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The End of Babies

Sun, 11/17/2019 - 10:01

In the fall of 2015, a rash of posters appeared around Copenhagen. One, in pink letters laid over an image of chicken eggs, asked, "Have you counted your eggs today?" A second -- a blue-tinted close-up of human sperm -- inquired, "Do they swim too slow?"The posters, part of a campaign funded by the city to remind young Danes of the quiet ticking of their biological clocks, were not universally appreciated. They drew criticism for equating women with breeding farm animals. The timing, too, was clumsy: For some, encouraging Danes to make more babies while television news programs showed Syrian refugees trudging through Europe carried an inadvertent whiff of ugly nativism.Dr. Soren Ziebe, former chairman of the Danish Fertility Society and one of the brains behind the campaign, believes the criticism was worth weathering. As the head of Denmark's largest public fertility clinic, Dr. Ziebe thinks these kinds of messages, fraught as they are, are needed. Denmark's fertility rate has been below replacement level -- that is, the level needed to maintain a stable population -- for decades. And as Dr. Ziebe points out, the decline is not solely the result of more people deliberately choosing childlessness: Many of his patients are older couples and single women who want a family, but may have waited until too late.But the campaign also notably failed to land with some of its prime targets, including Dr. Ziebe's own college-age daughter. After she and several classmates at Copenhagen University interviewed him for a project on the campaign, Dr. Ziebe sought answers of his own."I asked them, 'Now, you know -- you have gained a lot of information, a lot of knowledge. What are you going to change in your own personal lives?' he said. He shook his head. "The answer was 'Nothing.' Nothing!"If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months' paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark's fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.It's not just Danes. Fertility rates have been dropping precipitously around the world for decades -- in middle-income countries, in some low-income countries, but perhaps most markedly, in rich ones.Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.Decades of survey data show that people's stated preferences have shifted toward smaller families. But they also show that in country after country, actual fertility has fallen faster than notions of ideal family size. In the United States, the gap between how many children people want and how many they have has widened to a 40-year high. In a report covering 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women reported an average desired family size of 2.3 children in 2016, and men wished for 2.2. But few hit their target. Something is stopping us from creating the families we claim to want. But what?There are as many answers to this question as there are people choosing whether to reproduce. At the national level, what demographers call "underachieving fertility" finds explanations ranging from the glaring absence of family-friendly policies in the United States to gender inequality in South Korea to high youth unemployment across Southern Europe. It has prompted concerns about public finances and work force stability and, in some cases, contributed to rising xenophobia.But these all miss the bigger picture.Our current version of global capitalism -- one from which few countries and individuals are able to opt out -- has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.These economic and social dynamics combine with the degeneration of our environment in ways that hardly encourage childbearing: Chemicals and pollutants seep into our bodies, disrupting our endocrine systems. On any given day, it seems that some part of the inhabited world is either on fire or underwater.To worry about falling birthrates because they threaten social security systems or future work force strength is to miss the point; they are a symptom of something much more pervasive.It seems clear that what we have come to think of as "late capitalism" -- that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities -- has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive. And yes, it is even happening in Denmark.Danes don't face the horrors of American student debt, debilitating medical bills or lack of paid family leave. College is free. Income inequality is low. In short, many of the factors that cause young Americans to delay having families simply aren't present.Even so, many Danes find themselves contending with the spiritual maladies that accompany late capitalism even in wealthy, egalitarian countries. With their basic needs met and an abundance of opportunities at their fingertips, Danes instead must grapple with the promise and pressure of seemingly limitless freedom, which can combine to make children an afterthought, or an unwelcome intrusion on a life that offers rewards and satisfactions of a different kind -- an engaging career, esoteric hobbies, exotic holidays."Parents say that 'children are the most important thing in my life,'" said Dr. Ziebe. By contrast, those who haven't tried it -- who cannot imagine the shifts in priorities it produces, nor fathom its rewards -- see parenting as an unwelcome responsibility. "Young people say, 'Having children is the end of my life.'"There are, to be sure, many people for whom not having children is a choice, and growing societal acceptance of voluntary childlessness is undoubtedly a step forward, especially for women. But the rising use of assisted reproductive technologies in Denmark and elsewhere (in Finland, for example, the share of children born via assisted reproduction has nearly doubled in a little more than a decade; in Denmark, it accounts for an estimated one in 10 births) suggests that the same people who see children as a hindrance often come to want them.Kristine Marie Foss, a networking specialist and event manager, almost missed out on parenthood. A stylish woman with a warm smile, Ms. Foss, now 50, always dreamed of finding love, but none of her serious boyfriends lasted. She spent most of her 30s and 40s single; those were also the decades in which she worked as an interior designer, created several social networks (including one for singles, "before it was cool to be single") and expanded and deepened her friendships.It wasn't until she was 39 that she realized it might be time to start thinking seriously about a family. A routine visit to the gynecologist prompted an unexpected revelation: "If I become 50 or 60 and I don't have kids, I know I'm going to hate myself the rest of my life," said Ms. Foss, now the mother of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old via a sperm donor. Ms. Foss has joined the ranks of what Danes call "solomor," or single mothers by choice, a cohort that has been growing since 2007, when the Danish government began covering IVF for single women.There are those who have always sought to lay the blame for declining fertility, in some way, on women -- for their individual selfishness in eschewing motherhood, or for their embrace of feminism's expansion of women's roles. But the instinct to explore life without children is not restricted to women. In Denmark, one out of five men will never become a parent, a figure that is similar in the United States.Anders Krarup is a 43-year-old software developer living in Copenhagen who recently rediscovered his love of fishing. Most weekends he drives to the Zealand coast, where he communes with the sea trout. When he's not working at his start-up, he meets friends for concerts. As for a family, he's not particularly interested."I'm feeling very content with my life at the moment," he told me.Mads Tolderlund is a legal consultant who works outside of Copenhagen. At age 5, he was struck with wanderlust when he saw an advertisement for Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia. He eventually resolved to visit every continent in his lifetime, and today, at 31, has just Antarctica to go. In his view, people have children either because they truly want them, because they fear the consequences of not having them, or because it's the "normal" thing. None of those reasons apply to him."I have so many other things that I want to do," he said.