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Photosynthesis before oxygen may have kept the early Earth warm

Sun, 12/17/2017 - 12:00

Photosynthesis. (credit: Petr Pakandl / WikiCommons)

“The so-called ‘faint young Sun paradox’ has long been a topic of debate because its resolution bears important ramifications for the basic factors structuring climate regulation and the long-term habitability of Earth and Earth-like exoplanets.” So begins Chris Reinhard’s new paper in Nature.

Reinhard is a Principal Investigator at the Alternative Earths Team of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which has a goal of “unraveling the evolving redox state of Earth’s early atmosphere as a guide for exoplanet exploration” and eventual habitability.

The paradox at issue is that, three billion-ish years ago, our Sun was about 25-percent dimmer than it is today. Yet geological records suggest that the Earth was even warmer then than it is now. Most solutions to the paradox figure that there must have been high levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Two big questions are related to that, though: which gasses, and what sort of processes put them there? Geological, chemical, and biological factors have all been suggested, with a different mix of gasses depending on the cause.

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Local Roots: Farm-in-a-box coming to a distribution center near you

Sat, 12/16/2017 - 12:00

Enlarge / The interior of a TerraFarm. (credit: Local Roots)

Eric and Matt could not be more earnest in their quest to feed the world.

These two fresh-faced LA boys founded Local Roots four years ago. Their first purchases were broken-down, 40-foot shipping containers—this is apparently easy to do, since it is cheaper for shipping companies to just churn out new ones rather than fix broken ones. Local Roots then upcycles them into modular, shippable, customizable farms, each of which can grow as much produce as five acres of farmland. The idea is to supplement, not supplant, outdoor agriculture. And Ars got a look at one of these "farms" when it was set up in New York City recently.

Every aspect of the TerraFarm, as the repurposed shipping containers have been dubbed, has been designed and optimized. The gently pulsing LED lights are purplish—apparently, that’s what lettuce likes—and the solution in which the plants are grown is clean and clear. The "farm" is bright and vibrant, and it smells great in there.

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California: Here’s how to handle unfounded fears of cell phone cancer

Sat, 12/16/2017 - 10:30

Enlarge / A man is seen calling on an iPhone on October 30, 2017. (credit: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The California Department of Public Health officially issued a guidance Friday on how to reduce exposure to radio-frequency energy released by cell phones—despite a lack of solid scientific data suggesting that such exposure poses any harm.

The guidance follows the Department’s legal defeat earlier this year surrounding the release of such a guidance.

In 2014, public health researcher Joel Moskowitz of the University of California, Berkeley, sued the department after it refused to release the guidance to him. The Department said at the time that its guidance was merely an unapproved, incomplete draft that was not ready for public release and could needlessly raise alarm. In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, the Department further explained that it had shelved the guidance years ago in accordance with the latest stance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the time—and to this day—the CDC says that there is no definitive data on the subject and that “more research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”

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ISS astronauts will get their own Star Wars premiere—in space

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 16:00

Enlarge / In space, no one can hear you stream. Because the latency would kill you. (credit: NASA)

When you're orbiting 400 kilometers above the Earth, getting to the movie-plex to watch the latest science fiction blockbuster is a bit of a drag. But the current crew of the International Space Station will still be able to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi, according to a report from Inverse—and they'll do so while in orbit.

NASA Public Affairs Officer Dan Huot told Inverse that the ISS crew “will be able to watch it in orbit. Don’t have a definitive timeline yet."

This is at least partially thanks to the improvements made in the ISS's communications systems in 2013. Those updates were intended to improve the "scientific output" of the space station, which once had to essentially rely on dial-up speed connections. The High Rate Communications System (HRCS) gave the ISS a massive upgrade in its downlink and uplink speeds—increasing the bandwidth of uplink from the ground to 25 megabits per second, making it qualify as broadband under FCC guidelines. The downlink speeds—the rate at which ISS can send data to ground stations—is a blazing 300 megabits per second. The high-speed networking gear and accompanying Ethernet upgrades were executed by the ISS's commander at the time, Canadian astronaut and interstellar rock star Chris Hadfield, and Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn.

