Meet this year’s winners of the Dance Your PhD contest

Finnish researcher Jakub Kubecka won this year’s Dance Your PhD contest with a rap-based dance inspired by his work on the physics of atmospheric molecular clusters.

The global pandemic ruined most of our plans for 2020, but it couldn’t keep graduate students around the world from setting their thesis research to dance, submitting videos produced in strict adherence to local COVID-19 restrictions. With a little help from his friends, Ivo Neefjes and Vitus Besel, Jakub Kubecka, a Finnish graduate student, won with a rap-based dance about the physics of atmospheric molecular clusters. Incorporating computer animation and drone footage, Kubecka beat out 40 other contestants to take top honors, as well as winning the physics category.

As we’ve reported previously, the Dance Your PhD contest was established in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. It was previously sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and is now sponsored by AI company Primer, where Bohannon is director of science. Bohannon told Slate in 2011 that he came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to get a group of stressed-out PhD students in the middle of defending their theses to let off a little steam. So he put together a dance party at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, including a contest for whichever candidate could best explain their thesis topics with interpretive dance.

The contest was such a hit that Bohannon started getting emails asking when the next such contest would be—and Dance Your PhD has continued ever since. It’s now in its thirteenth year. There are four broad categories: physics, chemistry, biology, and social science, with a fairly liberal interpretation of what topics fall under each.

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#dance-your-phd, #gaming-culture, #physics, #science

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SpaceX set for its third major Starship flight test on Wednesday

Starship SN10 on the pad on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Enlarge / Starship SN10 on the pad on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

SpaceX may launch its third full-scale Starship prototype—named Serial Number 10, or SN10—as early as Wednesday from South Texas.

With this vehicle, the company will seek to successfully land the Starship vehicle where the last two versions, SN8 and SN9, each failed in the final seconds of the mission to stabilize themselves for a controlled landing. Both flights ended in fire at the landing site. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk has estimated about a 60 percent chance of success this time—which suggests the probability is a little bit higher than that, given his penchant for setting expectations.

Similar to the previous two flights, which took place in December and early February, SpaceX will launch its Starship vehicle to an altitude of about 10 km under the power of three Raptor engines. There, it will switch from its main propellant tanks to smaller ones near the top of the vehicle and perform a “belly flop” maneuver, reorienting itself to simulate returning from orbit. This allows Starship to both bleed off velocity as well as ensure its reusability without a massive heat shield.

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#dearmoon, #science, #spacex, #starship

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Merck/J&J deal may help US get enough vaccine for all adults by end of May

An older man in a suit speaks at a podium with a presidential seal.

Enlarge / US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the government’s pandemic response, including the recently announced partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Merck to produce more Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) looks on at the White House in Washington, DC on March 2, 2021. (credit: Getty | Jim Watson)

With a White House-brokered deal, vaccine giant Merck has agreed to help Johnson & Johnson boost its COVID-19 vaccine production, which is woefully behind on its manufacturing schedule.

President Joe Biden announced today that, with the new deal, the country is on track to have enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to vaccinate every adult in the country by the end of May—two months ahead of earlier plans.

“About three weeks ago, we were able to say that we’ll have enough vaccine supply for adults by the end of July,” the president said in an afternoon address. “And I’m pleased to announce today, as a consequence of the stepped-up process that I’ve ordered and just outlined, this country will have enough vaccine supply—I’ll say it again—for every adult in America by the end of May. By the end of May. That’s progress—important progress.”

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#biden, #covid-19, #johnson-johnson, #science, #vaccine

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Cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test

An aquatic invertebrate similar to a squid floats in an aquarium.

Enlarge / A common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, in the Marine Resources Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA. A new study finds the cuttlefish can delay gratification—a key feature of the famous “marshmallow test.” (credit: Alexandra Schnell)

Certain species show a remarkable ability to delay gratification, notably great apes, corvids, and parrots, while other species do not (such as rodents, chickens, and pigeons.) Add the cuttlefish to the former category.

Scientists administered an adapted version of the Stanford marshmallow test to cuttlefish and found the cephalopods could delay gratification—that is, wait a bit for preferred prey rather than settling for a less desirable prey. Cuttlefish also performed better in a subsequent learning test, according to a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It’s the first time such a link between self-control and intelligence has been found in a non-mammalian species.

As we’ve previously reported, the late Walter Mischel’s landmark behavioral study involved 600 kids between the ages of four and six, all culled from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. He would give each child a marshmallow and give them the option of eating it immediately if they chose. But if they could wait 15 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow as a reward. Then Mischel would leave the room, and a hidden video camera would tape what happened next.

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#animal-behavior, #animal-cognition, #biology, #cephalopods, #convergent-evolution, #cuttlefish, #marshmallow-test, #science

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“Locked” for 300 years: Virtual unfolding has now revealed this letter’s secrets

In 1697, a man named Jacques Sennacque wrote a letter to his cousin, a French merchant named Pierre Le Pers, requesting a certified death certificate for another man named Daniel Le Pers (presumably also a relation). Sennacque sealed the letter with an intricate folding method known as “letterlocking,” a type of physical cryptography, to safeguard the contents from prying eyes. That letter was never delivered or opened. More than 300 years later, researchers have virtually “unlocked” the letter to reveal its contents for the first time, right down to the watermark in the shape of a bird. They described their results in a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

Co-author Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at MIT Libraries, coined the term “letterlocking” after discovering such letters while a fellow at the Vatican Secret Archives in 2000. The Vatican letters dated back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and they featured strange slits and corners that had been sliced off. Dambrogio realized that the letters had originally been folded in an ingenious manner, essentially “locked” by inserting a slice of the paper into a slit, then sealing it with wax. It would not have been possible to open the letter without ripping that slice of paper—evidence that the letter had been tampered with.

Dambrogio has been studying the practice of letterlocking ever since, often creating her own models to showcase different techniques. The practice dates back to the 13th century—at least in Western history—and there are many different folding and locking techniques that emerged over the centuries. Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, and Marie Antoinette are among the famous personages known to have employed letterlocking for their correspondence.

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#digital-humanities, #gaming-culture, #history, #physics, #science, #virtual-unfolding, #x-ray-microtomography

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Biden administration puts a price on carbon

Image of exhaust from power plants.

Enlarge (credit: Picture Alliance / Getty Images)

On Friday, the Biden administration announced it had fulfilled the requirements of one of the executive orders issued on the very first day of his presidency: determining what’s called the “social cost of carbon.” This figure tries to capture the cumulative economic value achieved by investing in limiting carbon emissions now. As such, carbon’s social cost plays a key role in informing the cost/benefit analysis of any government policy or regulation that influences carbon emissions.

The government is required to attach a value to the social cost of carbon, which typically requires the consideration of extensive economic and climate research. But the Trump administration had ended the process of updating the value after having chosen an artificially low one. Given a 30-day deadline to come up with a new one, the Biden administration has chosen to adjust the last pre-Trump value for inflation and use that until it can do a more detailed analysis of how the research landscape has changed over the last four years.

The net result is a dramatically higher price on carbon that will enable far more aggressive regulatory action for at least the next four years.

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#biden, #climate-change, #energy-policy, #policy, #science, #social-cost-of-carbon

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Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck explains why the company needs a bigger rocket, and why it’s going public to build it

Rocket Lab packed a ton of news into Monday to kick off this week: It’s going public via a SPAC merger, for one, and it’s also building a new, larger launch vehicle called Neutron to support heavier payloads. I spoke to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck about why it’s building Neutron now, and why it’s also choosing to go public at the same time. Unsurprisingly, the two things are tightly linked.

“We have the benefit of flying Electron [Rocket Lab’s current, smaller launch vehicle] for a lot of customers. and we also have a Space Systems Division that supplies components into a number of spacecraft, including some of the mega constellations,” Beck told me. “So we have very strong relationships with, with a lot of different customers, and I think we get unique insight on where the industry is going, and where the where the pain points are.”

Those pain points informed Neutron, which is a two-stage reusable rocket. Rocket Lab already broke with Beck’s past thinking on what the launch market needed by developing partial reusability for Electron, and it’s going further still with Neutron, which will include a first-stage that returns to Earth and lands propulsively on a platform stationed at sea, much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But the market has shifted since Rocket Lab built Electron – in part because of what it helped unlock.

