation of individual exoplanet atmospheres to the characterisation of atmospheric populations,” said Billy Edwards of the UCL, in a press statement.
The team reanalysed a large amount of archival data consisting of 600 hours of Hubble observations and 400 hours of observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope. This data contained eclipses for all 25 exoplanets and transits for 17 of them. An eclipse is when an exoplanet passes behind its star and transits are when a planet passes in front of its star.
“Many issues such as the origins of the water on Earth, the formation of the Moon, and the different evolutionary histories of Earth and Mars, are still unsolved despite our ability to obtain in-situ measurements. Large exoplanet population studies, such as the one we present here, aim at understanding those general processes,” said Quentin Changeat, lead author of the study, in a press statement.
One of the key discoveries of the study was when the team found that the presence of metal oxides and hydrides in the hottest exoplanet atmospheres was correlated with the atmospheres being thermally inverted. A thermally inverted atmosphere refers to one where it gets hotter the higher you go from the surface of the planet; the exact opposite of how it is on earth.
The team found that almost all exoplanets with a thermally inverted atmosphere were extremely hot (temperatures over 2000 Kelvins) and that metallic oxides like titanium oxide, vanadium oxide and iron hydride are stable in the atmosphere.
According to the European Space Agency, it is challenging to draw inferences from such results because correlation does not necessarily equal causation. But the team was able to propose a fairly compelling argument for why the presence of these compounds could lead to thermal inversion.
These metallic compounds are excellent at absorbing stellar light. The researchers proposed that exoplanets hot enough to sustain these species tend to be thermally inverted because they can absorb so much stellar light that their upper atmospheres heat up even more.