Wednesday, June 19, 2024

News at a glance: Webb telescope dinged, U.S.-Russia research paused, and NASA’s UFO study

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Star mapper provides Milky Way portrait
he European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite has now mapped almost 2 billion of the Milky Way’s stars, logging their positions, speeds, temperatures, and other parameters—and allowing astronomers to chart the Galaxy’s structure and evolution. Last week, operators released the third major trove of data, including lists of 800,000 binary stars, 10 million variable stars, and, within the Solar System, 156,000 asteroids and rocky bodies. Launched in 2013, Gaia has already uncovered new nearby satellite galaxies, fast-moving stars escaping the Milky Way, and evidence of past galaxies that merged with ours. The new data show thousands of stars are convulsed by giant, violent waves. And, for the first time, the data also include spectra—breakdowns of starlight—that point to chemical compositions. Stars forge heavier elements and disperse them when they explode; the elements are taken up by subsequent generations of stars. Mapping that information shows the abundance of heavy elements is highest in the Galaxy’s central disk, where stars live fast and die young.


Dust grain hits Webb space telescope
One mirror segment of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was struck by a micrometeoroid last month, leading to a “marginally detectable effect” on its data collection, the agency said last week. Launched nearly 6 months ago, Webb has a 6.5-meter, gold-coated mirror made of 18 hexagonal segments. Mission planners expected many specks of high-speed space dust to ding Webb during its lifetime and simulated their impact using spare mirror segments. Operators recorded four small strikes during Webb’s deployment and commissioning phase. NASA estimated the speck that struck it in May was larger, but less than 0.1 millimeter wide. The telescope is designed to withstand many such hits, and engineers have already adjusted the shape and position of the affected mirror segment to mitigate distortion from the damage; NASA says the telescope’s performance still exceeds all mission requirements.


U.S. nixes funding Russia work
The U.S. government last week said it will not fund new collaborations with research institutions affiliated with Russia’s government and individuals working at those institutions, in response to Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine. The 11 June announcement comes months after several European nations went further, freezing existing collaborations. The U.S. policy allows existing joint projects to continue until completed. Some U.S. institutions have already voluntarily canceled existing collaborations with Russian universities; for example, in February the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pulled out of one with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, which MIT had helped found.

Portion of the world’s population likely infected by Lyme disease. The estimate comes from a meta-analysis in BMJ Global Health of 89 studies involving 158,287 people that examined the presence of blood antibodies. Prevalence has grown since 2010.


Don’t rule out lab leak, panel says
In yet another attempt to determine the origin of the pandemic, a new group of experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) last week issued a preliminary report that calls for further study of several ideas, including the contentious one that SARS-CoV-2 might have escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. An earlier WHO-organized commission drew controversy in 2021 by ranking the lab-leak notion “extremely unlikely” and not a priority for further study. Its successor, the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), says the idea can’t be ruled out, although “the strongest evidence” supports the hypothesis that the virus jumped from animals to humans, SAGO’s chair, South African virologist Marietjie Venter, said at a 9 June press conference. China has rejected the lab-leak theory, and panel members from China, Brazil, and Russia said they see no reason to study it further. SAGO also proposes a more careful examination of the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 jumped into humans at a Wuhan market that sold several mammalian species susceptible to the virus.


Marine canyon to be preserved
President Joe Biden’s administration last week proposed to make Hudson Canyon, an underwater chasm in the Atlantic Ocean, a national marine sanctuary. It would join a handful of other federally protected reserves off the eastern seaboard of the United States. The largest underwater canyon in this region, Hudson Canyon is roughly 160 kilometers southeast of New York City. It plunges to 4000 meters at its deepest point, and its drop below the surrounding seabed rivals the Grand Canyon’s depth. Hudson Canyon is home to more than 200 species of fish and other organisms, such as sperm whales, cold water corals, and sea turtles, some classified as vulnerable, and is dotted by shipwrecks. The designation would not automatically ban commercial fishing; federal officials plan to finalize allowed human activities after a 90-day comment period.


Land-use maps pick up speed

A map of land types shows the Taal volcano in the Philippines before (left) and after it erupted in 2020. Green represents trees; gray, bare land.IMAGERY © 2022/CNES; AIRBUS/LANDSAT; COPERNICUS/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES

Researchers studying the ecological and environmental changes wrought by humanity now will have access to sharper and more frequently updated maps of Earth’s surface, categorized by land-use types such as trees, built-up areas, and bare land. The World Resources Institute (WRI) and Google last week unveiled Dynamic World, a project that publishes global, digital land-use maps as frequently as every 2 days at resolutions as fine as 10 meters. By comparison, many countries have produced maps with no better than 30-meter resolution and only update them annually, reflecting the time it takes to identify land types. Some regional maps are revised monthly, but even that pace is too slow to capture rapid change from wildfire or flooding. The new maps are based on imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites; Google tailored artificial intelligence algorithms to estimate probable land-cover types, a method described last week in Nature Scientific Data.


