Cretaceous birds were thought to have small bills—except this one

Precise anatomical profile of a prehistoric bird.

Enlarge / Artist’s depiction of Falcatakely forsterae. (credit: Mark Witton)

Given the unusual attention granted to turkeys this week, let’s talk dinosaurs. Today’s birds are, of course, descendants of the only branch of the dino tree that made it through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. In the dinosaurs’ halcyon days, the early birds were a bit different, still retaining teeth and foreclaws among some subtler anatomical differences with their modern descendant. A new fossil find reveals an unexpected bird from that time—one with a whopping-great, toucan-like beak.

The fossil, named Falcatakely forsterae, comes from late Cretaceous rocks in Madagascar. Many of the early bird fossils we’ve discovered so far come from older, early-Cretaceous rocks in China, with the timeframe between then and the end-Cretaceous extinction more of a question mark. The new fossil is a nicely preserved head of a crow-sized bird with a strikingly long, tall, and narrow beak.

The early Chinese bird fossils don’t show much diversity in beak shape. That’s a big contrast with modern birds, which have a wild variety of beak shapes befitting their many different ecological niches. Pelicans, woodpeckers, and parrots have very different diets that require a beak adapted to the job. It had been thought that enlarged beaks may not have been possible until some anatomical shifting in the parts of the skull took place, meaning that the early birds were simply limited. But the new find shows that wasn’t entirely true. This species could have inhabited an ecological niche that was empty after the extinction—until a more modern bird drifted back into it much later.

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#birds, #evolution, #fossils, #science

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The ungentle joy of spider sex

Look carefully into the spider's two largest eyes and you can see internal structures similar to the ones that we've evolved.

Enlarge / Look carefully into the spider’s two largest eyes and you can see internal structures similar to the ones that we’ve evolved. (credit: Emre Can Alagöz)

First, the confession: I’m an arachnophobe, spooked by the most harmless everyday spiders. Close encounters with the scarier sort—the goliath bird-eating spider in an undergraduate zoology class, the venomous redbacks sharing my tent on a research trip to Australia—well, let’s just say they taught me more about myself than about arachnids. And yet I’ve discovered a soft spot for one group of spiders: those undersized males faced with the daunting prospect of sex with a giant mate, often one with murder in mind. Think Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, only with spiders.

Why the sympathy? It’s not because these puny males risk their lives for love. It’s because they’ve evolved such a bizarre array of ways to achieve their ultimate goal of siring spiderlings with a monster of a mother.

Sexual size dimorphism—where one sex is bigger than the other—is nothing too much out of the ordinary: Picture a massive male orangutan, or the bull elephant seal towering over his harem. And many insects and other terrestrial arthropods have large females, because a bigger body can produce more eggs.

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#science

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How many turkey feathers does it take to make an ancient blanket? 11,500

A fluffy gray blanket next to a coil of cord.

Enlarge / A segment of fiber cord that has been wrapped with turkey feathers, along with a single downy feather. (credit: Washington State University)

Indigenous Pueblo populations in the American Southwest—ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes—typically wove blankets, cloaks, and funeral wrappings out of animal hides, furs, and turkey feathers. Anthropologists at Washington State University (WSU) have examined one such ancient turkey-feather blanket and determined it took thousands of those feathers, wrapped around nearly 200 yards to yucca fiber, to make, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” said co-author Bill Lipe, emeritus professor of anthropology at WSU. “The goal of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers.”

For their study, Lipe and his WSU colleague and co-author, Shannon Tushingham, studied a blanket framework on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah. Although insects had devoured the original feather vanes and barbs, the shafts were still visible, wrapped around yucca fiber cords. They were also able to look at a second, smaller blanket which still had most of its feathers intact. Both blankets roughly date to the early 1200s CE.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #science, #turkey-feathers

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A mildly insane idea for disabling the coronavirus

Colorful blobs cluster together like a bunch of grapes.

Enlarge / Diagram of the structure of the virus’ spike protein. (credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin)

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first recognized for the threat that it is, researchers scrambled to find anything that might block the virus’ spread. While vaccines have grabbed much of the attention lately, there was also the hope that we could develop a therapy that would block the worst effects of the virus. Most of these have been extremely practical: identify enzymes that are essential for the virus to replicate, and test drugs that block similar enzymes from other viruses. These drugs are designed to be relatively easy to store and administer and, in some cases, have already been tested for safety in humans, making them reasonable choices for getting something ready for use quickly.

But the tools we’ve developed in biotechnology allow us to do some far less practical things, and a paper released today describes how they can be put to use to inactivate SARS-CoV-2. This is in no way a route to a practical therapy, but it does provide a fantastic window into what we can accomplish by manipulating biology.

Throw it in the trash

The whole effort described in the new paper is focused on a simple idea: if you figure out how to wreck one of the virus’ key proteins, it won’t be able to infect anything. And, conveniently, our cells have a system for destroying proteins, since that’s often a useful thing to do. In some cases, the proteins that are destroyed are damaged; in others, the proteins are made and destroyed at elevated paces to allow the cell to respond to changing conditions rapidly. In a few cases, changes in the environment or the activation of signaling pathways can trigger widespread protein destruction, allowing the cell to quickly alter its behavior.

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#biology, #biotechnology, #coronavirus, #genetic-engineering, #science, #spike-protein, #ubiquitin

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AstraZeneca’s best COVID vaccine result was a fluke. Experts have questions

Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020.

Enlarge / Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020. (credit: Getty| NurPhoto)

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford made an exciting announcement Monday: the COVID-19 vaccine they developed together appeared up to 90 percent effective at preventing disease. But in the days since, that exciting news melted into a pool of confusion after it became clear that the 90 percent figure came about from a complete accident. Now, experts are scratching their heads over what actually happened in the trial and what it means for the vaccine’s future.

The questions all swirl around the vaccine’s dosage regimen. In initial press releases, AstraZeneca and Oxford explained that researchers had used two different dosage regimens to test their experimental vaccine, AZD1222. In one regimen, trial participants received two “full” vaccine doses, 28 days apart. In the other, participants received a half dose of vaccine followed by a full dose 28 days later.

Pooling results from trials in the United Kingdom and another in Brazil, the researchers found the two-full-dose regimen was 62 percent effective at preventing COVID-19—a good, but not great result. The half-dose/full-dose regimen, on the other hand, appeared 90 percent effective—a rather impressive result.

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#astrazeneca, #covid-19, #operation-warp-speed, #oxford, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Flexible expressions could lift 3D-generated faces out of the uncanny valley

3D-rendered faces are a big part of any major movie or game now, but the task of capturing and animated them in a natural way can be a tough one. Disney Research is working on ways to smooth out this process, among them a machine learning tool that makes it much easier to generate and manipulate 3D faces without dipping into the uncanny valley.

Of course this technology has come a long way from the wooden expressions and limited details of earlier days. High resolution, convincing 3D faces can be animated quickly and well, but the subtleties of human expression are not just limitless in variety, they’re very easy to get wrong.

Think of how someone’s entire face changes when they smile — it’s different for everyone, but there are enough similarities that we fancy we can tell when someone is “really” smiling or just faking it. How can you achieve that level of detail in an artificial face?

Existing “linear” models simplify the subtlety of expression, making “happiness” or “anger” minutely adjustable, but at the cost of accuracy — they can’t express every possible face, but can easily result in impossible faces. Newer neural models learn complexity from watching the interconnectedness of expressions, but like other such models their workings are obscure and difficult to control, and perhaps not generalizable beyond the faces they learned from. They don’t enable the level of control an artist working on a movie or game needs, or result in faces that (humans are remarkably good at detecting this) are just off somehow.