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New discovery pushes star Kepler-90’s menagerie to eight planets

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 15:50

Enlarge / That's a lot of mouths to feed. (credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel)

If you have an emotional attachment to our Solar System’s distinctions, you may want to look away. We’ve found another star system with eight planets, tying our own mark. Oh, and a Google machine-learning algorithm is responsible for the discovery.

This is one of two new exoplanets scraped from the massive archive of data from the Kepler space telescope by NASA’s Andrew Vanderburg and Christopher Shallue of the Google AI team. Planets detected by Kepler show up as slight dips in the brightness of a star—the result of the planet passing in front and blocking some of the light. Some planets are more obvious than others, and the goal here was to turn the algorithm loose on digging through past measurements for weak signals that had been missed.

Like all machine learning systems, this one was fed measurements from previously identified exoplanets to work out what differentiates real signals from coincidental blips. The researchers say the system emerged with the ability to correctly identify false positives about 96 percent of the time.

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NASA is trying to make the Space Launch System rocket more affordable

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 15:37

Enlarge / Artist concept of the Space Launch System. (credit: NASA/MSFC)

NASA has said that one of the strengths of its Space Launch System rocket is that the massive booster, in part, uses legacy hardware. These proven technologies, such as the space shuttle's main engines and the side-mounted rocket boosters, provide the agency with confidence that when it finally flies, the SLS will be reliable.

However, one problem with legacy hardware, built by traditional contractors such as Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, is that it's expensive. And while NASA has not released per-flight estimates of the expendable SLS rocket's cost, conservative estimates peg it at $1.5 to $2.5 billion per launch. The cost is so high that it effectively precludes more than one to two SLS launches per year.

The space agency recognizes this problem with its rocket, and in the past it has solicited ideas on how best to cut the production and operations costs for its SLS rocket. Now, the agency appears to be actively considering alternative hardware, including the use of potentially lower-cost engines from a new space rocket company, Blue Origin.

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World Health Organization clashes with DEA on marijuana compound CBD

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 10:49

Enlarge / COLORADO SPRINGS, CO. - August 05, 2014: Janea Cox director of the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation, with her daughter Haleigh, who was diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, looks at the plants that make Haleigh's Hope, a cannabis oil high in cannabidiol, or CBD, that is helping control her seizures. (credit: Getty | Joe Amon)

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has long held that the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, cannabidiol, is a schedule I drug. That is, a drug that has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But according to a preliminary report embraced by the World Health Organization this week, the DEA’s long-held stance is tripping.

In a preliminary report last month, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence concluded—and WHO agreed—that clinical and pre-clinical studies of CBD show no evidence of a potential for users to abuse the drug or suffer any harms. Moreover, the experts found plenty of inklings that CBD has medical benefits, particularly for treating epilepsy. In its conclusion, the ECDD declared that the current data “does not justify scheduling of cannabidiol.”

The ECDD’s report is just a first glance, however. The committee, which is generally tasked with assessing which drugs should be internationally controlled (scheduled) and how, will take a more extensive look in May of 2018. Then, it will review cannabis overall, as well as other cannabis compounds.

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Watch live: SpaceX goes for its 17th launch of 2017

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 09:10

Enlarge / This is SpaceX's 13 supply mission to the International Space Station. (credit: NASA)

SpaceX will attempt to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station on Friday morning, with an instantaneous launch window that opens at 10:36am ET. There are some clouds at the launch site, but overall weather conditions appear favorable for a liftoff today.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the technical problems with the launch have been solved. Originally targeted for Tuesday, SpaceX delayed a day to Wednesday for additional pre-launch ground systems checks. Then the company delayed until Friday because it had detected "particles" in the fuel system of the rocket's second stage. As a result, it needed to conduct "full inspections and cleanings."