----Are all these options not precisely what capitalism promised us? We were told that equipped with the right schooling, work ethic and vision, we could have professional success and disposable income that we could use to become the most interesting, most cultured, most toned versions of ourselves. We learned that doing these things -- learning, working, creating, traveling -- was rewarding and important.Trent MacNamara, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University, has been pondering human attitudes toward fertility and family for over a decade. Economic conditions, he notes, are only part of the picture. What may matter more are "the little moral signals we send each other," he writes in a forthcoming essay, "based on big ideas about dignity, identity, transcendence and meaning." Today, we have found different ways to make meaning, form identities and relate to transcendence.In this context, he said, having children may appear to be no more than a "quixotic lifestyle choice" absent other social cues reinforcing the idea that parenting connects people "to something uniquely dignified, worthwhile and transcendent." In a secular world in which a capitalist ethos -- extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow -- prevails, those cues are increasingly difficult to notice. Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States, for example, communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons and Mennonites have birthrates higher than the national average.Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising "workism" -- a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson -- and declining religiosity. "There is a desire for meaning-making in humans," Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is "inherently fertility reducing."Denmark, he notes, is not a workaholic culture, but is highly secular. East Asia, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, is often both. In South Korea, for example, the government has introduced tax incentives for childbearing and expanded access to day care. But "excessive workism" and the persistence of traditional gender roles have combined to make parenting difficult, and especially unappealing for women, who take on a second shift at home.The difference between life in tiny Denmark, with its generous social welfare system and its high marks for gender equality, and life in China, where social assistance is spotty and women face rampant discrimination, is vast. Yet both countries face fertility rates well below replacement levels.If Denmark illustrates the ways that capitalist values of individualism and self-actualization can nonetheless take root in a country where its harshest effects have been blunted, China is an example of how those same values can sharpen into competition so cutthroat that parents speak of "winning from the starting line," that is, equipping their children with advantages from the earliest possible age. (One scholar told me this can even encompass timing conception to help a child in school admissions.)After decades of restricting most families to just one child, the government announced in 2015 that all couples were permitted to have two. Despite this, fertility has barely budged. China's fertility rate in 2018 was 1.6.The Chinese government has long sought to engineer its population, reducing quantity in order to improve "quality." These efforts are increasingly focused on what Susan Greenhalgh, a professor of Chinese society at Harvard, describes as "cultivating global citizens" through education, the means by which Chinese people and the nation as a whole can compete in the global economy.By the 1980s, she said, child-rearing in China had become professionalized, shaped by the pronouncements of education, health and child psychology experts. Today, raising a "quality" child is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest child-rearing advice; it's a commitment to spending whatever it takes."These notions of the quality child, the quality person, got articulated in the language of the market," she said. "It means, 'What can we buy for the kid? We need to buy a piano, we need to buy dance lessons, we need to buy an American experience.'"Talking to young Chinese people who have benefited from their parents' investments in them, I heard echoes of their Danish peers. For those with the right credentials, the past few decades have opened up opportunities their parents never imagined, making having children look burdensome by comparison."I feel like I just got out of college, just started working," said Joyce Yuan, a 27-year-old Beijing-based interpreter, whose plans include earning an M.B.A. outside of China. "I still think that I'm at the very beginning of my life."But Ms. Yuan and others were also quick to note China's harsh economic conditions, a factor that rarely, if ever, came up in Denmark. She cited, for instance, the high cost of urban living. "Everything is super expensive," she said, and quality of life, especially in big cities, "is extremely low."The factors suppressing fertility in China are present throughout the country: In rural areas, where 41 percent of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens still live, there is little enthusiasm for second children, and policymakers can seemingly do even less about it. In Xuanwei Prefecture, after the central government announced in 2013 that couples in which one spouse was an only child could apply for permission to have a second baby, just 36 people sought such approval in the first three months -- in a region of around 1.25 million people. "Local family planning officials blamed economic pressure on young couples for the low take-up," the authors of a study on China and fertility wrote.In urban settings, the opportunities for education and enrichment are more abundant, and the sense of competition more intense. But Chinese couples everywhere are responsive to the pressures of the country's hyper-capitalist economy, where setting a child down the right path could mean life-changing opportunities, while heading down the wrong one means insecurity and struggle.As access to college has expanded, the value of a diploma is worth less than it once was. Competition for places in top schools has grown more brutal, and the need to invest heavily in a child from the start more imperative. For many mothers, arranging the details of a child's education, seen as the most critical channel for upgrading his or her "quality," has almost become a full-time job, said Dr. Greenhalgh.One Beijing resident, Li Youyou, 33, sees the stratified nature of reproduction in China playing out within her own circle. A wealthy friend with a high-earning husband is having her second child this year. Another, from a modest background, gave birth this summer; when Ms. Li asked her about a second, she said she could barely contemplate providing for this one. Ms. Li, who teaches English, was planning a visit to bring a gift for the baby. She wondered if she should just give money.Ms. Li has no near-term plans for a family. She hopes instead to pursue a doctorate in linguistics, preferably in the United States."Having a relationship is not my priority right now," she said. "I more want to focus on my career."My own experience as an American has been in some respects Danish, in others Chinese. I am one of the lucky ones: Thanks to scholarships, and my mother's tremendous sacrifices, I graduated from college without debt. Thus unencumbered, I spent most of my 20s working and studying overseas. Along the way, I got two master's degrees, and built a rewarding, if not especially remunerative, career. In my late 20s, I learned about egg freezing. It seemed like a secret weapon I could use to stave off the decision of if and when to have kids -- an absolution, of sorts, for spending years abroad and not searching terribly hard for a partner.At 34, I finally underwent the procedure. Last year, I did another round. Ever since then, there's a number I've been playing with as I've wondered about whether and when I will use those eggs. According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, I should have $200,000 saved before having a child.To be clear, I am fully aware that people far worse off than me have children all the time. I know that even the prospect of a pre-pregnancy savings target vaults me into the realm of tragicomic middle-class absurdity. I am resolutely not saying that if you don't have this (or any sum of) money, you should reconsider children.Rather, this number is a hybrid -- an acknowledgment of the financial realities of single parenthood, but also the arithmetic crystallization of my anxieties around parenthood in our precarious era. To me, it demonstrates that even with my abundant privileges, it can still feel so risky, and on some days impossible, to bring a child into the world. And from the dozens of conversations I've had in reporting this essay, it's clear these anxieties are shaping the choices of many others, too.Where did I get the $200,000 figure