A team at Disney Research proposes a new model with the best of both worlds — what it calls a “semantic deep face model.” Without getting into the exact technical execution, the basic improvement is that it’s a neural model that learns how a facial expression affects the whole face, but is not specific to a single face — and moreover is nonlinear, allowing flexibility in how expressions interact with a face’s geometry and each other.

Think of it this way: A linear model lets you take an expression (a smile, or kiss, say) from 0-100 on any 3D face, but the results may be unrealistic. A neural model lets you take a learned expression from 0-100 realistically, but only on the face it learned it from. This model can take an expression from 0-100 smoothly on any 3D face. That’s something of an over-simplification, but you get the idea.

Computer generated faces all assume similar expressions in a row.

Image Credits: Disney Research

The results are powerful: You could generate a thousand faces with different shapes and tones, and then animate all of them with the same expressions without any extra work. Think how that could result in diverse CG crowds you can summon with a couple clicks, or characters in games that have realistic facial expressions regardless of whether they were hand-crafted or not.

It’s not a silver bullet, and it’s only part of a huge set of improvements artists and engineers are making in the various industries where this technology is employed — markerless face tracking, better skin deformation, realistic eye movements, and dozens more areas of interest are also important parts of this process.

The Disney Research paper was presented at the International Conference on 3D Vision; you can read the full thing here.

#artificial-intelligence, #disney, #disney-research, #science

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What we can learn from contact tracing an entire province

Image of children in a line in front of an official with a sensor on a tripod.

Enlarge / Students have their temperature measured at Daowu middle school in China’s Hunan Province, part of the measures adopted to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (credit: Xinhua News Agency)

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a lot of big questions about the basic properties of SARS-CoV-2: how quickly did it spread, could it spread from asymptomatic people, what was the typical mortality rate, and so on. We quickly started getting answers on some of these, but they were all imperfect in various ways. We could trace all the cases in controlled environments, like a cruise ship or aircraft carrier, but these probably wouldn’t reflect the virus’s spread in more typical communities. Or, we could trace things in real-world communities, but that approach would be far less certain to capture all the cases.

Over time, we’ve gotten lots of imperfect records, but we’ve started to build a consensus out of them. The latest example of this—a paper that describes contact tracing all cases that originated in Hunan, China—provides yet another set of measures of the virus’s behavior and our attempts to control infection. Papers like this have helped build the consensus on some of the key features of things like asymptomatic spread and the impact of contact tracing, so we thought it was a good chance to step back and look at this latest release.

Trace all the cases

The new work, done by an international team of researchers, focuses on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Hunan Province during the first outbreak after its origins in nearby Hubei. During the period of study, health authorities started by identifying cases largely by symptoms, and they then switched to a massive contact tracing effort and aggressive isolation policies. These efforts shut the outbreak down by early March. And, thanks to them, we have very detailed information on viral cases: 1,178 infected individuals, another 15,648 people they came in contact with, and a total of nearly 20,000 potential exposure events.

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#biology, #china, #covid-19, #medicine, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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We don’t have a COVID vaccine yet, but distribution is already messy

A sign on the entrance to a pharmacy reads "Covid-19 Vaccine Not Yet Available", November 23, 2020 in Burbank, California.

Enlarge / A sign on the entrance to a pharmacy reads “Covid-19 Vaccine Not Yet Available”, November 23, 2020 in Burbank, California. (credit: Getty | Robyn Beck)

Individual states will ultimately decide who will get the first 6.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, which will be distributed based on each state’s population rather than the levels of disease spread or number of high-risk people.

The approach, announced in a press briefing Tuesday, is a departure from earlier plans and reflects the frenzied effort to vaccinate a country of nearly 330 million as quickly as possible.

Top officials for Operation Warp Speed—the federal government’s program to swiftly develop and deliver COVID-19 vaccines and therapies—said at the briefing that the current approach is intended to “keep this simple.” However, the potential for state-by-state variation in early access to vaccines could easily become complicated—and time is ticking for states to get their distribution plans clarified. There’s just a matter of weeks before the Food and Drug Administration may grant an emergency authorization for a vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech.

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#azar, #biontech, #covid-19, #hhs, #operation-warp-speed, #pfizer, #public-health, #science, #vaccines

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Saving Notre Dame chronicles effort to rebuild France’s famous cathedral

The iconic spire collapses as smoke and flames engulf the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019.

Enlarge / The iconic spire collapses as smoke and flames engulf the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. (credit: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 15, 2019, the world watched in horror as the roof of the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire. The blaze spread rapidly, and for several nail-biting hours, it seemed this 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece might be destroyed entirely. Firefighters finally gained the upper hand in the wee hours of the following morning. Almost immediately after the fire had been extinguished, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild Notre Dame.

But first, the badly damaged structure had to be shored up and stabilized, and interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, architects, and master craftspeople assembled to determine the best way to proceed with the restoration. That year-long process—headed up by Chief Architects Philippe Villeneuve and Remi Fromont— is the focus of a new NOVA documentary premiering tonight on PBS. Saving Notre Dame follows various experts as they study the components of the cathedral’s iconic structure to puzzle out how best to repair it.

Director Joby Lubman was among those transfixed in horror when the fire broke out, staying up much of the night as the cathedral burned, until it became clear that the structure would ultimately survive, albeit badly damaged. In the office the next morning, “Everyone was a bit shell-shocked talking about it,” he told Ars. “And it might sound opportunistic, but I thought, ‘The restoration of this icon is going to be quite something to document.'”

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#architecture, #conservation, #documentary, #gaming-culture, #history, #materials-science, #notre-dame, #nova, #pbs, #science

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Want to offset your carbon footprint? Here’s what you need to know

Want to offset your carbon footprint? Here’s what you need to know

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church offered indulgences, letting people exchange donations for slips of paper that promised reduced time in purgatory after their death. Less controversially, today someone who over-indulges in the office tea supply might feel obliged to pay for a replacement box. Do carbon offsets more closely resemble the former or the latter?

There are many reasons why you might seek to offset part of your carbon footprint, whether it’s to assuage a general feeling of guilt for your lifestyle, to precisely cover the estimated emissions of a flight, or just to do something beneficial for the environment. Regardless of motivation, all these efforts are predicated on the belief that the money you paid truly will result in the removal of the promised amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Otherwise, you’re paying for a lie—or at least getting a smaller box of tea than you ordered.

Finding out whether you’ve been lied to is genuinely difficult. Here’s what you need to know.

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#carbon-offset, #climate-change, #features, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #negative-emissions, #science

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SpaceX successfully launches a Falcon 9 booster for a record seventh time

SpaceX has launched yet another Starlink mission, adding 60 more Starlink satellites to its low-Earth orbit constellation. That’s good news for its efforts to blanket the globe in high-speed broadband, and today’s flight is even better news for its equally important ambition of developing more reusable rocket systems, since the first-stage booster that helped launch today’s Falcon 9 rocket made a record-breaking seventh trip.

SpaceX broke its own reusability records of six flights for a reused first-stage rocket component, and it also recovered the booster with a controlled landing using its drone flight in the Atlantic Ocean, which means it could potentially break this record with yet another future flight for this same booster.

Today’s launch took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, lifting off at 9:13 PM EST (6:13 PM PST). The flight also uses a fairing cover to protect the payload on its way to space that had flown previously, including one half that’s flown one prior mission, and another that’s been used twice before.