U.K. eyes scrutiny of foreign ties
U.K. universities may be forced to declare funding of more than £75,000 from “foreign actors,” under proposed legislation. The law, which aims to protect free speech in higher education, would also give the government new powers to police the effects of university funding from countries such as China and Russia. It would exempt countries in the European Union and NATO, as well as those belonging to the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, a U.K. program to weed out foreign students who may pose a national security threat. The move follows concerns about foreign influence on U.K. universities, including Chinese efforts to block discussions of controversial topics, such as Taiwan and the treatment of Uighur Muslims. The legislation would also ban Confucius Institutes—Chinese centers of language and culture that have been closed in the United States.


Storm watchers fail to reach orbit
A rocket launch carrying two small hurricane-monitoring satellites for NASA ended in disappointment on 12 June. Rocketmaker Astra said the rocket’s second stage malfunctioned after liftoff; the CubeSats likely fell into the ocean and were destroyed. It was the fifth failure out of seven orbital launch attempts by the fledgling company. The satellites were the first two of six planned CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, in NASA’s $30 million TROPICS mission. Mission managers intend to use microwave radiometers to see through clouds and measure the temperature and moisture of tropical storms. The fleet would improve forecasts of hurricane intensity by observing storms as often as every 50 minutes. The mission can still achieve many of its science goals with just four satellites, which Astra rockets are also supposed to launch.


Rename monkeypox strains?
Identifying monkeypox strains by their place of origin in Africa is “discriminatory and stigmatizing,” says an international group of researchers who have urged an overhaul of how the fast-spreading virus is named. Years ago, researchers divided monkeypox viruses into two “clades,” or branches, named after the regions—West Africa and the Congo Basin—where many were first found. (The two clades differ in their genomes and the severity of disease caused.) But monkeypox needs a new, “practical and neutral system of nomenclature,” the international group argues in a preprint posted last week on a virology website. They suggest renaming the Congo Basin and West African clades as 1 and 2, respectively, and creating a separate clade, 3, for the current human outbreak strains, given their differences from those in the other two. The outbreak’s origin remains unknown. The call to rename the clades echoes debates over the names of other diseases and pathogens; one such recent discussion led to the current nomenclature for SARS-CoV-2 variants, with Greek letters replacing geographical names like the Wuhan or South African strain.

In Focus

Cactus bees (Diadasia rinconis) swarm in a mating ball in Texas in a photo that won the Grand Prize in the annual BigPicture competition, run by the California Academy of Sciences. Cactus bees are mostly solitary.This gallery was originally published in bioGraphic, an independent magazine about nature and conservation powered by the California Academy of Sciences, and media partner of the BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition.


China to grow journal portfolio
China plans to launch 50 new English-language academic journals in the next year in an ambitious expansion of its program to create world-class publications, Zhang Yuzhuo of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) said at a press conference last week. Since 2019, the Chinese government has supported establishing up to 30 new journals each year. This year, CAST is accepting proposals in fields ranging from astronomy and artificial intelligence to public health and software engineering. Each approved new journal will get a one-time grant of $74,000 to help cover startup costs. The plan has also provided grants to 250 existing publications to support training staff and upgrading websites. The journals’ improving quality has attracted more submissions and led to rising citation counts, says Xiaotian Chen, a librarian at Bradley University. Chen says Cell Research, Molecular Plant, and National Science Review are examples of Chinese journals that have gained international stature.


U.S. ends travel testing rule
People bound for the United States and its territories no longer need to test for the pandemic coronavirus ahead of traveling, President Joe Biden’s administration announced last week. Since January 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had mandated that those flying into the country, including U.S. citizens, present a negative SARS-CoV-2 test result obtained no more than 24 hours prior to their arrival. (Those who had been infected with the virus in the 90 days prior to travel had to show proof they had recovered.) The testing requirement could now be lifted because “the COVID-19 pandemic has now shifted to a new phase,” given broad uptake of vaccines and high immunity levels, CDC’s announcement stated. An agency official said CDC plans to re-evaluate its decision in 90 days. It will monitor viral variants of concern and reinstate the testing mandate if needed.


Troubled beagle facility to close
A facility that has bred thousands of beagles for medical research and been criticized for more than 70 violations of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) will be shut down, its owner, contract research organization Inotiv, said this week. CEO Robert Leasure cited the growing cost of fixing the problems at the Cumberland, Virginia, establishment. The decision came 2 months after Virginia enacted a law that prevents facilities from selling dogs or cats for research if they sustain a single, serious violation of the AWA after June 2023. In a first for a research breeding facility, the Department of Justice last month sued Inotiv subsidiary Envigo, which operates the facility, seeking to force AWA compliance and seized 446 puppies and dogs that veterinarians said were “in acute distress.” In a 13 June hearing, attorneys for the government and the company sparred over whether it should be allowed to sell about 3000 dogs there to research clients or be compelled to give them away for adoption.


NASA steps into UFO hunt
NASA said last week it will spend up to $100,000 to gather data relevant to understanding “unidentified aerial phenomena,” more commonly known as UFOs. The civilian agency has typically eschewed any studies of UFOs; only in recent years has it resumed funding research in the broader field of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The project parallels separate efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense to document and categorize UFO reports, after Congress directed it to create a permanent office for UFO investigations. NASA’s independent study team will be led by astrophysicist David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, described the new effort as complementary to its existing SETI research, which looks for “technosignatures” of advanced civilizations in astronomical observations. “NASA believes that the tools of scientific discovery are powerful and apply here also,” Zurbuchen said in a statement.

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