from? First, there's at least $40,000 for two rounds of IVF. (That I am contemplating this route also speaks to the obstacles of dating under late capitalism -- but that's a subject for a different article.) Thousands of dollars in hospital bills for a birth, provided it's not a complicated one.As a freelancer, I wouldn't be eligible for paid leave, so I'd either need child care (easily $25,000 a year or more) until the child starts prekindergarten, or have enough saved to support us while I'm not working. I could sell my studio apartment, but homeownership is a key means by which parents pay for college, and I am as terrified of relinquishing this asset as I am of launching a child into the job market sans higher education credentials. On some days, I tell myself I'm being responsible by waiting. On other days, I wonder how this anxiety over my present might crowd out the future I envision.The point is not really whether $200,000 is reasonable; it is that the very notion of attaching a dollar figure to an experience as momentous as parenthood is a sign of how much my mind-set has been warped by this system that leaves us each so very much on our own, able to avail ourselves of only what we can pay for.For decades, people with as much good fortune as I have were relatively immune to these anxieties. But many of the difficulties that have long faced working-class women, and especially women of color, are trickling up. These women have worked multiple jobs without stability or benefits, and raised children in communities with underfunded schools or poisoned water; today, middle-class parents, too, are time-starved, squeezed out of good school districts, and anxious about plastic and pollution.In the 1990s, black feminists, facing the conditions above, developed the analytical framework known as reproductive justice, an approach that goes beyond reproductive rights as they are usually understood -- access to abortion and contraceptives -- to encompass the right to have children humanely: to "have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities," as the collective SisterSong put it.Reproductive justice was not always well understood or embraced by mainstream reproductive rights groups. (Loretta Ross, one of the founders of the movement, said an early focus group found people thought the term referred to seeking fairness for photocopiers.) But the trickling up of reproductive injustice could potentially give it broader traction. "White America is now feeling the effects of neoliberalism capitalism that the rest of America has always felt," Ms. Ross said.Are we prepared, though, for what it asks of us? Ms. Ross compared reproductive justice activism to parenting. "When you parent, you've got to work on safe drinking water, and safe schools and a clean bedroom at the same time," she said. "People's lives are holistic and interconnected. You can't pull on one thread without shaking up the whole thing." Seen in this light, incremental improvements like paid parental leave are only a partial fix for our current crisis, a handful of crumbs when our bodies and souls require a nourishing meal.The solution, therefore, is not to compel a man like Anders Krarup to put aside his fishing and procreate, nor to dissuade Li Youyou from pursuing her Ph.D. Instead, we must recognize how their decisions take place in a broader context, shaped by interrelated factors that can be hard to discern.The problem, to be clear, is not really one of "population," a term that since its earliest use, according to the scholar Michelle Murphy, has been a "profoundly objectifying and dehumanizing" way to discuss human life. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints -- an employer's indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body -- that make the wanted child impossible.The crisis in reproduction lurks in the shadows, but is visible if you look for it. It shows up in each year that birthrates plumb a new low. It's in the persistent flow of studies linking infertility and poor birth outcomes to nearly every feature of modern life -- fast-food wrappers, air pollution, pesticides. It is the yearning in your friends' voices as they gaze at their first child, playing in their too-small apartment, and say, "We'd love to have another, but …" It is the pain that comes from lunging toward transcendence and finding it out of reach.Seen from this perspective, the conversation around reproduction can and should take on some of the urgency of the climate change debate. We are recognizing nature's majesty too late, appreciating its uniqueness and irreplaceability only as we watch it burn."I see a lot of parallels between this tipping point that people feel in their intimate lives, around the question of reproduction under capitalism, also playing out in broader existential conversations about the fate of the planet under capitalism," said Sara Matthiesen, a historian at George Washington University whose forthcoming book examines family-making post-Roe v. Wade. "It seems like more and more people are being pressed to this place of, 'O.K., this system of value is literally going to kill us.'"----Conversations about reproduction and environmental sustainability have long overlapped. Thomas Malthus worried that population growth would outstrip the food supply. The 1970s saw the emergence of ecofeminism. Since the 1990s, reproductive justice groups have sought a better planet for all children. Today's BirthStrikers disavow procreation "due to the severity of the ecological crisis."While climate catastrophe has revived elements of the insidious discourse of population control, it has also prompted a new wave of activism, born of an understanding of just how deeply these foundational components of life -- reproduction and the health of the planet -- are linked, and the collective action that is required to sustain them.The first step is renouncing the individualism celebrated by capitalism and recognizing the interdependence that is essential for long-term survival. We depend on our water supply to be clean, and our rivers depend on us not to poison them. We ask our neighbors to watch our dogs or water our plants while we're away, and offer our help in kind. We hire strangers to look after our children or aging parents, and trust in their compassion. We pay taxes and hope those we elect spend that money to keep roads safe, schools open, and national parks protected.These relationships, between us and the natural world, and us and one another, testify to the interdependence that capitalist logic would have us disavow.Reproduction is the ultimate nod to interdependence. We depend on at least two people to make us possible. We gestate inside another human, and emerge with the help of doctors or doulas or kin. We grow up in environments and communities that shape our health, safety and values. We must find concrete ways to recognize this interdependence and resolve to strengthen it.One of the people upon whom my existence depends, my father, died of a heart attack when I was 7. At some point, I started wearing his watch, a beautiful gold thing that would slide up and down my wrist, heavy with sentiment. This year, on a work trip, I sat down in a hotel lobby to get some writing done. I took the watch off to type, only to realize on a bus going home that I'd left it at the hotel. Hours of searching the lobby and sobbing to the staff failed to bring it back.Later that evening, writing in a journal, I consoled myself by listing some of the things he had left me that I couldn't lose if I tried: the large-ish nose, the sense of humor, the shrimpy stature that curtailed both his basketball career and mine.In that moment, I understood why I had frozen my eggs. Intellectually, I am skeptical, even critical, of the inherent narcissism of preserving one's own genetic material when there are already so many children without parents. Even as I was going through with it, injecting drugs into my abdomen each night until it came to resemble a dart board, I struggled to articulate why, at least in a way that made sense to me.But as I reflected on the immaterial gifts I like to think I inherited from him, it became clear I craved genetic continuity, however fictitious and tenuous it might be. I recognized then something precious and inexplicable in this yearning, and glimpsed how devastating it might be to be unable to realize it. For the first time, I felt justified in my impulse to preserve some little piece of me that, in some way, contained a little piece of him, which one day might live again.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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Hibernation Works for Bears. Could It Work for Us, Too?