SpaceX aims for greater usability as a way to continue to reduce costs – every time it flies a component used in a previous mission, it realizes some degree of cost savings vs. using all new parts. Today’s mission represents likely its most cost-effective flight to date as a result.

This is SpaceX’s sixteenth Starlink mission thus far, and it has now launched nearly 1,000 total small satellites for its constellation. The service is currently operating in beta, and recently expanded from parts of the U.S. to areas in southern Canada .

 

#aerospace, #broadband, #canada, #falcon, #falcon-9, #florida, #outer-space, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starlink, #tc, #united-states

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CDC celebrates Biden transition, plans “rebuilding,” resumes press briefings

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters stands in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Enlarge / The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters stands in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

After being muted, sidelined, and disparaged by the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly reveling in the transition to the Biden administration and eyeing a major comeback amid the still-roaring coronavirus pandemic.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” an unnamed senior CDC official told CNN Tuesday, after the ascertainment declaration from the General Services Administration. With the transition underway, senior officials are eager for Biden’s people to “send their landing team here and set up shop.”

When asked if Tuesday’s news lifted the mood among other senior leaders at the agency, the official emphatically replied: “Yes!” Senior leaders expect the transition to bring a “rebuilding of the agency,” the official added

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#biden, #cdc, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #trump

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A successful liftoff for China’s most ambitious Moon mission to date

Image of a rocket with engines igniting on the launch pad.

Enlarge / China’s heavy lift vehicle, the Long March 5, starting its liftoff with the Chang’e 5 mission.

On Monday, China successfully sent the latest in its Chang’e missions on its way to the Moon. Chang’e 5 is the most ambitious to date and, if successful, will make China just the third country to return samples from the lunar surface (after the Soviet Union and the US). While the mission is quite complex with lots of potential for things to go wrong, it’s also happening on a short schedule, so we’ll have a good idea of how things are going within three weeks.

There and back again

China’s Chang’e program, named after a goddess of the Moon, started back in 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 orbiter. Over time, the missions have gotten increasingly complex. Chang’e 3 saw the deployment of a rover on the lunar surface, and Chang’e 4 made history with the first landing on the far side of the Moon. Already, the missions have produced exciting scientific data and lots of photos of previously unexplored areas of the Moon.

Now, China plans to get something back from the Moon that can’t be distilled down to a string of ones and zeroes. As with two earlier missions, once Chang’e 5 reaches lunar orbit, it will deploy a lander to the surface. But this time, the lander will be accompanied by a sample return vehicle. After using a drill and scoop to load that up with up to two kilograms of material, the sample return vehicle will lift off from the lunar surface and rendezvous with the vehicle that brought it to the Moon.

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#change, #china, #moon, #science, #space

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Rock art in a California cave was a visual guide to hallucinogenic plants

This red pinwheel image (left), which is around 500 years old, may depict the unfurling petals of a datura flower (right).

Enlarge / This red pinwheel image (left), which is around 500 years old, may depict the unfurling petals of a datura flower (right). (credit: Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi)

At a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into crevices in the low ceiling, near a painting that may depict a flower from the same plant, called datura. The painted images may have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.

Chew on this

University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and his colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the domed ceiling of California’s Pinwheel Cave. The five-armed pinwheel that gives the cave its name is painted in red nearby, attended by a bizarre-looking figure with antennae, eyes pointed in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists have dubbed it the Transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn’t answer to anything else they tried. Based on radiocarbon dates of the bundles, people placed them in the room’s nooks and crannies over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

That matches the age of charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people left behind traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals happened in Pinwheel Cave, they weren’t hidden away or separate from everyday life.

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#ancient-north-america, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-paintings, #chumash, #datura, #drugs, #hallucinogenics, #hallucinogens, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #rock-art, #science

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Nearly 18,000 airport workers sealed in for testing after 7 cases detected

This photo taken on November 22, 2020 shows health workers in protective suits waiting to conduct COVID-19 coronavirus tests on staff at Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Enlarge / This photo taken on November 22, 2020 shows health workers in protective suits waiting to conduct COVID-19 coronavirus tests on staff at Pudong Airport in Shanghai. (credit: Getty | STR)

Nearly 18,000 workers were sealed into Shanghai’s main airport Sunday and tested for COVID-19 in one night after authorities detected seven cases linked to the cargo unit of the facility.

Social media lit up with dramatic smartphone videos showing large crowds of workers pushing against guards in white hazmat suits in the airport’s parking structure.

By Monday morning, local authorities grabbed hold of the situations, tweeting out videos of the 17,719 workers in orderly lines waiting to get tested, with calm piano music playing in the background. According to The Washington Post, it remained unclear what happened to the workers after that—if they were still being held at the airport, if they were moved to a quarantine facility, or if they were allowed to go home.

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#airport, #cluster, #covid-19, #infectious-disase, #public-health, #science, #shanghai, #testing

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AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine shows success: Here’s how it stacks up to others

Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020.

Enlarge / Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020. (credit: Getty| NurPhoto)

AstraZeneca announced in a press release on Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine showed positive results in an interim analysis of clinical trial data.

The announcement marks the third vaccine to show strong efficacy in late-stage trials against the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Though AstraZeneca’s vaccine efficacy numbers are not as impressively high as those for the vaccines before it—mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna—AstraZeneca’s does offer some advantages over those vaccines.

In all, the news adds to ballooning optimism that effective vaccines could bring an end to the global crisis in the coming year.

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#adenovirus, #astrazeneca, #clinical-trial, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #oxford, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Archaeologists find two more bodies among the ruins of Pompeii

Archaeologists find two more bodies among the ruins of Pompeii

Enlarge (credit: Reuters)

Archaeologists found the remains of two men lying in an underground room in a large villa on the outskirts of the Roman city of Pompeii, in southern Italy, Reuters reports. Based on the condition of their skeletons and clues from preserved traces of clothing, one man appears to have been a wealthy person in his 30s, while the other was likely a slave or laborer in his early 20s. They died together at the villa of Civita Giuliana, probably while trying to flee or seek better shelter from a dense, fast-moving cloud of superheated volcanic gas and ash.

The rich man and the slave

The find brings the total number of human remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum (a few kilometers west along the Bay of Naples) to more than 1,500. Historians estimate that around 12,000 people lived in Pompeii and another 12,000 lived on the rich farmland nearby, but we don’t know how many of those people died in the eruption or its aftermath.

And we know a surprising amount about those 1,500 people, because the thick layer of volcanic ash that entombed them also preserved the details of their final moments, along with hints about the lives that led up to those moments. Like many of the other remains at Pompeii, the two men in the villa lay in soft volcanic ash, which hardened around them and preserved the shape of their bodies long after their soft tissues had decayed. By making plaster casts of those impressions, archaeologists could see details like facial expressions and even the folds and pleats of clothing.

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#ancient-europe, #archaeology, #pompeii, #roman, #roman-archaeology, #rome, #science, #vesuvius, #volcanic-eruptions, #volcano

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Relativity Space raises $500 million as its sets sights on the industrialization of Mars

3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space has closed $500 million in Series D funding (making official the earlier reported raise), the company announced today. This funding was led by Tiger Global Management, and included participation by a host of new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Iconiq Capital, General Catalist and more. This brings the company’s total raised so far to nearly $700 million, as the startup is poised to launch its first ever fully 3D-printed orbital rocket next year.