The rocket did go vertical on Space Launch Complex-40 early on Friday, increasing confidence that a flight will occur today. The Dragon spacecraft atop the rocket will carry 4,800 pounds of crew supplies and payloads, as well as more than 250 science and research payloads. About eight minutes after launch, the Falcon 9's first stage will attempt to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1.

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Teaser: Coming next Tuesday, our Apollo celebration lands on the Moon

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 08:35

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

First, it took the acceptance of risk for NASA to fly into space—and to return to flight after three astronauts died. Then, it took guts to send astronauts on a round trip into lunar orbit and back. But in 1969, after years of increasingly frenetic activity, the efforts of nearly half a million men and women were finally rewarded with the ultimate trip: a safe lunar landing and return, before the end of the decade.

Apollo 11 is special—not just to the history of NASA or the United States of America, but for the entire world and all who live on her. On a plain summer day in July of 1969, just past three o'clock in the afternoon Houston time, three humans landed a fragile spacecraft with paper-thin walls on another world. It was to be the first time humans walked on a celestial body other than our home—and, for a few hours, we as a species were more than Americans and Soviets and Chinese and Britains and so on. Those three people boldly making footprints where no one had gone before showed us that we truly were, as Apollo 8's Frank Borman put it, all people of "the good Earth."

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Video: See our full interview with EVA flight controller Grier Wilt

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

Working outside a spacecraft in a spacesuit—or walking on the Moon in one—is among the most dangerous activities that an astronaut can take part in. Officially referred to as "EVA" in NASA acronym shorthand—that's short for "extravehicular activity"—and commonly called "spacewalking" by the public, leaving the pressurized metal protection of your ship or station and floating in the void means committing yourself to a dynamic environment where conditions can change very rapidly. EVAs typically last a few hours but require months of training in the agency's giant swimming pool to ensure everything goes well.

The capstone activities of Apollo were the surface EVAs, where astronauts planted flags, placed experiments, drove space cars, and otherwise tried to cram as much activity as possible into very short windows of time. It's difficult to come up with a meaningful estimate for the per-minute cost of each lunar EVA, but estimates in the millions of dollars per minute aren't far off; with that kind of cost pressure, Apollo astronauts on the lunar surface had to do everything they could to maximize the impact of each trip outside the lunar module.

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Video: See our full interview with NASA astronaut Victor Glover

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

In pulling together our interviewee list for "The Greatest Leap," we knew we wanted to talk not just to the luminaries who made Project Apollo a reality 50 years ago, but also to modern-day astronauts. After all, the NASA we have today owes its existence to the space race of the 1950s and '60s, and in many ways, it's still the same agency that put people on the Moon. (Though, as we all sit here on Earth without a moonbase above our heads, it's clear that the agency lacks the followthrough many people expected it to have.)

We were exceptionally lucky to be able to sit down for an hour or so with Victor Glover, an accomplished aviator and test pilot who became an astronaut four years ago. Glover's perspective on the current state of the astronaut corps and the way NASA operates provides a fascinating window into what it's like to be an astronaut now—and what it might have been like to train for that voyage from the Earth to the Moon.

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Just 20 percent of e-waste is being recycled

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 18:15

Enlarge (credit: UNU/ITU)

Opting to handle your bills online keeps a lot of paper out of the bin, but the devices you use to go online eventually die anyway. If this “e-waste” ends up in a landfill, the energy and materials that went into manufacturing and delivering those devices are lost. And besides being unsustainable, disposal can expose people to hazardous metals and compounds.

Apart from a story here and there about a new e-waste recycling project, it’s hard to get an idea of just how much e-waste is getting tossed around the world. A new report from the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union helps paint a picture by providing some global statistics.

Altogether, the report estimates that nearly 45 million tons of electronics were thrown out in 2016—and only about 20 percent of it is known to have been recycled. The report puts the value of the raw materials in that 45 million tons of e-waste at about $55 billion ($9 billion from smartphones alone), but most of that waste isn’t being recovered.