“The creation of Neutron came from from two discrete factors: One, the current need in the marketplace today. Also, if you project it forward a little bit, you know, Neutron will deliver the vast majority – over 90% of – all the satellites that, that are around or in some form of planning. And if you look at those satellites, 80% of them are mega constellations, by volume. So, in talking with, with a bunch of different customers, it was really, really apparent that a mega constellation-building machine is what the market really needs.”

Beck says that combining that market needs with a historical analysis that showed most large launch vehicles have taken off half-full resulted in them arriving at Neutron’s 8 metric ton (just over 17,600 lbs) total cargo mass capacity. it should put it in the sweet spot where it takes off full nearly every time, but also can still meet the mass requirement needs of just about every satellite customer out there, both now and in the future.

“We’re covered in scars and battle wounds from the development of Electron,” “The one thing that that Elon and I agree on very strongly is, by far the hardest part of a rocket is actually scaling it – getting to orbit is hard, but actually scaling manufacturing is ridiculously hard. Now, the good news is that we’ve been through all of that, and manufacturing ins’t just as product on the floor; it’s ERP systems, quality systems, finance, supply chain and so on and so forth. So all that infrastructure is is built.”

In addition to the factory and manufacturing processes and infrastructure, Beck notes that Electron and Neutron will share size-agnostic elements like computing and avionics, and much of the work done to get Electron certified for launch will also apply to Neutron, realizing further cost and time savings relative to what was required to get Electron up and flying. Beck also said that the process of making Electron has just made Rocket Lab extremely attuned to costs overall, and that will definitely translate to how competitive it can be with Neutron.

“Because electron has a $7.5 million sticker price, we’ve just been forced into finding ways to do things hyper efficiently,” he said. “If you’ve got a $7.5 million sticker price, you can’t spend $2 million on flight safety analysis, payload environmental analysis, etc – you just can’t do that. With a $60 or $80 million vehicle that you can amortize that. So we’ve kind of been forced into doing everything hyper, hyper efficiently. And it’s not just systems; it includes fundamental launch vehicle design. So when we apply all of those learnings to nNutron, we really feel like we’re gonna bring a highly competitive product to the marketplace.”

As for the SPAC merger, Beck said that the decision to go public now really boils down to two reasons: The first is to raise the capital required to build Neutron, as well as fund “other” projects. The other is to acquire the kind of “public currency” to pursue the kinds of acquisitions in terms of business that Rocket Lab is hoping to achieve. Why specifically pursue a SPAC merger instead of a traditional IPO? Efficiency and a fixed capital target, essentially.

“We were actually sort of methodically stepping towards an IPO at the time and, we were just sort of minding our own business, but it was clear we were pursued very vigorously by a tremendous number of potential SPAC partners,” Beck told me. “Ultimately, on the balance of timelines, this just really accelerated our ability to do the things we want to do. Because, yes, as you pointed out, that this kind of streamlined the process, but also provided certainty around proceeds.”

The SPAC transaction, once complete will result in Rocket Lab having approximately $750 million in cash to work with. One of the advantages of the SPAC route is that how much you raise via the public listing isn’t reliant on how the stock performs on the day – Beck and company know and can plan on that figure becoming available to them, barring any unexpected and unlikely barriers to the transaction’s closing.

“Having all the capital we need, sitting there ready to go, that really sets us up for a strong execution,” he said. “If you look at Rocket Lab’s history, we’ve only raised spend a couple of hundred million dollars to date, within all the things we’ve done. So capitalizing the company with $750 million – I would expect big things at that point.”


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#aerospace, #ceo, #computing, #electron, #elon, #finance, #launch, #manufacturing, #peter-beck, #rocket, #rocket-lab, #rocket-launch, #rocketry, #science, #spac, #space, #spacex, #supply-chain, #tc

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Blue Origin’s massive New Glenn rocket is delayed for years. What went wrong?

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, speaks during the 32nd Space Symposium in 2016. A few months later, the company would formally announce development of the huge New Glenn rocket.

Enlarge / Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, speaks during the 32nd Space Symposium in 2016. A few months later, the company would formally announce development of the huge New Glenn rocket. (credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the fall of 2017, shortly after he became chief executive officer of Blue Origin, Bob Smith received an extensive briefing on the state of the New Glenn rocket program. The projected launch date for the massive, reusable rocket was 2020, he was told.

As Smith assessed the progress on New Glenn to date and drew upon his long experience at Honeywell Aerospace, he soon came to the conclusion that this launch date was unreasonable. “This is not a 2020 launch program,” he said at this meeting. “This is a 2022 program, at best.”

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not present for this, but his response afterward was that he would absolutely not accept any revision to the launch date for the large orbital rocket. Blue Origin should be optimistic with its projections, Bezos said. And then they should meet those projections.

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#blue-origin, #new-glenn, #science

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Archaeologists discover “Lamborghini” of chariots near ruins of Pompeii

A four-wheeled ceremonial chariot discovered by archaeologists near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Enlarge / A four-wheeled ceremonial chariot discovered by archaeologists near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed an elaborately decorated, intact four-wheeled ceremonial chariot near the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 AD, BBC News reports. The archaeologists believe the chariot was likely used in festivities and parades—possibly even for wedding rituals like transporting the bride to her new home, given the erotic nature of some of the decorative motifs.

The find is extraordinary both for its remarkable preservation and because it is a relatively rare object. “I was astounded,” Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on traffic in Pompeii, told NPR. “Many of the vehicles [previously discovered] are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car. This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time.”

Other archaeologists weighed in on Twitter. “My jaw is on the floor just now!” tweeted Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. “Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery,” Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge tweeted in an extensive thread about the surprising find. “The details are extraordinary.”

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#archaeology, #history, #pompeii, #science

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B.1.1.7 variant now 10% of US cases—and cases are once again ticking up

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff participate in a moment of silence and candle light ceremony at sundown with 500 candles for the 500,000 dead from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the South Portico at the White House on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff participate in a moment of silence and candle light ceremony at sundown with 500 candles for the 500,000 dead from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the South Portico at the White House on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | The Washington Post)

After weeks of dramatic decline, COVID-19 cases in the US have hit a plateau—and in some places are ticking up. Officials are sounding the alarm in hopes of averting a fourth surge in the devastating pandemic.

“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing last week. Though cases are down from their astronomical peak in early to mid January, the overall numbers are still quite high, matching averages seen in late October, at the base of the holiday surge.

“Things are tenuous,” she noted. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

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#b-1-1-7, #cases, #cdc, #covid-19, #fauci, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #variants, #walensky

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The 2008 moment when triumph turned to torment for SpaceX

The launch of Flight Three of the Falcon 1 rocket looked promising at the beginning.

Enlarge / The launch of Flight Three of the Falcon 1 rocket looked promising at the beginning. (credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

This is an excerpt from chapter eight of the book LIFTOFF: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by our own Eric Berger. The book will be published on March 2, 2021. In this excerpt, it is the summer of 2008, and SpaceX has attempted to launch the Falcon 1 rocket twice already, failing both times. As the company’s engineers prepare for a third launch attempt from tiny Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, time and money are running out…

By the time of Flight Three, the SpaceXers had grown accustomed to their visits out to the central Pacific Kwajalein Atoll for launches. Over the course of three years, they learned how to survive in the tropical environment and even enjoy island life. Some of these lessons were hard won, however.

Fairly early on during the Kwaj experience, engineer Brian Bjelde missed the evening boat back to Kwajalein. It happened. He and a few others slept under the stars, passing a perfectly pleasant night. But the next morning, Bjelde lacked a change of clothes. So he grabbed a T-shirt from a package of Falcon 1 swag items that had shown up in Omelek. The vacuum-packed, white T-shirt may have been wrinkled, but at least it was clean, and it kept the sun off his back. Bjelde went through massive quantities of sunscreen every day—any piece of skin exposed to the tropical sun was covered. Throughout that day, as he slathered himself in it, Bjelde noticed the T-shirt’s wrinkles straightening beneath the island’s heat and humidity.