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 08:17

There are three major seasons in the life of a bear: the active season, beginning in May; a period of intense eating, in late September, and hibernation, from January into spring.Physiologically, the hibernation period is the strangest, and the most compelling, to researchers. When a bear hibernates, its metabolic rate and heart rate drop significantly. It does not defecate or urinate. The amount of nitrogen in its blood rises sharply, without damaging the kidneys or liver. The animal becomes resistant to insulin but doesn't suffer from fluctuations in its blood sugar levels.A human experiencing those conditions -- every year for several months at a time -- could easily end up with diabetes, obesity, bone loss, atrophied muscles or worse. But each spring the bear emerges no worse for wear, albeit a little groggy."Even when they are very fat, it's a healthy obesity," said Brian Barnes, who studies black bear hibernation in Alaska. "They don't suffer from the same kinds of pathologies that occur in people."Why not? A group of researchers at Washington State University published a study in Communications Biology in September that sought to better understand what goes on in the cells of hibernating grizzly bears. The university is home to the WSU Bear Center, the only grizzly bear research center in the United States; it houses 11 bears that were either raised in captivity or relocated to the center after being identified as problem bears in the wild.Researchers took samples from the liver, fat and muscle of six captive grizzly bears at three times during the year. In the lab, a team of researchers analyzed the DNA to understand the changes that occur in the cells over the course of the year."The effect of hibernation on each tissue is different," said Joanna Kelley, an evolutionary biologist at Washington State University and one of the paper's authors. "Hibernation is not just as simple as hibernating and not hibernating. There are transitional things happening throughout the year."The team found that the bears' fatty tissues changed the most during hibernation, whereas the muscle tissue hardly changed at all. The muscle cells remained active through the hibernation period, which might help explain why those tissues do not atrophy.Most surprising to Heiko Jansen, the study's lead author, was that the bears' fat contained a large number of genes that change their level of expression over the course of the year. "It's in the thousands," he said. In contrast, when dwarf lemurs in Madagascar hibernate, only a few hundred genes in their fat tissues change their level of expression seasonally."Hibernation isn't a one-size-fits-all phenomenon," Jansen said. "Different genes are utilized by different species."In the early days of hibernation studies, researchers were on the lookout for a physiological trigger, something singular and obvious that set the process in motion -- something, perhaps, that scientists could isolate and "inject into a non-hibernating animal, and have them fall over and go to sleep," said Charles Robbins, director of the WSU Bear Center. "Now we realize that there are an enormous number of genes changing."Other animals hibernate, too, like mountain pygmy possums in Australia, thirteen-lined ground squirrels in North American grasslands, and various species of bat. Their activity has long been of interest to researchers, who are eager to learn how a state of suspended animation might be applied to human health.Matt Andrews, a molecular biologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, studied the biology of hibernating ground squirrels and later helped develop a treatment for hemorrhagic shock. In the early 2000s, during the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Andrews learned that victims of roadside bombings were at high risk of death from blood loss. Such incidents are survivable if the patient has access to a tourniquet and transfusion, but in remote areas the victims could not reach help quickly enough.Andrews noticed that hibernating squirrels use melatonin, a potent antioxidant, to protect the cells when blood flow increases after months of inactivity. His team put together a cocktail of melatonin and ketones that might be injected into a person experiencing hemorrhagic shock, to reduce damage to tissues when blood supply returns. The treatment so far has passed tests with rats and pigs, and the team has met with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to plan future clinical trials.The physiology of hibernation might also be applicable to organ transplants. A waiting kidney or liver can be preserved in cold solutions for 24 hours, but after that it can't be used; a heart or a lung is only viable for four to six hours."Transplantations have to be very well planned out, and there's no such thing as organ banks," Andrews said. Individuals in need must wait for a donation. But if organs could be induced to enter something like hibernation, with a lower metabolic rate, that might allow organ donation banks to exist.Hibernation could also be handy during extraterrestrial travel. With current-day propulsion technology, a round trip to Mars takes about 2 1/2 years -- and a lot of food, air, water and medical supplies for the astronauts. Induced torpor might be just what humans need to get us permanently off our Earthbound behinds."We're a long way from that," Jansen said. "But we know we can manipulate the energetic profiles of a cell in cell cultures."Hibernation may yet be something that humans learn to master, fully or in part. In the meantime, wildlife researchers are keen to emphasize how important hibernation is to the survival of the animals that can already do it. "We are all better off having these animals in the wild," Jansen said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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Tail on Narwhal the Puppy's Head Might Have Been a Vestige of a Parasitic Twin