LA-based Relativity had a big 2020, completing work on a new 120,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach. Its rocket construction technology, which is grounded in its development and use of the largest metal 3D printers in existence, suffered relatively few setbacks due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and work stoppages since it involves relatively few actual people on the factory floor managing the 3D printing process, which is handled in large part by autonomous robotic systems and software developed by the company.

Relativity also locked in a first official contract from the U.S. government this year, to launch a new experimental cryogenic fluid management system on behalf of client Lockheed Martin, as part of NASA’s suite of Tipping Point contracts to fund the development of new technologies for space exploration. It also put into service its third-generation Stargate 3D metal printers – the largest on Earth, as mentioned.

The company’s ambitions are big, so this new large funding round should provide it with fuel to grow even more aggressively in 2021. It’s got new planned initiatives underway, both terrestrial and space-related, but CEO and founder Tim Ellis specifically referred to Mars and sustainable operations on the red planet as one possible application of Relativity’s tech down the road.

In prior conversations, Ellis has alluded to the potential for Relativity’s printers when applied to other large-scale metal manufacturing – noting that the cost curve as it stands makes most sense for rocketry, but could apply to other industries easily as the technology matures. Whether on Mars or on Earth, large-scale 3D printing definitely has a promising future, and it looks like Relativity is well-positioned to take advantage.

We’ll be talking to Ellis at our forthcoming TC Sessions: Space event, so we’ll ask him more about this round and his company’s aspirations live there, too.

#3d-printing, #aerospace, #articles, #baillie-gifford, #ceo, #emerging-technologies, #fundings-exits, #iconiq-capital, #industrial-design, #lockheed-martin, #long-beach, #printer, #relativity-space, #robotics, #science, #science-and-technology, #space, #tc, #tiger-global-management, #tim-ellis, #u-s-government, #united-states

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That time on Thanksgiving when “debris” threatened the space shuttle

Flight Director James M. (Milt) Heflin, in Mission Control during the flight of STS-26 in 1988.

Enlarge / Flight Director James M. (Milt) Heflin, in Mission Control during the flight of STS-26 in 1988. (credit: NASA)

The phone call from the “Mountain” to Mission Control in Houston came at just about the worst possible time. It was the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning in 1991. Up in space, the crew members on board space shuttle Atlantis were sleeping. Now all of a sudden, Lead Flight Director Milt Heflin faced a crisis.

The flight dynamics officer in Mission Control informed Heflin that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, which tracked orbital traffic, had called to warn that a dormant Turkish satellite had a potential conjunction with the space shuttle in only 15 minutes. Moreover, this potential debris strike was due to occur in the middle of a communications blackout with the crew, as the spacecraft passed over the southern tip of Africa.

There was no way for Heflin’s engineers to calculate an avoidance maneuver, wake the crew, and communicate with them before the blackout period began. Heflin was livid—why had the Air Force not given more warning about a potential collision? Typically, they provided about 24 hours’ notice. By God, if that satellite hit Atlantis, they could very well lose the astronauts as they slept. The crew of STS-44 might never awaken.

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#features, #science

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Robots invade the construction site

Theresa Arevalo was in high school when she first tried finishing drywall at her brother’s construction company. “It’s a fine art,” she says of mudding—applying and smoothing drywall. “Like frosting a cake, you have to give the illusion that the wall is flat.”

Fast-forward a few decades: Arevalo now works at Canvas, a company that’s built a robot using artificial intelligence that’s capable of drywalling with almost as much artistry as a skilled human worker.

The robot has been deployed, under Arevalo’s supervision, at several construction sites in recent months, including the new Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco International Airport and an office building connected to the Chase Center arena in San Francisco.

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#ai, #biz-it, #canvas, #construction, #robots, #science

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Why are nuclear plants so expensive? Safety’s only part of the story

Image of two power plant cooling towers.

Enlarge (credit: US DOE)

Should any discussion of nuclear power go on for long enough, it becomes inevitable that someone will rant that the only reason they’ve become unaffordable is a proliferation of safety regulations. The argument is rarely (if ever) fleshed out—no specific regulation is ever identified as problematic, and there seems to be no consideration given to the fact that we might have learned something at, say, Fukushima that might merit addressing through regulations.

But there’s now a paper out that provides some empirical evidence that safety changes have contributed to the cost of building new nuclear reactors. But the study also makes clear that they’re only one of a number of factors, accounting for only a third of the soaring costs. The study also finds that, contrary to what those in the industry seem to expect, focusing on standardized designs doesn’t really help matters, as costs continued to grow as more of a given reactor design was built.

More of the same

The analysis, done by a team of researchers at MIT, is remarkably comprehensive. For many nuclear plants, they have detailed construction records, broken out by which building different materials and labor went to, and how much each of them cost. There’s also a detailed record of safety regulations and when they were instituted relative to construction. Finally, they’ve also brought in the patent applications filed by the companies who designed the reactors. The documents describe the motivations for design changes and the problems those changes were intended to solve.

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#construction, #energy, #nuclear-power, #science

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A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

Enlarge (credit: Haitong Yu | Getty Images)

If Jason Benkoski is right, the path to interstellar space begins in a shipping container tucked behind a laboratory high bay in Maryland. The set up looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi film: One wall of the container is lined with thousands of LEDs, an inscrutable metal trellis runs down the center, and a thick black curtain partially obscures the apparatus. This is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory solar simulator, a tool that can shine with the intensity of 20 suns. On Thursday afternoon, Benkoski mounted a small black and white tile onto the trellis and pulled a dark curtain around the set-up before stepping out of the shipping container. Then he hit the light switch.

Once the solar simulator was blistering hot, Benkoski started pumping liquid helium through a small embedded tube that snaked across the slab. The helium absorbed heat from the LEDs as it wound through the channel and expanded until it was finally released through a small nozzle. It might not sound like much, but Benkoski and his team just demonstrated solar thermal propulsion, a previously theoretical type of rocket engine that is powered by the sun’s heat. They think it could be the key to interstellar exploration.

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#heliopause, #interstellar-space, #nasa, #rocketry, #science, #space

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When AI sees a man, it thinks “official.” A woman? “Smile”

When AI sees a man, it thinks “official.” A woman? “Smile”

Enlarge (credit: Sam Whitney (illustration), Getty Images)

Men often judge women by their appearance. Turns out, computers do too.

When US and European researchers fed pictures of members of Congress to Google’s cloud image recognition service, the service applied three times as many annotations related to physical appearance to photos of women as it did to men. The top labels applied to men were “official” and “businessperson”; for women they were “smile” and “chin.”

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#ai, #gender, #science

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College undergrads find hidden text on medieval manuscript via UV imaging

Rochester Institute of Technology students discovered lost text on 15th-century manuscript leaves using an imaging system they developed as freshmen.

A page from a 15th-century medieval manuscript turns out to contain hidden text that is only visible under UV light. The discovery is due to the efforts of a team of undergraduate students at Rochester Institute of Technology, who built their own multispectral imaging system as part of a class project and managed to complete it despite the ongoing pandemic.

It’s not unprecedented to uncover previously hidden texts on ancient manuscripts. In 2016, an international team of scientists developed a method for “virtually unrolling” a badly damaged ancient scroll found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, revealing the first few verses from the Book of Leviticus. Similarly, in 2019, we reported that German scientists used a combination of cutting-edge physics techniques to virtually “unfold” an ancient Egyptian papyrus, part of an extensive collection housed in the Berlin Egyptian Museum. Their analysis revealed that a seemingly blank patch on the papyrus actually contained characters written in what had become “invisible ink” after centuries of exposure to light.