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#falcon-1, #features, #liftoff, #science, #spacex

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Pure nonsense: Debunking the latest attack on renewable energy

Image of wind turbines.

Enlarge / Miraculously, the video at issue did not accuse wind turbines of causing cancer. (credit: Pictures Alliance / Getty Images)

Our editor-in-chief obviously hates me. That’s the only conclusion I could reach after he asked me to watch an abysmal attack video targeting renewable energy—a video produced by a notorious source of right-wing misinformation.

But despite its bizarre mishmash of irrelevancies and misdirection, the video has been widely shared on social media. Perhaps you’ve seen it, or maybe you just to want to be ready when a family member brings it up in an argument. What, if anything, is true in this farrago of bad faith?

Yes, it’s awful

The video is hosted by “Prager University.” My only previous exposure to the organization’s videos had been this excellent one on the Confederacy by Colonel Ty Seidule, a professor of History at West Point who has since been placed on the Pentagon commission that will examine bases named after Confederate generals. Seemed legit!

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#energy, #green, #renewable-energy, #science, #solar-power, #wind-power

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Rocket Lab debuts plans for a new, larger, reusable rocket for launching satellite constellations

Because news of its SPAC-fueled public market debut wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab also unveiled a new class of rocket it has in development on Monday. The launch vehicle, called Neutron, will be able to carry 8 metric tons (around 18,000 lbs) to orbit, far exceeding the cargo capacity of Rocket Lab’s current Electron vehicle, which can host only around 660 lbs. Neutron will also have a fully reusable first-stage, designed to launch on an ocean landing platform, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.

Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be designed to service increased demand from customers launching large multi-satellite constellations. The heavier lift will mean that it can take more small satellites up at one time to get those constellations in orbit more quickly. Its cargo rating also means it should be able to deliver up to 98% of all currently-forecasted spacecraft launching through 2029, according to Rocket Lab, and provide resupply services to the International Space Station. Rocket Lab also says it’ll be capable of human spaceflight missions, indicating an ambition to make it the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.

Neutron could significantly expand Rocket Lab’s customer base, and it’ll also improve costs and economics vs. what Electron can do now, thanks to a design focus don efficiency and reusability. The rocket will launch from Rocket Lab’s Wallops, Virginia facility, and since there’s already a launch pad in place for it, the company expects it’ll be able to fly Neutron for the first time by 2024. In addition to its LA-based HQ and the Wallops launch site, Rocket Lab anticipates it’ll be building a new Neutron production facility somewhere in the U.S. to build the new rocket at scale.

While it won’t have the launch capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it’s still intended to be a rocket that can also carry smaller payloads to the Moon and even deep space beyond. The medium-lift category in general is generating a lot of interest right now, given the projections in the amount and variety of constellations that both private and public organization are expected to put into orbit over the next decade. Constellations are offering advantages in terms of cost and coverage for everything from communications to Earth observation. Another rocket startup, Relativity Space, just unveiled similar plans for a larger launch vehicle to complement its first small rocket.

#aerospace, #electron, #exit, #falcon, #falcon-9, #international-space-station, #louisiana, #outer-space, #relativity-space, #rocket-lab, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spaceport, #spacex, #startups, #united-states, #virginia

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Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

#aerospace, #blue-origin, #ceo, #funding, #gitai, #international-space-station, #nanoracks, #nasa, #outer-space, #recent-funding, #robot, #robotics, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #startups, #tc, #united-states

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Atlantic currents seem to have started fading last century

Image of a white, meandering band separating purple areas from grey ones.

Enlarge / The Gulf Stream, as imaged from space. (credit: NASA images courtesy Norman Kuring, MODIS Ocean Team.)

The major currents in the Atlantic Ocean help control the climate by moving warm surface waters north and south from the equator, with colder deep water pushing back toward the equator from the poles. The presence of that warm surface water plays a key role in moderating the climate in the North Atlantic, giving places like the UK a far more moderate climate than its location—the equivalent of northern Ontario—would otherwise dictate.

But the temperature differences that drive that flow are expected to fade as our climate continues to warm. A bit over a decade ago, measurements of the currents seemed to be indicating that temperatures were dropping, suggesting that we might be seeing these predictions come to pass. But a few years later, it became clear that there was just too much year-to-year variation for us to tell.

Over time, however, researchers have figured out ways of getting indirect measures of the currents, using material that is influenced by the strengths of the water’s flow. These measures have now let us look back on the current’s behavior over the past several centuries. And the results confirm that the strength of the currents has dropped dramatically over the last century.

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#currents, #earth-science, #gulf-stream, #oceanography, #science

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Perseverance’s eyes see a different Mars

Perseverance's two Mastcam-Z imagers (in the gray boxes) are part of the rover's remote sensing mast.

Enlarge / Perseverance’s two Mastcam-Z imagers (in the gray boxes) are part of the rover’s remote sensing mast. (credit: NASA)

The seven minutes of terror are over. The parachute deployed; the skycrane rockets fired. Robot truck goes ping! Perseverance, a rover built by humans to do science 128 million miles away, is wheels-down on Mars. Phew.

Percy has now opened its many eyes and taken a look around.

The rover is studded with a couple dozen cameras—25, if you count the two on the drone helicopter. Most of them help the vehicle drive safely. A few peer closely and intensely at ancient Martian rocks and sands, hunting for signs that something once lived there. Some of the cameras see colors and textures almost exactly the way the people who built them do. But they also see more. And less. The rover’s cameras imagine colors beyond the ones that human eyes and brains can come up with. And yet human brains still have to make sense of the pictures they send home.

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#mars, #nasa, #perseverance, #science, #solar-system

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Astra awarded NASA launch contract for storm observation satellites

Astra, the Alameda-based space launch startup that recently announced its intent to go public via a SPAC merger, has secured a contract to deliver six cube satellites to space on behalf of NASA. Astra stands to be paid $7.95 million by the agency for fulfilment of the contract. This will be a key test of Astra’s responsive rocket capabilities, with a planned three-launch mission profile spanning up to four months, currently targeting sometime between January 8 and July 31 of 2022.

The satellites are for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) mission, which is a science mission that will collect data about hurricanes and their formation, including temperature, pressure and humidity readings. Like the extremely long, tortured-for-an-acronym name of the mission suggests, the data will be collected using a small constellation of satellites, each roughly the size of a shoebox.\

Astra completed its second of three planned launches designed to ultimately achieve orbit late last year, and exceeded its own expectations by reaching space and nearly achieving orbit. The company said that based on the data it collected from that mission, the final remaining barriers to actually making orbit are all fixable via changes to its software. Based on that, Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp said that it believes it’s now ready to begin flying commercial payloads.

Kemp was formerly CTO of NASA, and has co-founded a number of technology companies over the years as well. This latest NASA mission isn’t its first contracted launch – far from it, in fact, since the company has said it currently has more than 50 total missions on its slate from both private and government customers, with a total value of over $150 million in revenue.

#aerospace, #astra, #ceo, #chris-kemp, #cto, #nasa, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #satellite, #science, #small-satellite, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications

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We’ll likely have a 3rd COVID vaccine soon; J&J vaccine clears last hurdle

A sign at the Johnson & Johnson campus on August 26, 2019 in Irvine, California.

Enlarge / A sign at the Johnson & Johnson campus on August 26, 2019 in Irvine, California. (credit: Getty | Mario Tama)

After a day-long meeting Friday, an advisory panel for the US Food and Drug Administration voted 22 to 0 to recommend issuing an Emergency Use Authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot, refrigerator-stable COVID-19 vaccine.

If the FDA accepts the panel’s recommendation and grants the EUA—which it likely will—the country will have a third COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use. Earlier this week, FDA scientists released their review of the vaccine, endorsing authorization.

Agency watchers expect the FDA to move quickly on the decision, possibly granting the EUA as early as tomorrow, February 27. The FDA moved that fast in granting EUAs for the two previously authorized vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines.