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 08:11

A puppy with a tail on his face gained viral fame this week."I would die for Narwhal," a number of Twitter commenters pledged.The rescue mutt was named for a marine mammal with a single tusk that sticks out of its face. But instead of a tusk, Narwhal the puppy has a miniature tail flopping between his eyes. Scientists don't agree on how the unusual heart-stealer came to exist.A Missouri shelter called Mac's Mission, which specializes in what it calls "janky" dogs, took in the abandoned puppy. Staff were disappointed that Narwhal's extra tail didn't wag. But the appendage didn't seem to bother the otherwise normal, healthy puppy, and a veterinarian said there was no need to remove it. An X-ray showed no bones.The likeliest explanation for how Narwhal got his face tail is not all that cute, said Margret Casal, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. The tail is probably Narwhal's parasitic twin.Regular identical twins form when an embryo splits in half very soon after fertilization. Sometimes, this split happens too late in a pregnancy and the halves don't fully separate, leading to conjoined twins. Even more rarely, Casal said, the late split is asymmetrical, meaning one side of the embryo grows into a fully formed individual and the other becomes an extra body part.Casal highlighted a little mohawk of backward-growing fur above Narwhal's face tail, similar to the crest on a dog such as a Rhodesian Ridgeback. She said this could suggest a twin's rear end on Narwhal's face.David Kilroy's first impression of Narwhal was different."At first I thought that it was a bit of clever computer work and not real," said Kilroy, who specializes in head anatomy and development at the University College Dublin School of Veterinary Medicine.But after looking at the photos and X-ray, he said, "It looks like some weird outgrowth of skin. Although something so large and strange would be most unusual."Casal, though, said the bottom of a spine can't develop bones without signals from the top. So if Narwhal's appendage is a parasitic twin, it might make sense that it never grew bones.Unlike in humans, identical twins are very rare in dogs, which are typically born in litters, Casal said. So a dog with a parasitic twin is "really super, super rare."But it's not unheard-of. In one case, a puppy had an extra pair of hind legs growing from its belly. Parasitic twins, like conjoined twins, can occur in humans, too.Animals are sometimes born with more extreme spare parts, like an entire second head. Two-headed calves occasionally show up in headlines, though they usually die soon after birth.Snakes, too, can hatch with two heads. In a 2007 paper, a herpetologist, Van Wallach, summarized nearly a thousand reported cases of two-headed snakes. The two heads are almost always next to each other, he found, but occasionally stacked. Many factors can lead to two-headed snakes, including cold temperatures when eggs are incubating. Most two-headed snakes die right away, but a few live to adulthood.Wallach had a pet two-headed snake named Brady & Belichick that grew to healthy adulthood. Both heads ate normally. But the head that finished eating its mouse first would then attack and chew on the other head, as Wallach described in his 2012 paper, "Two-headed Snakes Make High Maintenance Pets."A calf or snake's second head can arise from a parasitic twin. Or an extra head can form when something goes wrong during a single individual's development. For example, certain genes act like stage directors in a developing embryo, making sure everything ends up in the right place."If you get a mutation in one of those genes then you can get bizarre duplications," like two heads, Dr. Casal said. "Or, what we see every once in a while in dogs or cats is they can have, for example, two penises."Michael Levin, who directs the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, said that while Narwhal is a cute example of development gone awry, "I've seen a lot weirder."Dr. Levin studies how signals between cells, especially electrical signals, help to organize a whole animal into the correct shape. Researchers in his lab have created worms with four heads, tadpoles with eyes on their backs and six-legged frogs.While Dr. Levin thinks a parasitic twin might explain Narwhal, he said it's impossible to know for sure because of the complex processes that organize bodies even in simple creatures, like flatworms. Chemicals and other factors in a developing animal's environment can make these processes go wrong in countless ways."There are massive gaps in our understanding," he said.Scientists are still trying to answer major questions about how a blob of cells turns into a complete animal of just the right size and shape, with different kinds of parts in all the correct places."It's a miracle it comes out right most of the time."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites could make astronomy on Earth 'impossible' and create a space-junk nightmare, some scientists warn

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 06:31

SpaceX recently launched 60 Starlink satellites as part of its plan to blanket Earth in high-speed internet. But scientists foresee some problems.

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A Bay Area startup is working to make 'air meat' using protein-producing microbes discovered by NASA

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 06:19

NASA discovered that a class of microbes can turn CO2 into protein the same way plants do. The resulting powder could replace soy or pea protein.

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How to watch the Leonids meteor shower

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 04:08

Colorful shooting stars will streak across the night sky during one of the most famous annual meteor displays

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The Leonids meteor shower will send bright green shooting stars across the sky this weekend, early next week. Here's how to see them.