And earlier this year, we reported on a new analysis using multispectral imaging showing that four Dead Sea Scroll fragments housed at the University of Manchester in the UK—previously presumed to be blank—had readable text written in carbon-based ink, along with parts of characters and ruled lines. One fragment in particular showed the remnants of four lines of text, consisting of about 15 letters. Only one word, Shabbat (Sabbath), was readable, but based on the analysis, Joan Taylor of King’s College London thought the text related to the passages in Ezekiel 46:1-3.

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#gaming-culture, #history, #medieval-manuscripts, #multispectral-imaging, #physics, #science, #uv-fluorescence-imaging

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RocketLab’s “Return to Sender” launch does exactly what was promised

Image of a rocket leaving the launch pad.

Enlarge / What went up… (credit: RocketLab)

The small satellite launch company RocketLab made its first successful recovery of its Electron rocket after it had sent a collection of payloads toward orbit. While this rocket itself isn’t going to be reused, the company expects that it will get valuable data from sensors that returned to Earth with the vehicle. The satellite launch was a success as well, an important validation after the loss of seven satellites earlier this year.

As an added bonus, the company sent a garden gnome to space for charity.

One small step

The launch took place from the company’s facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula and in many respects was uneventful. The countdown went off without a hitch, the second stage took the payloads to orbit, and the kicker vehicle distributed the satellites to individual orbits. But things got a bit more complicated as the second stage separated, with engineers immediately starting to calculate the likely location where the first stage would return to earth—or, more accurately, ocean.

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#electron, #launch-vehicles, #rocket-lab, #science, #space

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Can artificial intelligence give elephants a winning edge?

Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.

You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.

Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.

Open-source developers are giving elephants a neural edge

Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.

These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.

Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.

The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.

Creating the world’s best elephant-tracking device

Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.

This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.

Open-source, community-powered, conservation-AI at work

With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.

The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.

The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.

Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.

With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!

Sara Olsson's TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard

Sara Olsson’s TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard. Image Credits: Sara Olsson

She completed her work in the Edge Impulse studio, creating the models and testing them with camera traps streams from Africam using an OpenMV camera from her home’s comfort.

Technology for good works, but human behavior must change

Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.

Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.

With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.

#africa, #artificial-intelligence, #column, #developer, #greentech, #internet-of-things, #machine-learning, #science, #western-digital, #world-wildlife-fund

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First COVID-19 vaccine goes to FDA today for emergency authorization

Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, United States on November 19, 2020.

Enlarge / Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, United States on November 19, 2020. (credit: Getty | Anadolu Agency)

Today the US Food and Drug Administration will receive its first submission of a candidate vaccine to fight the pandemic coronavirus.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech announced early this morning that they are submitting the formal request to obtain an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA for the companies’ mRNA vaccine, BNT162b2.

The submission follows the celebrated news just Wednesday that the companies had wrapped up their Phase III trial and found the vaccine to be 95-percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

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#biontech, #clinical-trial, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #pfizer, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Mask up! How to choose and maintain the best masks for use against COVID-19

Smiling eyes of a handsome young man in times of Covid 19

Enlarge (credit: Hello Africa / Getty)

As the United States enters into the colder months and record-high daily cases of COVID-19 continue to be broken on successive days, finding the best mask for your needs is more important than ever. While wearing something is always better than nothing, unfortunately, finding masks that meet WHO and CDC guidelines isn’t a particularly easy or fruitful endeavor. It’s not hard to meet these recommendations, but researching and compiling the best masks on the market for a range of different needs proved that few manufacturers do. Fortunately, there are some.

We’ve written at length on the current pandemic, how it’s been handled, and how best to handle yourself through these discombobulating times. This article will hopefully serve as a useful refresher on some of those topics, particularly the latest science on masks, how to use them, and what to look for when buying them.

Based off criteria from the CDC and WHO, we’ll also highlight a few options that should help keep everyone safe, whether you’re an outdoor runner, hard of hearing, or just in need of a quality reusable mask.

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#best-masks, #cdc, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science, #who

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Challenge accepted: Inventing a plausible far-flung future for ST: Discovery S3

Sonequa Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham in the third season of <em>Star Trek: Discovery</em>, which is set over 900 years in the future from the first two seasons.

Enlarge / Sonequa Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham in the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, which is set over 900 years in the future from the first two seasons. (credit: CBS All Access)

Star Trek: Discovery started out as a prequel to the original series, set roughly 10 years before Captain Kirk and his crew took over the USS Enterprise and boldly went where no man had gone before. But we’re now in uncharted territory with ST: Disco S3, which rocketed the ship and her crew over 900 years into the future. That posed a considerable creative challenge to stay true to the ethos of the franchise while reimagining its future—a challenge facing not just the writers, but series prop master Mario Moreira and science consultant Erin MacDonald as well.

(Some spoilers for S2 and the first five episodes of S3 below.)

The series stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, an orphaned human raised on the planet Vulcan by none other than Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife, Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner)—aka, Spock’s (Ethan Peck) parents. So she is Spock’s adoptive sister. As I’ve written previously, the S2 season-long arc involved the mysterious appearances of a “Red Angel” and a rogue Starfleet AI called Control that sought to wipe out all sentient life in the universe.

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#cbs-all-access, #entertainment, #gaming-culture, #physics, #science, #science-fiction-television, #star-trek, #star-trek-discovery, #streaming-television

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CDC Thanksgiving guidance: No traveling, no outside-household members

A Norman Rockwell (or Rockwell-esq) depiction of Thanksgiving gathering.

Enlarge / Good luck not getting COVID! (credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

In a rare press briefing Thursday, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or gather with people outside of their “households”—defined as only the people actively living together in the 14 days prior to a gathering.

The stark message from the premier public health agency may not seem surprising given the dire state of the country. Spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is out of control and at record levels. The United States reported more than 1 million new cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days alone. Hospitalizations are rising sharply, and health care facilities in several states are already overwhelmed. Deaths are also spiking. And there’s no end in sight. The situation is likely to only get worse as winter weather and holidays drive people indoors and together.

Still, the CDC’s press briefing drew awe from journalists, who have watched such briefings dwindle as the pandemic advanced. Numerous investigative reports have detailed how the Trump administration has sidelined, censored, and muted CDC scientists and officials during the global crisis.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #holiday, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #thanksgiving, #traveling

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New “targeted healing” approach rejuvenates run-down battery materials

Stock photo displays rows of batteries.

Enlarge (credit: Peter Miller / Flickr)

As electric vehicle adoption grows, the need for battery recycling is growing along with it. Typically, recycling involves breaking the battery down into pure chemical components that can be reconstituted for brand-new battery materials. But what if—at least for some battery chemistries—that’s overkill?

A new study led by Panpan Xu at the University of California, San Diego shows off a very different technique for lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries. This isn’t the most energy-dense type of lithium-ion battery, but it is economical and long-lived. (It’s the chemistry Tesla wants to rely on for shorter-range vehicles and grid storage batteries, for example.) Its low cost cuts both ways—less expensive ingredients mean less profit from recycling operations. But rejuvenating the lithium-iron-phosphate cathode material without breaking it down and starting over seems to be possible.

The idea behind the study relies on knowledge of how LFP battery capacity degrades. On the cathode side, the crystalline structure of the material doesn’t change over time. Instead, lithium ions increasingly fail to find their way back into their slots in the crystal during battery discharge. Iron atoms can move and take their place, plugging up the lithium pathway. If you could convince iron atoms to return to their assigned seats and repopulate with lithium atoms, you could have cathode material that is literally “as good as new.”