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#covid-19, #eua, #fda, #infectious-disease, #johnson-johnson, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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A 3rd shot? A new booster? Vaccine makers race to trials to beat variants

COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Madrid on Feb. 26, 2021.

Enlarge / COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Madrid on Feb. 26, 2021. (credit: Getty | NurPhoto)

With worrisome coronavirus variants seemingly emerging and spreading everywhere, lead vaccine makers are wasting no time in trying to get ahead of the growing threat.

This week, Moderna and partners Pfizer and BioNTech announced they have kicked off new vaccine clinical trials aimed at boosting the effectiveness of their authorized vaccines against new, concerning SARS-CoV-2 variants—primarily B.1.351, a variant first identified in South Africa.

In a set of studies published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, both the Moderna mRNA vaccine and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine spurred antibodies in vaccinated people that could neutralize the B.1.351 variant. But the levels of those neutralizing antibodies were significantly lower than what was seen against past versions of the virus. (Both vaccines performed well against the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, which is expected to become the dominant strain in the US next month.)

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#biontech, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #moderna, #mutation, #pandemic, #pfizer, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine, #variant

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Rocket Report: Cornwall says ‘LOL, no’ to space tourism, Korean rocket on track

We won't be seeing New Glenn take flight for nearly two years, at least.

Enlarge / We won’t be seeing New Glenn take flight for nearly two years, at least. (credit: Blue Origin)

Welcome to Edition 3.34 of the Rocket Report! I apologize for the unplanned hiatus last week. The Rocket Report’s Houston-based author lacked power until Wednesday night amidst a massive winter storm, and I had no reliable Internet until Friday afternoon. We still had no hot water at our house, but at least we’re no longer freezing. We’re back just in time to spew all manner of spicy launch news this week.

As always, Ars welcomes reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

KSLV-2 rocket on track for 2022 launch. As part of its budget for 2021 space activities, South Korea will spend $553 million for satellites, rockets, and other equipment. SpaceNews reports this funding will keep the country’s development of its natively build KSLV-2 rocket, nicknamed Nuri, on schedule for a launch next year.

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#rocket-report, #science

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CDC unveils site to help you find COVID-19 vaccine—but only in 4 states

A registered nurse practitioner holds up a sign and a flag asking for another patient to dose with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine as well as a more vaccine doses at a vaccination site in Seattle, Washington on January 24, 2021.

Enlarge / A registered nurse practitioner holds up a sign and a flag asking for another patient to dose with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine as well as a more vaccine doses at a vaccination site in Seattle, Washington on January 24, 2021. (credit: Getty | Grant Hendsley)

In its efforts to help Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is quietly working on a new website that will let people see every location in their community offering COVID-19 vaccinations, how many shots each of those locations has for the current day, and provide links to set up vaccination appointments.

That’s the ideal, at least; there’s a lot of work to do to get there.

Right now, the site—vaccinefinder.org—only has the full lists of vaccine providers for four states—Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee. Those lists include providers at hospitals, clinics, public health centers, doctor’s offices, drug stores, and grocery store pharmacies.

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#covid-19, #infectious-disease, #moderna-cdc, #pandemic, #pfizer, #science, #vaccine, #vaccinefinder

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The genetics of relatively healthy obesity

Image of an overweight individual

Enlarge (credit: Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)

In general, obesity is linked with a large range of health problems—for most people, at least. But for a substantial minority of those who are overweight, obesity is accompanied by indications of decent health, with no signs of impending diabetes or cardiovascular disease. These cases have probably received unwarranted attention; who doesn’t want to convince themselves that they’re an exception to an unfortunate rule, after all? But the phenomenon is real, and it’s worth understanding.

To that end, a large international team of researchers has looked into whether some of these cases might be the product of genetic influences. And simply by using existing data, the team found 61 instances where a location in our genomes is associated with both elevated obesity and signs of good health, cardiovascular or otherwise.

Good and bad

The team’s method of searching the genome is remarkably straightforward, and it relies on the fact that many research groups have already done so much work to look for factors associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular health. This work includes searching for areas of the genome associated with measures of obesity, like body mass index, body fat percentage, and waist-to-hip ratio. Insulin and glucose levels have also been studied genetically, as these numbers give some indication of how the body is responding to weight and food intake. Cardiovascular health measures, including things like cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure, have also been explored.

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#biology, #genetics, #genomics, #health, #medicine, #obesity, #science

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Blue Origin pushes New Glenn orbital rocket’s first flight to Q4 2022

Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin published an updated timeline for the first flight of New Glenn, the orbital rocket it’s building to complement its existing New Shepard suborbital space launch vehicle. The company is now targeting Q4 2022 – a slippage of roughly a year from the prior stated timeline of sometime towards the end of 2021. The main cause, per Blue Origin? Space Force passing on using New Glenn to launch national security payloads during a recent contract bid process.

Blue Origin said in a blog post that the “schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers,” and specifically says it “follows the recent Space Force decision to not select New Glenn for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement (LSP).” Those awards were announced last August, and the two winners were the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX, who prevailed over Blue Origin, and also Northrop Grumman. The launch service contracts that make up the awards begin in 2022, so it makes sense why Blue Origin had been pushing for a first launch of New Glenn by the end of this year in order to meet the needs of Space Force.

While it may not be under the same time pressure without access to those contracts, it’s still making “major progress” towards New Glenn and the facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida from which it’ll launch, according to the company. Blue Origin shared tweets showing off some of its progress, including work on the New Glenn rocket factory, testing facility and Launch Complex 36. It also said it’s put more than $2.5 billion into the facilities and infrastructure that will support its eventual launches.

#aerospace, #blue-origin, #florida, #jeff-bezos, #new-shepard, #northrop-grumman, #outer-space, #science, #space, #space-force, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #united-launch-alliance

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Live chat tomorrow: Ars Texas on living through last week’s arctic adventure

Live chat tomorrow: Ars Texas on living through last week’s arctic adventure

Enlarge

Most of Texas endured record or near-record low temperatures last week as a late-season (for Texas, at least) arctic cold front sagged down across the state. In the week leading up to the event, forecasters warned residents to prepare for the kind of cold common in more northern climates but exceedingly rare for most of us down here—temperatures in the teens or even high single-digits (think lows around -12 to -10 degrees C for you folks who don’t use Freedom Units)—and even (gasp!) snow. Along the Gulf Coast where Ars Space Editor Eric Berger and I live, the combination of low temperatures and wintry precipitation was a once-in-30-years kind of event. (Indeed, the last time it got this cold here was in December 1989.)

The cold was expected, and while it’s unpleasant as hell to deal with in a city built for summer heat and not winter cold, it would have been manageable on its own. But what we weren’t expecting—well, most of us, at least—was having to deal with this rare low-temperature excursion without power or heat. As the front plowed across the state on the evening of Valentine’s Day, demand on the state’s power grid spiked to a record 69GW as residents turned on heaters to combat temperatures sliding down into the teens. (That level of power demand beat even the predicted extreme weather peak of 67GW and was higher than the previous February 2011 cold-weather-demand peak of 59GW.) As demand spiked, the state’s electrical grid operators had to take emergency measures to stave off total collapse.

And thus began a week of freezing misery for more than 4 million Texans who had to endure the coldest weather in decades without any power or heat, in homes designed to release summer heat rather than keep it in. The majority of the power-loss issues occurred in Houston.

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#ars-live, #ars-texas, #februrary-2021-freeze, #live-chat, #science

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Lone high-energy neutrino likely came from shredded star in distant galaxy

The remains of a shredded star formed an accretion disk around the black hole whose powerful tidal forces ripped it apart. This created a cosmic particle accelerator spewing out fast subatomic particles.

Enlarge / The remains of a shredded star formed an accretion disk around the black hole whose powerful tidal forces ripped it apart. This created a cosmic particle accelerator spewing out fast subatomic particles. (credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab)

Roughly 700 million years ago, a tiny subatomic particle was born in a galaxy far, far away, and began its journey across the vast expanses of our universe. That neutrino finally reached the Earth’s South Pole last October, setting off detectors buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice. A few months earlier, a telescope in California had recorded a bright glow emanating from the friction of that same distant galaxy—evidence of a so-called “tidal disruption event” (TDE), most likely the result of a star being shredded by a supermassive black hole.