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 23:21

Sometimes the Leonids treat skywatchers to meteor storms, with thousands of shooting stars each hour. They glow green as their metals ignite.

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NASA watchdog warns of possible delays in launching new U.S. spacecraft

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 19:28

NASA argues concerns raised in new inspector general's report are "worst-case" and ignore mitigation efforts

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How the Tofu Is Made: By Incinerating Plastic Shipped From the U.S.

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 13:09

TROPODO, Indonesia -- Black smoke billows from smokestacks towering above the village. The smell of burning plastic fills the air. Patches of black ash cover the ground. It's another day of making tofu.More than 30 commercial kitchens in Tropodo, a village on the eastern side of Indonesia's main island, Java, fuel their tofu production by burning a mix of paper and plastic waste, some of it shipped from the United States after Americans dumped it in their recycling bins.The backyard kitchens produce much of the area's tofu, an inexpensive and high-protein food made from soy that is an important part of the local diet. But the smoke and ash produced by the burning plastic has far-reaching and toxic consequences.Testing of eggs laid by chickens in Tropodo, a village of 5,000 people, found high levels of several hazardous chemicals including dioxin -- a pollutant known to cause cancer, birth defects and Parkinson's disease -- according to a report released this week by an alliance of Indonesian and international environmental groups.The dioxin found in Tropodo is the end product in a chain of malfeasance, carelessness and governmental neglect."They start the burning early in the morning and go until evening," said Karnawi, 84, who lives near seven of the plastic-burning commercial kitchens. "It happens every day, and the smoke is always in the air. For me, it's difficult to breathe." Like many Indonesians, Karnawi uses only one name.An egg laid by one of Karnawi's chickens had one of the highest levels of dioxin ever recorded in Asia, the report found.The levels of dioxin found in that egg were second only to eggs collected near Bien Hoa, Vietnam, the former U.S. air base that was a Vietnam War staging area for the defoliant Agent Orange, which contains dioxin. The United States recently began a 10-year, $390 million cleanup at Bien Hoa, which remains heavily contaminated nearly five decades after the war ended.An adult who eats just one egg like the one taken from Karnawi's henhouse would exceed the U.S. daily safety threshold by nearly 25-fold and the stricter European Food Safety Authority standard by 70-fold.Eggs are commonly used for testing contamination because chickens effectively sample the soil as they forage, and toxins accumulate in their eggs."These stark findings illustrate the dangers of plastics for human health and should move policymakers to ban plastic waste combustion, address environmental contamination, and rigorously control imports," said Lee Bell, an adviser to the International Pollutants Elimination Network and a co-author of the report.The study was conducted by four environmental groups: Ecoton and the Nexus3 Foundation, based in Indonesia; Arnika, based in Prague; and the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, a global network dedicated to eliminating toxic pollutants.The toxins found in Tropodo's soil begin with Westerners believing they are doing a good thing for the environment -- sorting their waste for recycling. Much of that waste is sent abroad, including to Indonesia, where it is combined with local waste for processing.But rather than being turned into new consumer goods like fleece jackets and sneakers, much of the waste is unusable for recycling and is instead thrown into the furnaces that fuel Tropodo's tofu boilers."This is plastic collected from consumers in the United States and other countries and burned to make tofu in Indonesia," said Yuyun Ismawati, a co-founder of the Nexus3 Foundation and a study co-author.The amount of foreign waste coming to Indonesia soared two years ago after China halted trash imports.In East Java, 11 paper mills operate south of Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and import waste paper for recycling.Some unscrupulous foreign waste handlers dump unwanted plastic on the developing world by including as much as 50% plastic in their supposed paper shipments, Yuyun said. Local companies profit by accepting the shipments.Much of the plastic is unwanted, low-grade material, and Indonesia has no good way to dispose of it.After removing the best materials for recycling, most companies send their remaining waste to Bangun, a village known for its trash pickers who hunt for items of value and material worth recycling.In Bangun, piles of trash, some more than 15 feet high, fill every vacant bit of land. About 2,400 people live in the village, and almost every family is involved in the waste business.The trash pickers said they can tell that some shipments have come from the United States because of the writing on items they sort. Further indicating the origin of the waste, the pickers said they sometimes find accidentally discarded U.S. dollars and broken liquor bottles with distinctively American labels, like Jack Daniels.The final stop for the least-wanted trash is Tropodo and its tofu makers.Every day, trucks carry leftover scraps of paper and plastic 20 miles by road from Bangun to Tropodo and leave their loads outside the tofu kitchens."People need it as fuel for the tofu factories," said a truck driver, Fadil, 38, as he dumped his load on a village street. He said he had been delivering paper and plastic waste to the village's tofu makers for 20 years.The open burning of trash -- including plastic -- is widespread throughout Indonesia. The practice is illegal, but the law is seldom enforced.Environmental activists said Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, has neglected health concerns in pursuit of economic development and have urged him to address toxic contamination, including air pollution and mercury contamination.In July, the Environment Ministry's director general for waste management, Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, visited Tropodo and acknowledged that the plastic burning was hazardous but made no attempt to halt it.She told reporters that she would investigate how the toxic smoke could be controlled."If the plastic is used as fuel, it is not a problem, but the pollution should be managed," she said.Since then, the government has taken no action.Contacted last week by The New York Times, Ratnawati declined to discuss the issue and referred questions to the director general for environmental pollution, Karliansyah. He did not respond to inquiries from the Times.Many of Tropodo's residents said they detest the plastic burning but are powerless to stop it.The tofu makers -- a major employer in Tropodo -- switched to burning plastic from wood many years ago.The kitchens operate every day, and when there is little wind, the acrid smoke hangs over the village like a poisonous fog.Nanang Zainuddin, 37, runs a small kitchen around the corner from Karanawi's henhouse. He said he burns plastic because it is cheaper, sometimes as little as a tenth of the cost of burning wood.The process of making tofu starts with soaking and grinding soybeans, placing them in a concrete tub and injecting steam from a boiler that is fueled by burning plastic.One worker tends the boiler and stuffs plastic into the fire while others steam the soybeans and skim off the pulp.Nanang said that he disposes of the plastic ash by burying some and spreading more on the ground to create a level surface. He also gives some to neighbors so they can spread it over the soil around their homes."We are now standing on the ashes," he said as chickens and chicks scratched for food near his feet."Dioxin can come from anywhere," he added, "but if the government would like to resolve this, they are welcome."The former mayor of Tropodo, Ismail, 50, a tofu producer himself, banned the use of plastic as fuel in 2014. But the prohibition lasted only a few months before the burning resumed.His edict has been ignored ever since."There are many tofu makers here, and most of them do not care," said Ismail, who uses mostly wood and some plastic as his fuel. "The tofu makers only count the profit, profit, profit. They don't count the disadvantages created by this business."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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NASA watchdog report sharpens debate over cost of SpaceX vs. Boeing spaceships