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#batteries, #lithium-ion-battery, #recycling, #science

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Iconic Arecibo radio telescope to be dismantled after 57-year run

The famous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which has provided an invaluable service to scientists for 57 years as well as establishing itself in popular culture, will be dismantled after it incurred irreparable damage in recent months.

The enormous observatory was completed in 1963 and immediately established itself as a powerful tool for astronomers and atmospheric scientists around the world. The enormous instrument boasted a larger size and different architecture than anything before it, opening up new possibilities for monitoring the universe (and transmitting to it, not something every array can do).

Countless researchers and projects used Arecibo, which as a federally funded resource was at least partly dedicated to public proposals. Signals coming through Arecibo helped inform our understanding of stellar objects from Mercury to distant pulsars.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence famously used the telescope to transmit a message at high power towards a nearby star cluster structured so that its artificial nature would be unmistakable, at least to any form of life remotely like our own. The organization also scoured years of the observatory’s data for patterns that may indicate intelligent life doing the same thing in reverse.

Arecibo’s crowning moment in pop culture, however, is certainly its appearance in the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye — and the wildly popular Nintendo 64 game based on it. Who could forget the climactic showdown between Bond and his antagonist, suspended hundreds of feet above the dish?

Sadly, Arecibo’s infrastructure has aged and the cost of replacing some parts seems to have been too great for its custodians to attempt. Though it has survived countless storms and earthquakes, the battering it has received in recent years seems was too much for some of its cables, two out of 12 of which broke in recent months, damaging the dish itself. It is suspected that the others may be in a poor state, and if so that vastly increases the danger and cost of repairs.

Consequently it was decided by the board at the University of Central Florida, which manages Arecibo on behalf of the National Science Foundations, that a controlled decommissioning was the only reasonable path forward.

“This decision was not an easy one to make,” the NSF’s Sean Jones told press at a briefing today. “We understand how much Arecibo means to the [scientific] community and to Puerto Rico.”

No specific plan has been arrived at yet for the dismantlement of the facility, but it would need to be done fairly soon to prevent more accidents from further reducing the safety of the site.

The loss of Arecibo is a grave one, and its capabilities are not replicated exactly by other observatories in the world, but it is no longer the largest or most sensitive radio telescope out there. Many successors have been built in the six decades since Arecibo was made operational; China just took the wraps of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope at the beginning of 2020, which promises to be an immensely important facility for astronomers worldwide.

While the famous telescope may soon be gone, Arecibo may remain as a scientific facility, suggested Arecibo’s program director at the NSF in remarks reported by Space.com. “We’re discussing the decommissioning of a structure made of steel and cables,” he said, “It’s the passion of the people that work at the observatory to continue to explore, to learn, that is the true heart and soul of Arecibo. It’s not the telescope that’s the heart and soul, it’s the people.”

#science, #space, #tc

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Astra targets December for next orbital launch attempt

Astra is set to launch it’s next orbital rocket, with a window that opens on December 7 and lasts for 12 days following until December 18, with an 11 AM to 2:30 PM PT block each day during which the launch could occur, depending on weather and conditions on the ground. This is the startup’s Rocket 3.2, a slightly revised and improved version of the Rocket 3.1 launch vehicle it flew in September.

Alameda-based Astra is a startup focused on building a small, relatively cheap-to-build launch vehicle that can carry small payloads to space at a rapid clip, with flexible launch location capabilities. It’s founded by former NASA CTO Chris Kemp, and backed by funding including Mac Benioff, Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canaan Partners and others, and it already has an active rocket assembly factory operating in the East Bay.

The company was originally founded with the goal of winning DARPA’s Launch Challenge, though the deadline for that has since passed. Astra still aims to essentially satisfying the functional requirements of that competition, by creating a launch vehicle that can be launched essentially on-demand when needed by clients looking for more responsive and mobile spaceflight capabilities, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

The goal of this next flight is similar to the goal of Rocket 3.1 in September: Essentially to study the startup’s rocket and boost its efficiencies while building its effectiveness. Actually reaching orbit isn’t a primary goal yet, but is a secondary, nice-to-have aim of this launch, which will take off from Kodiak in Alaska. The company already learned a ton from its first launch, including lessons that led to changes and improvements made to Rocket 3.2. It has always aimed for a three-flight initial orbital launch test series, and will also fly a Rocket 3.3 after this one incorporating additional lessons learned.

#aerospace, #airbus-ventures, #alaska, #astra, #canaan-partners, #chris-kemp, #east-bay, #flight, #launch-vehicle, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #rocket, #science, #space, #tc

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Big dish of Arecibo observatory has reached the end of the line

Image of a large silvery dish embedded in a hilltop.

Enlarge / An aerial view of the Arecibo facility, showing the increasingly fragile cables supporting the instrument platform, as well as the gash caused when one of those cables failed. (credit: University of Central Florida)

Today, the National Science Foundation announced that its famed Arecibo radio observatory would be shut down. Built into a hilltop in Puerto Rico, the main dish of the observatory is over 300 meters across, and its massive size has made it a feature in popular culture ranging from James Bond movies to video games. But despite a long history of scientific contributions, the observatory has been struggling for funding for over a decade, and two cables that support it have failed this year, leaving it in a precarious state.

After engineering studies determined there was no way to repair the hardware without putting workers at risk, the NSF made the decision to shut the observatory down.

More than a big dish

While the sheer scale of the main dish at Arecibo grabbed the most attention, the dish was purely a reflector. The actual business end of the telescope, where radio waves were sensed, was an instrument platform suspended high above it by cables strung from three towers. The instrument platform held a receiver that could be moved to different locations above the disk, giving it the ability to resolve signals from more directions than its fixed dish might suggest.

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#arecibo, #astronomy, #nsf, #radio-astronomy, #science, #science-policy

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Internalized gender-focused attitudes affect health, career prospects

Two women in red clothing.

Enlarge / Women in traditional Mosuo clothing. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In most societies, there are very easy to quantify differences between men and women. Women tend to live longer but earn less, for example. Historically, there has been a strong tendency to ascribe those differences to biology. But most societies treat women very differently, making disentangling biological and societal factors a challenge. This week, a couple of papers apply some interesting approaches to teasing the two apart.

In one, researchers looked at a matrilineal society in China to explore gender norms’ impact on health. In the second, a detailed survey explored how internalized expectations can influence engineering career success in the US.

A healthier society

The work on China focused on women’s health. Since women outlive men, you might expect that they’re generally healthy. You’d be wrong; women tend to have a higher disease burden than men do. To get a hint as to why that might be the case, the researchers looked at an ethnic group called the Mosuo, who occupy an area near Tibet, on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Some members of the Mosuo society have adopted patriarchal practices, with males as the head of the household. But others have women as the head of household, while their husbands continue to live with the families they grew up in. Children are raised by their mothers and remain part of her household.

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#behavioral-science, #engineering, #gender, #human-behavior, #physiology, #science

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Watch Rocket Lab launch 30 satellites and attempt to recover a rocket for the first time live

Launch provider Rocket Lab has a mission today – codenamed ‘Return to Sender,’ it’s the company’s 16th launch, and it will carry, among other things, a payload that will demonstrate a technology to help safely deorbit satellites. It has a secondary mission that’s potentially more important for Rocket Lab and the launch business in general, however: An attempted recovery of the first stage booster used during the flight. The launch is currently set for 8:44 PM EST (5:44 PM PST), and the webcast above will begin 30 minutes prior.