According to two new papers (here and here) published in the journal Nature Astronomy, that lone neutrino was likely born from the TDE, which serves as a cosmic-scale particle accelerator near the center of the distant galaxy, spewing out high-energy subatomic particles as the star’s matter is consumed by the black hole. This finding also sheds light on the origin of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, a question that has puzzled astronomers for decades.

“The origin of cosmic high-energy neutrinos is unknown, primarily because they are notoriously hard to pin down,” said co-author Sjoert van Velzen, a postdoc at New York University at the time of the discovery. “This result would be only the second time high-energy neutrinos have been traced back to their source.”

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#astronomy, #black-holes, #multi-messenger-astronomy, #physics, #science, #tidal-forces

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Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine safe and effective, FDA review concludes

A sign at the Johnson & Johnson campus on August 26, 2019 in Irvine, California.

Enlarge / A sign at the Johnson & Johnson campus on August 26, 2019 in Irvine, California. (credit: Getty | Mario Tama)

Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine is effective and has a “favorable safety profile,” according to scientists at the Food and Drug Administration.

The endorsement comes out of a review released by the regulatory agency Wednesday. The FDA has been looking over data on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine since February 4, when the company applied for Emergency Use Authorization. The agency’s green light is a positive sign ahead of this Friday, February 26, when the FDA will convene an advisory committee to make a recommendation on whether the FDA should grant the EUA. The FDA isn’t obligated to follow the committee’s recommendation, but it usually does.

If Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is granted an EUA, it will become the third COVID-19 vaccine available for use in the US. The other two vaccines are both two-dose, mRNA-based vaccines, one made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and the other from Moderna, which developed its vaccine in collaboration with researchers at the US National Institutes of Health.

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#covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #johnson-johnson, #pandemic, #science, #vaccine

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D-Wave’s hardware outperforms a classic computer

D-Wave’s hardware outperforms a classic computer

(credit: D-Wave)

Early on in D-Wave’s history, the company made bold claims about its quantum annealer outperforming algorithms run on traditional CPUs. Those claims turned out to be premature, as improvements to these algorithms pulled the traditional hardware back in front. Since then, the company has been far more circumspect about its performance claims, even as it brought out newer generations of hardware.

But in the run-up to the latest hardware, the company apparently became a bit more interested in performance again. And it recently got together with Google scientists to demonstrate a significant boost in performance compared to a classical algorithm, with the gap growing as the problem became complex—although the company’s scientists were very upfront about the prospects of finding a way to boost classical hardware further. Still, there are a lot of caveats even beyond that, so it’s worth taking a detailed look at what the company did.

Magnets, how do they flip?

D-Wave’s system is based on a large collection of quantum devices that are connected to some of their neighbors. Each device can have its state set separately, and the devices are then given the chance to influence their neighbors as the system moves through different states and individual devices change their behavior. These transitions are the equivalent of performing operations. And because of the quantum nature of these devices, the hardware seems to be able to “tunnel” to new states, even if the only route between them involves high-energy states that are impossible to reach.

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#computer-science, #d-wave, #quantum-computing, #quantum-mechanics, #science, #xeon

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China officially plans to move ahead with super-heavy Long March 9 rocket

China has officially approved the development of a super heavy lift rocket, named the Long March 9, or CZ-9 vehicle. The decision was revealed on Wednesday by Chinese state television.

In a snippet from an interview with CCTV, the deputy director of the China National Space Agency, Wu Yanhua, said the main purpose of the new rocket is for any “crewed lunar landing or crewed Mars landing missions” the country may undertake.

According to Chinese officials, the country will target the year 2030 for a debut launch. This is consistent with previous timeline estimates. The rocket is planned to have a lift capacity of 140 metric tons, with the capability of sending 50 or more tons into lunar orbit. It would be an immense vehicle, with a 10-meter diameter core and 5-meter side boosters. China would also like to eventually make the rocket, or at least part of it, reusable.

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#china, #long-march-9, #science

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Scientists create new class of “Turing patterns” in colonies of E. coli

Scientists have shown how a new class of Turing patterns work by using synthetic biology to create them from scratch in the lab.

Shortly before his death, Alan Turing published a provocative paper outlining his theory for how complex, irregular patterns emerge in nature—his version of how the leopard got its spots. These so-called Turing patterns have been observed in physics and chemistry, and there is growing evidence that they also occur in biological systems. Now a team of Spanish scientists has managed to tweak E. coli in the laboratory so that the colonies exhibit branching Turing patterns, according to a recent paper published in the journal Synthetic Biology.

“By using synthetic biology, we have a unique opportunity to interrogate biological structures and their generative potential,” said co-author Ricard Solé of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “Are the observed mechanisms found in nature to create patterns the only solutions to generate them, or are there alternatives?” (Synthetic biology typically involves stitching together stretches of DNA—which can be found in other organisms, and be entirely novel—and inserting into an organism’s genome.)

In synthetic biology, scientists typically stitch together long stretches of DNA and insert them into an organism’s genome. These synthesized pieces of DNA could be genes that are found in other organisms or they could be entirely novel.

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#biochemistry, #biophysics, #e-coli, #physics, #science, #symmetry-breaking, #synthetic-biology, #turing-patterns

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Garden-variety germs may explode in COVID’s wake, study suggests

Masked girls in matching uniforms wait for school to begin.

Enlarge / Young children go back to kindergarten following COVID-19 lockdown. (credit: Getty | TPG)

In our cushy COVID bubbles, our immune systems may be getting soft.

Physical distancing, lockdowns, masking, and spirited sanitizing all mean we are coming into contact with fewer garden-variety germs than normal. This year’s flu season was basically cancelled.

While that may seem like a welcome reprieve from seasonal ailments and pesky sniffles, experts fear that our immune systems may be losing their defensive edge in the lull. And with the usual microscopic suspects lying in wait for our return to some sense of normalcy, it could mean that nasty bursts of common colds and flu-like illnesses are in our post-COVID futures—ones that may not be avoidable even if we carry on with some of our COVID precautions.

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#common-cold, #immunity, #infectious-disease, #influenza, #pandemic, #rhinovirus, #sars-cov-2, #school-children, #science

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Attack of the Murder Hornets is a nature doc shot through horror/sci-fi lens

Extreme close-up photograph of terrifying insect.

Enlarge / “What are you looking at?” The Asian Giant Hornet, aka a “murder hornet,” is not to be trifled with. (credit: Gary Alpert)

In November 2019, a beekeeper in Blaine, Washington, named Ted McFall was horrified to discover thousands of tiny mutilated bodies littering the ground: an entire colony of his honeybees had been brutally decapitated. The culprit: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species native to southeast Asia and parts of the Russian far East. Somehow, these so-called “murder hornets” had found their way to the Pacific Northwest, where they posing a dire ecological threat to North American honeybee populations.

The story of the quest to track and eradicate the hornets before their numbers became overwhelming is the subject of a new documentary: Attack of the Murder Hornets, now streaming on Discovery+. Featuring genuine suspense, a colorful cast of characters crossing socioeconomic lines, and a tone that draws on classic horror and science fiction movies, it’s one of the best nature documentaries you’re likely to see this year.

Asian giant hornets are what’s known as apex predators, sporting enormous mandibles, the better to rip the heads off their prey and remove the tasty thoraxes (which include muscles that power the bee’s wings for flying and movement). A single hornet can decapitate 20 bees in one minute, and just a handful can wipe out 30,000 bees in 90 minutes. The hornet has a venomous, extremely painful sting—and its stinger is long enough to puncture traditional beekeeping suits. Conrad Berube, a beekeeper and entomologist who had the misfortune to be stung seven times while exterminating a murder hornet nest, told The New York Times, “It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh.” And while Japanese honeybees, for example, have evolved defenses against the murder hornet, North American honeybees have not, as the slaughter of McFall’s colony aptly demonstrated.