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 13:06

Boeing is in line to get paid substantially more per seat than SpaceX for astronaut trips to the International Space Station, in part because it negotiated an increase in what was meant to be a fixed-cost contract, NASA's Office of the Inspector General says in a watchdog report. The 53-page report, issued Thursday, estimates the per-seat cost for flights on Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule at $90 million, which would be more than the $84 million or so that NASA has been paying the Russians for rides on their Soyuz spacecraft. In contrast, the price for a seat on a SpaceX… Read More

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Spaceflight Industries is raising more cash as satellite deals heat up on the final frontier

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 09:45

Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which has taken on a string of high-profile satellite missions over the past year, is in the midst of a new funding round, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Nov. 14 filing indicates that nearly $39.5 million of the offered amount has been sold to 33 investors, leaving $389,580 remaining in the round. We've reached out to Spaceflight Industries for comment on the filing, and will update this report with whatever we can pass along from the company. Founded in 2010, Spaceflight Industries has two subsidiaries: Spaceflight Inc., which handles pre-launch logistics… Read More

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Kid-friendly lunar rover takes the spotlight in the city where moon buggies were born

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 08:00

KENT, Wash. — The City of Kent's newest lunar rover wouldn't stand up to the radiation-blasted conditions on the surface of the moon, but it's designed to endure a testing ground that's nearly as harsh: a park playground. A kid-friendly reproduction of the moon buggies that transported astronauts around the lunar surface during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions of 1971-1972 had its unveiling on Thursday night here at the Accesso Showare Center, which more typically plays host to the Seattle Thunderbirds' hockey games. Boeing historian and archivist Mike Lombardi says the rover is a slapshot score. "Two thumbs… Read More

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Wildfires Leave Vulnerable Koalas at Further Risk

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 06:14

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The victims were carried in one by one, their paws burned and fur singed, suffering from dehydration and fear. Their caretakers bandaged their wounds, swaddled them and laid them in baskets with the only thing that was familiar -- the leaves of a eucalyptus tree.As catastrophic fires have burned more than 2 million acres in Australia, dozens of koalas have been rescued from smoldering trees and ashen ground. The animals, already threatened as a species before these latest blazes ravaged a crucial habitat, are being treated in rescue centers and at least one private home along the country's east coast."They are terrified," said Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director of the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, the only facility of its kind in the world. She added that what was happening to the koalas was "a national tragedy."Officials at the hospital began warning weeks ago, when the fires first ignited around Port Macquarie, 250 miles north of Sydney, that hundreds of koalas may have been "incinerated." Rescuers have not yet been able to confirm the scope of the loss because some of the blazes are still raging.The plight of the koala -- a national symbol of Australia -- has raised questions among conservationists and scientists about what it will take to preserve biodiversity in a country increasingly prone to intense fire, extreme heat and water scarcity, and which already has among the highest rates of species extinction in the world.While koalas have evolved to exist alongside wildfires, the animals are facing new threats not just from climate change but also from human development, which has dislocated local populations, impairing their ability to survive fires. In some regions, scientists said, koalas' numbers have declined by up to 80%, though it is difficult to know how many remain across Australia."We have these unique animals not found anywhere else on this planet, and we're killing them," Flanagan said. "This is a big wake-up call."The animal distress goes beyond koalas. Recently, tens of thousands of bats plummeted from the sky in temperatures exceeding 107 degrees Fahrenheit in northern Australia. Kangaroos, parched by drought, decimated the grapes on a vineyard in Canberra. And waterfowl in the Macquarie Marshes, a wildlife haven in northwest New South Wales, have been affected by a fire in their habitat."It's a swamp, for goodness' sake; it's burning," said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania. The current bush fires, the earlier burning of rainforests and a continuing extreme drought, he said, are all "warning lights" that ecosystems have been pushed far beyond their normal patterns.Climate change and other human impacts have so altered the landscape that the government needs to urgently rethink its approach to conservation, Bowman said, suggesting interventions like irrigating, feeding and relocating animals."You want koalas?" he said. "That's what we've got to do."In the weeks that the fires have been burning around Port Macquarie, more than two-thirds of the habitat of a local population of koalas in the forest surrounding two lakes has been decimated, conservationists said.They estimated that 350 of the nearly 700 koalas that lived in the region had been killed. As of Thursday, 22 adult koalas and one joey had been rescued. They are being treated at the Koala Hospital along with dozens of other animals, including kangaroos and possums that were injured in dog attacks or car accidents -- often the collateral damage of creatures searching for a new home after a disaster.About 50 miles south of the hospital, in Taree, one family has transformed its home into a koala rehabilitation center. There, 24 animals, each given a name on a Post-it note attached to its basket, are beginning the slow road to recovery in the couple's living room."Somebody has to look after them because nobody else is doing too much, as far as the government, in protecting their habitat and protecting them," Christeen McLeod, who is housing the koalas, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "So we do this," she added, "and hope that we can save some of them."Koalas, unlike kangaroos, birds or snakes, do not flee from fires but instead scale trees to the canopy, where they can curl themselves into a ball for protection and wait for the danger to pass.But during high-intensity fires, such as those that have burned in recent weeks, the animals, conservationists said, are far less likely to survive. Even if the fire itself does not reach the tree canopy, the animals may overheat and fall to the ground, where they can be burned to death. They can also suffer smoke inhalation or burn their paws or claws when trying to climb down trees.Claws, crucial for life in the wild, do not grow back. A "koala who can't climb can't survive," said Sue Ashton, director of the Koala Hospital.She said that while the hospital hoped to rehabilitate and eventually release the animals, it was likely that some would have to be euthanized. That, she added, would be a further blow to conservation efforts.Although the fires are still burning, a rescue team led by the hospital began to search the periphery last week, walking in a human chain, their necks strained toward the tree canopy, searching for survivors.The rescuers described a lifeless scene free of birds and insects, with the forest undergrowth gone, reeds burned in a creek, and hollowed-out trees still smoking."This fire is currently still burning," said Scott Castle, assistant clinical director at the hospital, who participated in the effort. "So," he added, "there's a lot more to search."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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A Black Hole Threw a Star Out of the Milky Way Galaxy