This is the first time that Rocket Lab will attempt to recover one of its launch vehicle first stages, and it’s significant in part because the company never intended to do this in the first place. Rocket Lab’s Electron was designed as a fully expendable launch vehicle, an intentionally different approach from other launch providers like SpaceX that focused on creating a smaller launch craft that could be constructed more quickly and launched more cheaply, but that sacrificed reusability as a trade-off.

All that changed with the surprise announcement last year that Rocket Lab would be aiming to introduce partial reusability into its existing system. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck explained during his presentation describing the reusability system that it would not involve a propulsive landing, like the kind used by SpaceX, but would instead use a navigation and guidance system to reorient the booster such that it would survive re-entry through an angled descent back into Earth’s atmosphere, and then deploy a parachute to slow it to the point where it could be caught by a helicopter and transported back to land.

Today’s recovery attempt won’t be a full test of that system as described; instead, it’ll see the first stage try to survive re-entry and then deploy its parachute, at which point it will hopefully float down to the ocean, from which Rocket Lab will then attempt to fish it out. The helicopter catch component, which Rocket Lab has demonstrated in a prior partial test, won’t be part of today’s activities.

The recovery attempt will be what most watchers are focused on today, but this mission has 30 total satellite payloads, and will carry a 3D-printed gnome from Valve’s Gabe Newell, which is a tech demo for new manufacturing techniques with potential space-based applications.

As a bonus, Rocket Lab is also donating $1 for every viewer of their livestream feed above to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at New Zealand’s Starship Foundation, so just by watching a really cool rocket launch, you’ll also be doing good in the world. That’s at 8:44 PM EST (5:44 PM PST) via the embedded YouTube stream at the top of this post, and they’ll kick off live coverage at around 8:14 PM EST (5:14 PM PST).

#aerospace, #booster, #ceo, #electron, #falcon-9, #gabe-newell, #outer-space, #peter-beck, #rocket-lab, #rocket-propulsion, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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Nvidia developed a radically different way to compress video calls

Instead of transmitting an image for every frame, Maxine sends keypoint data that allows the receiving computer to re-create the face using a neural network.

Enlarge / Instead of transmitting an image for every frame, Maxine sends keypoint data that allows the receiving computer to re-create the face using a neural network. (credit: Nvidia)

Last month, Nvidia announced a new platform called Maxine that uses AI to enhance the performance and functionality of video conferencing software. The software uses a neural network to create a compact representation of a person’s face. This compact representation can then be sent across the network, where a second neural network reconstructs the original image—possibly with helpful modifications.

Nvidia says that its technique can reduce the bandwidth needs of video conferencing software by a factor of 10 compared to conventional compression techniques. It can also change how a person’s face is displayed. For example, if someone appears to be facing off-center due to the position of her camera, the software can rotate her face to look straight instead. Software can also replace someone’s real face with an animated avatar.

Maxine is a software development kit, not a consumer product. Nvidia is hoping third-party software developers will use Maxine to improve their own video conferencing software. And the software comes with an important limitation: the device receiving a video stream needs an Nvidia GPU with tensor core technology. To support devices without an appropriate graphics card, Nvidia recommends that video frames be generated in the cloud—an approach that may or may not work well in practice.

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#generative-adversarial-networks, #machine-learning, #maxine, #neural-networks, #nvidia, #nvidia-maxine, #science, #tech

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Caribbean cruise COVID outbreak expands; Cruise line cancels voyages

A relatively small luxury liner at sea.

Enlarge / A SeaDream cruise liner sailing into the sunset. (credit: Courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club)

Plans for luxury cruises have quickly—and perhaps predictably—run aground in the Caribbean.

Cruise ship-operator SeaDream Yacht Club this week canceled all voyages for the rest of the year after one of its ships—the first to resume sailing in the region amid the pandemic—was wrecked by a COVID-19 outbreak last week.

So far, at least seven of the 53 passengers and two of the 66 crew aboard the yacht-style SeaDream I liner have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The infected and those testing negative have since disembarked.

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#caribbean, #covid-19, #cruise, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #seadream

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When stars collide: Solving the 16-year mystery of the Blue Ring Nebula

Beautiful stellar object.

Enlarge / The Blue Ring Nebula was discovered by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or GALEX, in 2004, but it took 16 years of observations with other telescopes, both on the ground and in space, to finally pin down its cause (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Seibert (Carnegie Institution for Science)/K. Hoadley (Caltech)/GALEX)

It took 16 long years, but astronomers have finally solved the puzzle of the mysterious Blue Ring Nebula, according to a new paper published in Nature. First spotted in 2004, the star with an unusual ultraviolet ring appears to be the result of two stars merging, spewing out debris in opposite directions and forming two glowing cones. It appears to us as a blue ring because one of those cones points directly at Earth. That makes this the first observation of a rare stage of stellar evolution, just a few thousand years into the process—akin to capturing a baby’s first steps.

The story begins with the so-called GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) mission, an all-sky survey in the ultraviolet band of the electromagnetic spectrum that was in operation from 2003 to 2013. Caltech physicist Chris Martin was the PI for GALEX when his team spotted an unusual object: a large, faint blob of glowing gas with a star at its center. GALEX makes measurements in both the far UV and near UV bands, but while most objects GALEX observed showed up in both bands, the stunning blue ring around the star dubbed TYC 2597-735-1 only showed up in the far UV.

Intrigued, Martin decided to investigate further, confident that he and his team could come up with a viable explanation by the end of the year. He thought the Blue Ring Nebula was most likely a supernova remnant or perhaps a planetary nebula formed from the remains of a star roughly the size of our Sun, even though these typically emit light in multiple wavelengths outside the UV range. But it turned out to be a far knottier problem.

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#astronomy, #blue-ring-nebula, #physics, #science, #space, #stellar-mergers

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Interlocking AIs let robots pick and place faster than ever

One of the jobs for which robots are best suited is the tedious, repetitive “pick and place” task common in warehouses — but humans are still much better at it. UC Berkeley researchers are picking up the pace with a pair of machine learning models that work together to let a robot arm plan its grasp and path in just milliseconds.

People don’t have to think hard about how to pick up an object and put it down somewhere else — it’s not only something we’ve had years of practice doing every day, but our senses and brains are well adapted for the task. No one thinks, “what if I picked up the cup, then jerked it really far up and then sideways, then really slowly down onto the table” — the paths we might move an object along are limited and usually pretty efficient.

Robots, however, don’t have common sense or intuition. Lacking an “obvious” solution, they need to evaluate thousands of potential paths for picking up an object and moving it, and that involves calculating the forces involved, potential collisions, whether it affects the type of grip that should be used, and so on.

Once the robot decides what to do it can execute quickly, but that decision takes time — several seconds at best, and possibly much more depending on the situation. Fortunately, roboticists at UC Berkeley have come up with a solution that cuts the time needed to do it by about 99 percent.

The system uses two machine learning models working in relay. The first is a rapid-fire generator of potential paths for the robot arm to take based on tons of example movements. It creates a bunch of options, and a second ML model, trained to pick the best, chooses from among them. This path tends to be a bit rough, however, and needs fine-tuning by a dedicated motion planner — but since the motion planner is given a “warm start” with the general shape of the path that needs to be taken, its finishing touch is only a moment’s work.