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#discovery-plus, #documentaries, #ecology, #gaming-culture, #honeybees, #invasive-species, #murder-hornets, #science

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A politician who said politicians shouldn’t run NASA wants to run NASA

Then Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla., at bottom) undergoing zero-gravity training onboard a KC-135 along with other astronaut trainees in 1985. On his right is schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with seven other crew members in the <em>Challenger</em> disaster.

Enlarge / Then Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla., at bottom) undergoing zero-gravity training onboard a KC-135 along with other astronaut trainees in 1985. On his right is schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with seven other crew members in the Challenger disaster. (credit: Bettman | Getty Images)

On Monday, a rumor that has simmered in Washington for several weeks boiled to the surface—that former US Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, is a leading contender to become the next NASA administrator.

The publication Breaking Defense publicly shared the rumor on Twitter, noting that Nelson has a “strong” relationship with President Biden and understands how Congress works. Nelson, who is 78 years old, lost his 2018 bid for reelection to the Senate. He had served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives and three terms in the upper house.

Two sources told Ars that Nelson is pushing hard to become administrator and is leveraging his friendly relationship with Biden to do so. “This is more than a rumor,” one source said. However, it is also not a done deal, as after the rumor broke, there was pushback in the space community about the appointment of Nelson to the position, who has a long and at times contentious history in the space community.

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#bill-nelson, #nasa-administrator, #science

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Humans had never seen a spacecraft land on another planet—until now

A rover's-eye view of a forbidding rocky landscape.

Panoramic image of Mars taken by Perseverance on February 20, 2021. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Never before, in all of our millions of years, have humans directly observed a spacecraft landing on another planet. Until now.

On Monday, NASA released a video (embedded below) that included several viewpoints from the descent of Mars Perseverance to the surface of the red planet last week. A camera on the back shell captured a view of the parachute deploying, and cameras on the descent stage and rover itself captured the final seconds of the landing.

“I can, and have, watched those videos for hours,” said NASA’s Al Chen, the lead for the entry, descent, and landing for Perseverance. “I find new stuff every time. I invite you to do so as well.”

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#mars, #perseverance, #science

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Watch Perseverance’s harrowing descent to the surface of Mars

NASA has released video taken by the Perseverance landing module and rover showing the famous “seven minutes of terror” in a bracing first-person perspective. The images sent back Friday were just a teaser — this is the full experience, and the first video of a Mars landing ever captured.

A full description of the rover’s descent and mission can be found here, but briefly stated here’s what happened:

After decelerating in the atmosphere interplanetary velocity, the heat shield is jettisoned and the parachute deployed. Beneath the heat shield are a number of cameras and instruments, which scanned the landscape to find a good landing spot. At a certain altitude and speed the parachute is detached and the “jetpack” lower stage takes over, using rockets to maneuver towards the landing area. At about 70 feet above the surface the “skycrane” dangles the rover itself out of the lander and softly plops it down on the ground before the jetpack flies off to crash at a safe distance.

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The whole process takes about seven minutes, the last few seconds of which which are an especially white-knuckle ride.

While previous rovers sent back lots of telemetry and some imagery, this level of visual documentation is a first. Even Insight, launched in 2018, wasn’t able to send back this kind of footage.

“This is the first time we’ve actually been able to capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, head of JPL, at a press conference. “These are really amazing videos, we all binge watched them over the weekend if you can call a one minute video binge watching. We will learn something by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos but a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey.”

The team discussed the entry, descent, and landing camera system or EDL cams, which were made both to monitor how the process went and to provide the visceral experience that the whole team craved.

“I don’t know about you, but it is unlikely at this point in my career that I will pilot a spacecraft down to the surface of Mars,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of Perseverance at JPL. “But when you see this imagery I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully in Jezero crater with perseverance.”

There were upward-facing cameras on the capsule, jetpack, and rover, and downward-facing cameras on the latter two as well, providing shots in both directions for practically the whole process. This image of the heat shield falling away feels iconic already – revealing the desert landscape of Mars much like film we’ve seen of Apollo landings on the Moon:

Animated image of Perseverance jettisoning its heat shield as it descends toward Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You can see the whole thing below:

Over 30 gigabytes of imagery were captured of the descent even though one of the cameras failed when the parachute deployed.

Practically every frame of the video offers new information about the process of landing on Mars — for instance, one of the springs used to eject the heat shield can be seen to have disconnected, though it didn’t affect the process. All the footage has been and no doubt will continue to be scrutinized for other insights.

In addition to these amazing landing videos, Perseverance has sent back a number of full-color images taken by its navigation cameras, though not all of its systems are up and running yet. The team stitched together the first images of Perseverance inspecting itself and its surroundings to form this panorama:

Panoramic image of the Martian landscape and Perseverance rover.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ll have many, many more images soon as the team processes and uploads them.

As a parting “gift,” the team provided the remarkable first sound recording from the surface of Mars; they hoped that this would both provide new insights and also let anyone who can’t see the images experience the landing in a different way.

The EDL system included a microphone to capture the sound of the landing, but sadly didn’t work during the descent. It is, however, working perfectly well on the surface and has now captured the ambience of the Red Planet — and while the sound of a gust of wind may not be particularly alien, it’s incredible to think that this truly is wind blowing across another world.


#aerospace, #jpl, #mars, #mars-rover, #nasa, #perseverance, #robotics, #science, #space, #tc

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Blaming a wiggly jet stream on climate change? Not so fast

The weather map on February 15.

Enlarge / The weather map on February 15. (credit: NASA EO)

Some songs are earworms—catchy whether you like them or not. (I won’t infect the rest of your day with an example.) Some explanations in science seem to be the earworm equivalent: inherently intuitive, making them stick readily in the mind. That’s obviously the case for the hypothesis that a warming Arctic leads to a wigglier jet stream, producing weather extremes in the mid-latitudes like the recent epic cold snap in the central US.

The cold arrived after the spinning “polar vortex” in the upper atmosphere above the Arctic was disturbed in January, unleashing its contents southward as the jet stream detoured from its usual commute. Could this behavior actually be a consequence of global warming? The suggestion has appeared in news articles and Twitter threads across the land. But the idea is stickier than the science says it should be.

Jet setting

Although the specifics vary, the general idea is based on the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the mid-latitudes. As a result, the temperature difference between them is getting a little smaller. The jet stream forms at the boundary between the Arctic and mid-latitude air, so a smaller temperature difference would weaken the jet stream. And a weaker jet stream is more prone to great, wiggling meanders that can bring you cold air from the north or warm air from the south.

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#climate-change, #jet-stream, #science

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A curious observer’s guide to quantum mechanics, pt 7: The quantum century 

A curious observer’s guide to quantum mechanics, pt 7: The quantum century 

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

One of the quietest revolutions of our current century has been the entry of quantum mechanics into our everyday technology. It used to be that quantum effects were confined to physics laboratories and delicate experiments. But modern technology increasingly relies on quantum mechanics for its basic operation, and the importance of quantum effects will only grow in the decades to come. As such, physicist Miguel F. Morales has taken on the herculean task of explaining quantum mechanics to laypeople in this seven-part series (no math, we promise). Below is the series finale, but you can always find the starting story plus a landing page for the entire series on site.

The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed –William Gibson

As tool builders, it is only very recently that we’ve been able to use quantum mechanics. Understanding and manipulating quantum devices has been like getting an intoxicating new superpower—there are so many things we can now build that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

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#features, #quantum-mechanics, #science

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The AI research paper was real. The “co-author” wasn’t

The AI research paper was real. The “co-author” wasn’t

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

David Cox, the co-director of a prestigious artificial intelligence lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was scanning an online computer science bibliography in December when he noticed something odd—his name listed as an author alongside three researchers in China whom he didn’t know on two papers he didn’t recognize.

At first, he didn’t think much of it. The name Cox isn’t uncommon, so he figured there must be another David Cox doing AI research. “Then I opened up the PDF and saw my own picture looking back at me,” Cox says. “It was unbelievable.”

It isn’t clear how prevalent this kind of academic fraud may be or why someone would list as a co-author someone not involved in the research. By checking other papers written by the same Chinese authors, WIRED found a third example, where the photo and biography of an MIT researcher were listed under a fictitious name.