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SB WUZ HERE: Surgeon pleads guilty to burning initials into patients’ organs

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 16:31

Enlarge (credit: Getty | ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT)

It’s usually OK to be proud of your work and lend your name to it. But most people would draw the line at signing their initials into the flesh of internal organs.

Not Dr. Simon Bramhall of the UK, apparently. He pleaded guilty to charges that he etched his initials, “SB,” onto the livers of two transplant patients with an argon beam in 2013. Bramhall admitted the assaults in a hearing in Birmingham crown court on Wednesday, according to several news outlets. In doing so, he pleaded guilty to two counts of assault by beating, but he pleaded not guilty to the more serious charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Prosecutors were said to have accepted his pleas, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on January 12.

Bramhall previously worked at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, where he gained fame for a dramatic liver transplant in 2010. Bramhall transplanted a liver following the fiery crash-landing of the plane that was transporting the donor liver to Birmingham. Though the pilots were injured, the liver was intact and salvaged from the burning wreckage. The transplant spared the life of Dr. Bramhall's desperately ill patient.

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Video: See our full interview with NASA propulsion engineer Norman Chaffee

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Transcript coming soon. (video link)

While many of our interviewees had "front office" jobs in the space program—pilots, astronauts, flight controllers—some of the most interesting interview bits came from the pure engineers. That includes folks like Norman Chaffee, who started his career at NASA in May of 1962 and who, during the course of that career, worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs. Chaffee didn't fly the spacecraft—he helped make them.

Specifically, Chaffee was a propulsion engineer. He helped make the reaction control thrusters on the Gemini capsule a reality. Those are the little thrusters, often fueled by either hypergolic propellants or cold gas, that are used during the mission to change the spacecraft's attitude in roll, pitch, and yaw. After Gemini, Chaffee worked on thruster design for the Apollo command module and then, finally, on the reaction control thrusters for the Grumman-manufactured Lunar Module. (Chaffee's NASA oral history page has some amazing stories in it for readers who want to know more).

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After 14 months, a new and improved New Shepard flies again

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 07:15

Blue Origin

When Blue Origin last flew its New Shepard system, the spacecraft intentionally triggered its abort system 45 seconds after launch. As the spacecraft blasted away from the booster, its escape motor slammed the rocket with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. Nevertheless, both the spacecraft and rocket returned safely to the West Texas launch site for a successful test flight.

In the 14 months since that abort-test flight, Blue Origin has been working on an upgraded version of the rocket—to improve its capacity for rapid, low-cost reusability—and the capsule in which six passengers will eventually ride to space inside. For example, the test capsule used during flights in late 2015 and 2016, had painted-on windows. The new variant has actual windows, which at 3.6 feet tall may be the largest of any spacecraft has flown into space.

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FDA is not cuckoo for Coco Loko, a chocolatey alternative to snorting cocaine

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 18:10

Enlarge (credit: Legal Lean)

In July, US Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer held a press conference to denounce a chocolate-flavored energy powder meant for snorting, called Coco Loko. He dubbed it “cocaine on training wheels” and called on the Food and Drug Administration to investigate.

The agency did, it turns out. And though regulators didn’t come up with a description quite as catchy as Schumer’s, their assessment of Coco Loko was even more damning.

Regulators determined that the powder was an unapproved new drug and that its maker, Legal Lean, was unlawfully marketing it, according to a Tuesday announcement. Moreover, the agency also looked into another product by the company, Legal Lean Syrup. The agency found that it, too, was an unapproved drug. The syrup contained an undisclosed sedative, doxylamine, which is found in the over-the-counter sleep-aid Unisom.

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We can make plants pass out—with the same drugs that mysteriously knock us out

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 12:52

Enlarge / Venus fly traps sit on display at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden on July 20, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (credit: Getty | Adam Berry)

A verdant garden, softly draped with all manner of greenery, is a tranquil setting to most. But to scientists, it can be tranquilized further.