Diagram showing the decision process – the first agent creates potential paths and the second selects the best. A third system optimizes the selected path.

If the motion planner was working on its own, it tended to take between 10 and 40 seconds to finish. With the warm start, however, it rarely took more than a tenth of a second.

That’s a benchtop calculation, however, and not what you’d see in an actual warehouse floor situation. The robot in the real world also has to actually accomplish the task, which can only be done so fast. But even if the motion planning period in a real world environment was only two or three seconds, reducing that to near zero adds up extremely fast.

“Every second counts. Current systems spend up to half their cycle time on motion planning, so this method has potential to dramatically speed up picks per hour,” said lab director and senior author Ken Goldberg. Sensing the environment properly is also time-consuming but being sped up by improved computer vision capabilities, he added.

Right now robots doing pick and place are nowhere near the efficiency of humans, but small improvements will combine to make them competitive and, eventually, more than competitive. The work when done by humans is dangerous and tiring, yet millions do it worldwide because there’s no other way to fill the demand created by the growing online retail economy.

The team’s research is published this week in the journal Science Robotics.

#artificial-intelligence, #berkeley, #gadgets, #hardware, #robotics, #science, #tc, #uc-berkeley

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Pfizer reports final vaccine results: 95% efficacy

An illustration picture shows vials with Covid-19 Vaccine stickers attached, with the logo of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, on November 17, 2020.

Enlarge / An illustration picture shows vials with Covid-19 Vaccine stickers attached, with the logo of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, on November 17, 2020. (credit: Getty | JUSTIN TALLIS)

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech announced Wednesday that they have wrapped up the Phase III trial of their COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, finding it to be 95 percent effective at preventing disease and consistently effective across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics. The vaccine appeared effective at preventing cases of severe disease as well.

The companies added that they have also met a safety milestone—collecting a median of two months of safety monitoring data on trial participants—to file a request for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) with the US Food and Drug Administration. They plan to file the request “within days.”

“The study results mark an important step in this historic eight-month journey to bring forward a vaccine capable of helping to end this devastating pandemic,” Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “We continue to move at the speed of science to compile all the data collected thus far and share with regulators around the world.”

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#biontech, #covid-19, #fda, #immunization, #pfizer, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Mid-November Hurricane Iota was the latest Category 5 on record

Satellite photograph of storm crossing from ocean to land.

Enlarge / Hurricane Iota on Monday as it approached landfall. (credit: NASA EO)

This year’s unrelenting hurricane season is still rolling, and Monday evening saw Hurricane Iota make landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 storm. Despite the official end of the Atlantic hurricane season being less than two weeks away, Iota actually became the strongest hurricane of the year when it reached Category 5 on Monday morning.

This is the first November on record to see two major (Category 3+) hurricanes, and it’s the latest any storm has hit Category 5. The only other November category 5 occurred in 1932, and that was in the first week of the month. Iota is the 30th named storm of 2020—also a record. Once the list of 21 storm names for the year is exhausted, subsequent storms are simply designated by Greek letters.

Iota made landfall near Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua, bringing 155 mile-per-hour winds, rain, and storm surge. Unbelievably, this was just 15 miles south of the location Hurricane Eta made landfall (also as a Category 4) on November 3. This means many people who evacuated for Eta hadn’t even returned yet, but those who had were forced to evacuate again—amidst a pandemic.

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#hurricanes, #science, #tropical-cyclones

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Newest climate models shouldn’t raise future warming projections

Newest climate models shouldn’t raise future warming projections

Enlarge (credit: Brunner et al./ESD)

One notable storyline in the climate system over the past year or two has been the effort to make sense of the latest generation of climate models. In service of the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the world’s climate models have submitted their simulations to the latest database, known as CMIP6. These submissions showed that updates to a number of models had made them more sensitive to greenhouse gases, which means they project greater amounts of future warming.

Apart from diagnosing the behavior responsible for that change, climate scientists have also wrestled with the implications. Should we be alarmed by the results, or are they outliers? Climate models are only one tool among many for estimating Earth’s true “climate sensitivity,” so their behavior has to be considered in the full context of all the other evidence.

For a number of reasons, research is converging on the idea that the high temperature projections are outliers; these hotter models seem to be too hot. That will present a challenge for the scientists working on the next IPCC report: how much influence should these outliers have on projections of future warming?

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#climate-change, #climate-models, #earth-science, #science

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Upper stage issue causes Arianespace launch failure, costing 2 satellites

images of people in clean suits standing near metal hardware.

Enlarge / Technicians lower one of the doomed satellites into the Vega’s payload hardware. (credit: Arianespace)

An overnight launch of Arianespace’s Vega rocket failed after reaching space, costing France and Spain an Earth-observing satellite each. The failure represents the second in two years after Vega had built up a spotless record over its first six years of service.

The Vega is designed for relatively small satellites, typically handling total weights in the area of about 1,000 kilograms, though it can lift heavier items into lower orbits or take lighter ones higher. The trip to space is powered by a stack of three solid rocket stages; once in space, a reignitable liquid-fueled rocket can perform multiple burns that take payloads to specific orbits.

Vega had started off with a flawless launch record, averaging about two a year for its first six years of service before a solid booster failure caused the first loss in 2019. After the investigation into that failure, the rocket had returned to service just over two months ago with a successful launch.

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#arianespace, #failure, #launch-vehicles, #science, #space, #vega

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“Staggering and Tragic”: COVID-19 cases spike in US children, top 1 million

A woman in protective gear leans over a toddler in a bed.

Enlarge / Boston Medical Center Child Life Specialist Karlie Bittrich sees to a baby while in a pediatrics tent set up outside of Boston Medical Center in Boston on April 29, 2020. (credit: Getty | Boston Globe)

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket throughout the country, cases are also spiking in infants, children, and adolescents, and the group is now sharing more of the disease burden than ever recorded.

Cases in the young jumped 22 percent in the two weeks between October 29 and November 12, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The week ending on November 12 saw the largest one-week spike recorded in the pandemic, with 112,000 new cases.

There have now been more than 1 million cases in infants, children, and adolescents—collectively “children”—and the group is making up a larger proportion of cases than before. Children now make up 11.5 percent of total cases in the United States. At the end of July, children made up 8.8 percent of cases, up from 7.1 percent at the end of June and 5.2 percent at the beginning of June.

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#aap, #children, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docks with the International Space Station for first operational mission

SpaceX’s astronaut-ferrying Crew Dragon spacecraft is now docked to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, marking the successful completion of the first phase of its inaugural operational mission. Dragon was certified for human spaceflight earlier this month by NASA after having completed the development and testing program with a successful human demonstration flight earlier in 2020.

Dragon lifted off from Florida on Sunday evening, carrying four astronauts, including NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi. The spacecraft then spent a little over a day on orbit, moving into position to meet the Space Station and prepare for docking. It completed that late on Monday night, acting completely autonomously using SpaceX’s automated docking software to connect to the Space Station’s new international docking adapter, and then the hatch was opened by the existing ISS crew and the newly arrived team members made their way over.

The successfully docking and hatch opening means that SpaceX and NASA have achieved their goals so far with the Commercial Crew program: Creating a viable and effective means of launching people from the U.S. to space, and to the ISS. This mission’s astronauts will now spend the next six months at the Space Station, with Dragon attached, and then they’ll return likely next June in the second and final phase of this inaugural mission, which will prove that the system also works for coming back to Earth.

#aerospace, #commercial-crew-program, #florida, #international-space-station, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #science, #space, #space-station, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #united-states

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