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#ai, #ieee, #research-fraud, #science

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As coronavirus variants spread, the US struggles to keep up

As coronavirus variants spread, the US struggles to keep up

Enlarge (credit: Bing Guan | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

Across the US, the coronavirus is in retreat. The pandemic is still raging, mind you, with more than 70,000 new cases still reported each day. But since the post-holiday peak in mid-January, the seven-day average of new cases has fallen by nearly 64 percent. Hospitalizations have plunged too. And with vaccinations accelerating, there is a glimmer of hope that this downward trend might be the start of Covid’s long slide toward containment, at least in the US and other wealthy countries that are hogging the shots.

But retreat does not always mean defeat. And the emergence of several worrisome new coronavirus variants with new tricks for spreading faster or evading immune responses presents another possibility: that the current reprieve will only be temporary. Public health experts are urging governments to prepare for a possible new wave of infections driven by variants like B.1.1.7, which has already been identified in more than 1,200 US cases and in nearly every state, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

That’s more than double the number reported two weeks earlier. But the real number is likely far higher. How much higher? No one knows. That’s because the only way to tell which version of the coronavirus is causing an infection is to sequence its genome. In this country, that should be easy enough—the US is a sequencing superpower. It has dozens of academic institutions and massive commercial labs with the capacity to crank out genomes at a rapid clip. But the federal government’s response through much of the pandemic didn’t include a plan to mobilize America’s DNA-mappers into a coordinated coronavirus-monitoring corps. SARS-CoV-2 surveillance, well, sucked.

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#b-117, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science, #sequencing

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Study blames Earth’s magnetic field flip for climate change, extinctions

Image of a large tree

Enlarge / The massive trunk of a kauri tree can remain intact for tens of thousands of years. (credit: W. Bulach / Wikimedia)

The Earth’s magnetic field helps protect life from energetic particles that would otherwise arrive from space. Mars now lacks a strong magnetic field, and the conditions on its surface are considered so damaging to life that any microbes that might inhabit the planet are thought to be safely beneath the surface. On Earth, the magnetic field ensures that life can flourish on the surface.

Except that’s not always true. The Earth’s magnetic field varies, with the poles moving and sometimes swapping places and the field sometimes weakening or effectively vanishing. Yet a look at these events has revealed nothing especially interesting—no obvious connections to extinctions, no major ecological upsets.

A paper published yesterday in Science provides an impressively precise dating for a past magnetic field flip by using rings of trees that have been dead for tens of thousands of years. And it shows the flip was associated with changes in climate. But the paper then goes on to attempt to tie the flip to everything from a minor extinction event to the explosion of cave art by our ancestors. In the end, the work is a mix of solid science, provocative hypothesizing, and unconstrained speculation.

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#biology, #cave-art, #climate-science, #earth-science, #extinctions, #magnetic-field, #science

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Pfizer vaccine doesn’t need ultra-cold storage after all, company says

A picture taken on January 15, 2021 shows a pharmacist holding with gloved hands a vial of the undiluted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19.

Enlarge / A picture taken on January 15, 2021 shows a pharmacist holding with gloved hands a vial of the undiluted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19. (credit: Getty | JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

In a bit of good news, Pfizer and BioNTech announced today that their highly effective COVID-19 vaccine does not require ultra-cold storage conditions after all and can be kept stable at standard freezer temperatures for two weeks.

The companies have submitted data to the US Food and Drug Administration demonstrating the warmer stability in a bid for regulatory approval to relax storage requirements and labeling for the vaccine.

If the FDA greenlights the change, the warmer storage conditions could dramatically ease vaccine distribution, allowing doses to be sent to non-specialized vaccine administration sites. The change would also make it much easier to distribute the vaccine to low-income countries.

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#biontech, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #pfizer, #science, #ultra-cold, #vaccine

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NASA releases “exhilarating” image of Mars rover just above the planet

This is a high-resolution still image, part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars.

Enlarge / This is a high-resolution still image, part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA on Friday released new images of its Perseverance spacecraft approaching the surface of Mars and safely settling upon the red planet.

The new photos included an arresting image of the Jeep-sized rover nearing Mars, seemingly dangling from the sky crane that was lowering it to the surface about 7 meters below. This image was pulled from footage of the rover’s landing, captured by on-board cameras. A complete video of the dramatic landing sequence may be released as early as Monday after NASA engineers receive more data from Mars.

“It is exhilarating. It is absolutely exhilarating,” said Adam Steltzner, the chief engineer for the Perseverance mission, which successfully landed on Mars on Thursday. These kinds of dramatic images, he said, help bring the world along for the ride on missions of exploration.

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#mars, #perseverence, #science

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Dizzying view of Perseverance mid-descent makes its ‘7 minutes of terror’ feel very real

The Perseverance Mars rover landed safely yesterday, but only after a series of complex maneuvers as it descended at high speed through the atmosphere, known by the team as the “seven minutes of terror.” NASA has just shared a hair-raising image of the rover as it dangled from its jetpack above the Martian landscape, making that terror a lot easier to understand.

Published with others to the rover’s Twitter account (as always, in the first person), the image is among the first sent back from the rover; black-and-white shots from its navigation cameras appeared almost instantly after landing, but this is the first time we’ve seen the rover — or anything, really — from this perspective.

The image was taken by cameras on the descent stage or “jetpack,” a rocket-powered descent module that took over once the craft had sufficiently slowed via both atmospheric friction and its parachute. Once the heat shield was jettisoned, Perseverance scanned the landscape for a safe landing location, and once that was found, the jetpack’s job was to fly it there.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

The image at the top of the story was taken by the descent stage’s “down-look cameras.” Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it was about 70 feet above the landing spot, the jetpack would have deployed the “sky crane,” a set of cables that would lower the rover to the ground from a distance that safely allowed the jetpack to rocket itself off to a crash landing far away.

The image at top was taken just moments before landing — it’s a bit hard to tell whether those swirls in the Martian soil are hundreds, dozens or just a handful of feet below, but follow-up images made it clear that the rocks you can see are pebbles, not boulders.

Photo of the Mars rover Perseverance's wheel and rocks on the surface.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The images are a reminder that the processes we see only third-hand as observers of an HQ tracking telemetry data sent millions of miles from Mars are in fact very physical, fast and occasionally brutal things. Seeing such an investment of time and passion dangling from cords above a distant planet after a descent that started at 5 kilometers per second, and required about a hundred different things to go right or else end up just another crater on Mars… it’s sobering and inspiring.

That said, that first person perspective may not even be the most impressive shot of the descent. Shortly after releasing that, NASA published an astonishing image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which managed to capture Perseverance mid-fall under its parachute:

Photo taken from 700km away by the Mars reconnaissance Orbiter of the Perseverance rover descending under its parachute.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Keep in mind that MRO was 700 km away, and traveling at over 3 km/second at the time this shot was taken. “The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment,” NASA wrote in the description of the photo.

Chances are we’re going to be treated to a fuller picture of the “seven minutes of terror” soon, once NASA collects enough imagery from Perseverance, but for now the images above serve as reminders of the ingenuity and skill of the team there, and perhaps a sense of wonder and awe at the capabilities of science and engineering.

#aerospace, #mars, #mars-rover, #nasa, #perseverance, #robotics, #science, #space

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It took a year, but Gwyneth Paltrow figured out how to exploit the pandemic

It took a year, but Gwyneth Paltrow figured out how to exploit the pandemic

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Gwyneth Paltrow is at it again. Here’s the scene for the perfect grift for our times:

Tens of millions of people around the country have fallen ill with COVID-19. Nearly half a million have died. Given chronic testing shortages, millions more have likely been infected and never diagnosed. Some of those infected will develop long-term effects, suffering lingering symptoms for weeks to months—or maybe longer.

Sometimes the symptoms appear to be direct extensions of the illness, such as lingering shortness of breath, cough, and/or chest pain. Other times, the symptoms may be more nondescript, such as fatigue and trouble concentrating, aka “brain fog.”