Just like humans, plants can succumb to the effects of general anesthetic drugs, researchers report this week in the Annals of Botany. The finding is striking for a variety of reasons—there’s the pesky fact that plants lack a central nervous system, for one thing. But, perhaps more noteworthy is that scientists still aren’t sure how general anesthetics work on humans—let alone plants. Despite that, doctors have been using the drugs daily for more than a century to knock people out and avert pain during surgeries and other medical procedures. Yet the drugs’ exact effects on our body’s cells and electrical signals remain elusive.

The authors of the new study, led by Italian and German plant biologists, suggest that plants could help us—once and for all—figure out the drugs’ mechanism of action. Moreover, the researchers are hopeful that after that’s sorted out, plants could be a useful tool to study and develop new anesthetic drugs. “As plants in general, and the model plant [Arabidopsis] thaliana in particular, are suitable to experimental manipulation (they do not run away) and allow easy electrical recordings, we propose them as ideal model objects to study anaesthesia and to serve as a suitable test system for human anaesthesia,” they conclude.

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Apollo 8 and the 50/50 bet that won the Space Race for America

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

By the summer of 1968, a sense of deep unease had engulfed the American republic. Early in the year, the Tet Offensive smashed any lingering illusions of a quick victory in the increasingly bloody Vietnam conflict. Race relations boiled over in April when a single rifle bullet took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, as Bobby Kennedy walked through a hotel kitchen, he was shot in the head. The red, white, and blue threads that had bound America for nearly two centuries were faded and fraying.

Amid this national turmoil, senior planners at the country’s space agency were also having a difficult year. Late that summer they quietly faced their most consequential decision to date. If NASA was going to meet the challenge laid out by President John F. Kennedy, its astronauts would soon have to take an unprecedented leap by leaving low-Earth orbit and entering the gravity well of another world—the Moon. Should they do it?

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President Trump says we’re going back to the Moon

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 15:51

Enlarge / President Trump making remarks Monday during a ceremony for signing Space Policy Directive-1. (credit: NASA TV)

NASA has had a big problem since the agency triumphantly landed humans on the Moon nearly half a century ago. Namely, after the Apollo landings delivered a solid US victory in the Cold War, human exploration has no longer aligned with the strategic national interest. In other words, sending humans into space has represented a nice projection of soft power, but it has not been essential to America's domestic and foreign policy aims.

As a result, NASA's share of the federal budget has declined from just shy of five percent at the height of the Apollo program to less than 0.5 percent today. At the same time, NASA's mandate has grown to encompass a broad array of Earth science, planetary science, and other missions that consume more than half of the agency's budget.

With less buying power for human exploration, NASA has had to scale back its ambitions; and as a result, astronauts have not ventured more than a few hundred miles from Earth since 1972. Twice before, presidents have attempted to break free of low-Earth orbit by proposing a human return to the Moon, with eventual missions to Mars. President George H.W. Bush did so with the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. And George W. Bush did so in 2004, with the Vision for Space Exploration. Neither of these were bad concepts—indeed, both offered bold, ambitious goals for the space agency—but they died due to a lack of commitment and funding.

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SpaceX has a momentous launch this week

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 09:00

Enlarge / The rocket launching Tuesday first flew on June 3, 2017, and then (shown here) landed back on the Florida coast. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX will attempt to launch its 17th mission of 2017 on Tuesday, a cargo supply flight to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 11:46am ET, and weather conditions are expected to be near perfect, with a 90 percent chance of go conditions.

This flight is notable for several reasons. Already this year SpaceX has re-flown one of its Falcon 9 rockets, and reused a Dragon spacecraft for a station supply mission. This mission will combine both, marking the first time SpaceX has used a "flight proven" booster for a NASA launch and combined it with a used Dragon spacecraft. This booster first flew in July (also on an ISS cargo mission), and the spacecraft first flew to the station in 2015.

The launch attempt also marks a return to an old launch pad for the California-based company. When a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload blew up in September, 2016, the explosion did significant damage to Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch pad has been out of service since then.

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