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#covid-19, #goop, #gwyneth, #long-covid, #science

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Toronto’s UHN launches a study to see if Apple Watch can spot worsening heart failure

A new study underway at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), a group of working research hospitals in the city, could shift our approach to treatment in an area of growing concern in human health. The study, led by Dr. Heather Ross, will investigate whether the Apple Watch can provide early warnings about potentially worsening health for patients following incidents of heart failure.

The study, which is aiming to eventually span around 200 patients, and which already has a number of participants enrolled spanning ages from 25 to 90, and various demographics, will use the Apple Watch Series 6 and its onboard sensors to monitor signals including heart rate, blood oxygen, general activity levels, overall performance during a six minute walk test and more. Researchers led by Ross will compare this data to measurements taken from the more formal clinical tests currently used by physicians to monitor the recovery of heart failure patients during routine, periodic check-ups.

The hope is that Ross and her team will be able to identify correlations between signs they’re seeing from the Apple Watch data, and the information gathered from the proven medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. If they can verify that the Apple Watch accurately reflects what’s happening with a heart failure patient’s health, it has tremendous potential for treatment and care.

“In the US, there are about six-and-a-half million adults with heart failure,” Ross told me in an interview. “About one in five people in North America over the age of 40 will develop heart failure. And the average life expectancy [following heart failure] is still measured at around 2.1 years, at a tremendous impact to quality of life.”

The stats point to heart failure as a “growing epidemic,” says Ross, at a cost of some “$30 billion a year at present in the U.S.” to the healthcare system. A significant portion of that cost can come from the care required when conditions worsen due to preventable causes – ones that can be avoided by changes in patient behavior, if only implemented at the right time. Ross told me that currently, the paradigm of care for heat failure patients is “episodic” – meaning it happens in three- or six-month intervals, when patients go into a physician’s office or clinic for a bevy of tests using expensive equipment that must be monitored by a trained professional, like a nurse practitioner.

“If you think about the paradigm to a certain degree, we’ve kind of got it backwards,” Ross said. “So in our thinking, the idea really is how do we provide a continuous style monitoring of patients in a relatively unobtrusive way that will allow us to detect a change in a patient status before they end up actually coming into hospital. So this is where the opportunity with Apple is tremendous.”

Ross said that current estimates suggest nearly 50% of hospitalizations could be avoided altogether through steps taken by patients including better self-care, like adhering to prescribed medicinal regimens, accurate symptom monitoring, monitoring dietary intake and more. Apple Vice President of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai echoed the sentiment that proactivity is one of the key ingredients to better standards of care, and better long-term outcomes.

“A lot of health, in the world of medicine, has been focused on reactive responses to situations,” she said in an interview. “The idea to get a little more proactive in the way we think about our own health is really empowering and we’re really excited about where that could take us. We think starting with these studies to really ground us in the science is critical but, really, the potential for it is something that we look forward to tackling.”

Desai, has led Apple’s Health initiatives for just under four years, and also spent much of her career prior to that at Stanford (where she remains an associate professor) working on both the academic and clinical side. She knows first-hand the value of continuous care, and said that this study is representative of the potential the company sees in Apple Watch’s role in the daily health of individuals.

“The ability to have that snapshot of an individual as they’re living their everyday life is extremely useful,” she said. “As a physician, part of your conversation is ‘tell me what’s going on when you’re not in the clinic.’ To be able to have some of that data at your fingertips and have that part of your conversation really enhances your engagement with your patients as well. We believe that can provide insight in ways that has not been done before and we’re really excited to see what more we’re learning in this specific realm but we already hearing from both users and physicians how valuable that is.”

Both Ross and Desai highlighted the value of Apple Watch as a consumer-friendly device that’s easy to set up and learn, and that serves a number of different purposes beyond health and fitness, as being key ingredients to its potential in a continuous care paradigm.

“We really believe that people should be able to play a more active role in managing their well-being and Apple Watch in particular, we find to be — and are really proud of — a powerful health and wellness tool because the same device that you can connect with loved ones and check messages also supports safety, motivates you to stay healthy by moving more and provides important information on your overall wellness,” Desai said.

“This is a powerful health care tool bundled into a device that people just love for all the reasons Sumbul has said,” Ross added. “But this is a powerful diagnostic tool, too. So it is that consumer platform that I think will make this potentially an unstoppable tool, if we can evaluate it properly, which we’re doing in this partnership.”

The study, which is targeting 200 participants as mentioned, and enrolling more every day, will span three months of active monitoring, followed by a two-year follow up to investigate the data collected relative to patient outcomes. All data collected is stored in a fully encrypted form (Ross pointed to Apple’s privacy track record as another benefit of having it as a partner) and anyone taking part can opt-out at any point during the course of the research.

Even once the results are in, it’ll just be the first step in a larger process of validation, but Ross said that the hope is to ultimately “to improve access and equitable care,” by changing the fundamental approach to how we think about heart failure and treatment.

#anatomy, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-watch, #biotech, #hardware, #health, #heart, #north-america, #physician, #science, #self-care, #stanford, #tc, #toronto, #united-states

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Perseverance on Mars: Where it is, and what the next steps are

Perseverance on Mars: Where it is, and what the next steps are

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In their first press conference following Perseverance’s successful landing on Mars, NASA and JPL scientists revealed some information on where the rover landed and what to expect for the next several days and weeks as it begins its mission in earnest.

Pics or it didn’t happen

One of the first orders of business is getting some of the images, audio, and video taken during the landing back to Earth. For now, doing so requires using a low-gain antenna to transmit data to some of the hardware in orbit around Mars. Jennifer Trosper, the deputy project manager for the rover, said that the Mars Odyssey orbiter should have a brief pass overhead within the next few hours, followed by the Mars Trace Gas orbiter, which will have a longer overflight and grab larger amounts of data. Matt Wallace, another deputy project manager, said that should be enough to allow NASA to release video of the landing on Monday.

Long-term, however, communications will rely on a high-gain antenna that will allow direct communications with Earth. That will require pointing, which means understanding the rover’s current orientation on Mars’ surface, which the team has inferred from the shadows cast in the first images sent down. Incidentally, those were taken with transparent lens caps on the Perseverance’s navigation cameras, so we can expect better images once those are removed.

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#jpl, #mars, #nasa, #perseverance, #rover, #science

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Perseverance rover has landed safely on Mars

Perseverance rover has landed safely on Mars

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NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully landed on the surface of Mars, transmitting telemetry information and the first images of its landing site. A low-resolution driving-camera image shows a field of dust-covered rocks, with the unmistakable shadow of the rover hardware. The early images are so fresh that you can still see the dust kicked up by the landing settling.

The landing came at the end of a cruise through interplanetary space and a dive through the Martian atmosphere, as the rover and its rocket-supported crane shed parachutes, a heat shield, and a lot of speed. The voyage culminated in the skycrane gently lowering the rover to the surface before rocketing off to land at a safe distance.

NASA refers to the landing protocol as “seven minutes of terror,” due to its complicated, multistage nature, all of which is run under automated guidance. Adding to the tension, all of the outcomes already happened over 10 minutes ago by the time any indication of their success reaches Earth.

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#jpl, #landing, #mars, #nasa, #rover, #science

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“Shameful and inhumane”: DeSantis threatens to withhold vaccine amid criticism

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Enlarge / Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

As large swaths of the country face snags in COVID-19 vaccine distribution due to crippling snow and ice, some communities in Florida may face snags due to political windstorms from their governor, Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis was criticized this week after the state unveiled plans to open a “pop-up” clinic near Tampa that would offer vaccine doses only to residents in affluent, mostly white, mostly Republican areas of Manatee County. The clinic will vaccinate 3,000 residents of just two ZIP codes in the county, which were reportedly hand-selected by DeSantis and County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh—instead of being selected using the Sunshine State’s vaccine lottery system.

Plans for the clinic were born from a deal struck between DeSantis, Baugh, and real estate developer Rex Jensen, according to the Bradenton Herald. DeSantis reportedly reached out to Jenson, who agreed to host the clinic on his development, Lakewood Ranch. The master-planned community covers much of the two selected ZIP codes served by the clinic. The ZIP codes also overlap with Baugh’s district.

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#covid-19, #desantis, #equity, #florida, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science