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 06:11

There are fastballs, and then there are cosmic fastballs. Now it seems that the strongest arm in our galaxy might belong to a supermassive black hole that lives smack in the middle of the Milky Way.Astronomers recently discovered a star whizzing out of the center of our galaxy at the seriously blinding speed of 4 million mph. The star, which goes by the typically inscrutable name S5-HVS1, is currently about 29,000 light-years from Earth, streaking through the Grus, or Crane, constellation in the southern sky. It is headed for the darkest, loneliest depths of intergalactic space.The runaway star was spotted by an international team of astronomers led by Ting Li of the Carnegie Observatories. They were using a telescope in Australia for a study known as the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey -- the S5. The star is about twice as massive as our own sun and ten times more luminous, according to Li.Drawing on data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft, which has charted the positions and motions of some 1.3 billion stars in the Milky Way, the astronomers traced the streaking star back to the galactic center. That is the home of a black hole known as Sagittarius A*, a gravitational monster with the mass of 4 million suns.The astronomers hypothesize that the runaway star was once part of a double-star system that came too close to the black hole. One of the pair fell in, and the other was sling-shotted away at hyperspeed. The process, a three-body gravitational dance, was first predicted by Jack Hills, a theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in 1988.The dance with S5-HVS1 unfolded about 5 million years ago, according to Li and her team, which included Sergey Koposov of Carnegie Mellon University, lead author of a paper describing the results published Tuesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.The astronomers estimate that in about 100 million years the star will have exited the Milky Way entirely. It is yet another example of nature's ability to mix things up -- tossing comets from faraway stars into our solar system, and flinging ice, rock and who knows what else between the planets on asteroids.Out there, drifting among the other galaxies of the Local Group, far from the crowded circumstances of its birth, the star called S5-HVS1 will exhaust its thermonuclear fuel in about 2 billion years, blow up and die, alone. Like some people going off to college, say, some stars leave home and never come back.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company

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Astronauts start spacewalk series to fix cosmic ray detector

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 04:58

Astronauts launched an extraordinarily complicated series of spacewalks Friday to fix a cosmic ray detector at the International Space Station. Armed with dozens of dissecting tools, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano removed a protective shield to gain access to the inside of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. “OK, 3-2-1, release,” Morgan said as he let go of the shield high above the Pacific.

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More than 50% of insects have disappeared since 1970, an ecologist warns — even more evidence of an 'insect apocalypse'

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:21

A new report reveals that 50% or more of insects have disappeared since 1970 due to habitat loss and pesticide use.

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Researchers put out the call for 10,000 canines to join the Dog Aging Project

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 05:00

Scientists are looking for 10,000 good dogs to take part in a 10-year effort aimed at tracking their health and identifying factors that can lengthen their lifespan. The pets that are selected for the Dog Aging Project could come in for some scientific pampering, including genome sequencing and health assessments. But that doesn't mean the project's organizers at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University and other research institutions are totally going to the dogs. The larger purpose of the campaign — and the reason why it's getting $15 million in direct funding from the National Institute on Aging at… Read More

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SpaceX executes ground-based test firing for Crew Dragon’s launch escape system

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 16:22

SpaceX went the distance today with a static-fire test of its Crew Dragon space taxi's launch escape system — the same type of test that ended in a costly explosion when it was conducted in April. A photo released after the firing shows the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco thrusters blazing away on the test stand at SpaceX's Florida facility. The full-duration firing brings the company one step closer to flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station next year. "SpaceX and NASA teams are now reviewing test data and working toward an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon's launch escape system," SpaceX… Read More

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After visiting asteroid, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe heads back to Earth with samples

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 14:23

Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and its science team bid a bittersweet farewell to the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, and began the months-long return trip to Earth with a precious set of samples. "This is an emotional moment!" the team tweeted on Tuesday. “It's sad to say goodbye to Ryugu,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's command center. “Literally it has been at the center of our lives over the past one and a half years.” The farewell isn't finished quite yet, however. Over the next few days, Hayabusa 2's camera will capture… Read More

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Red tide, the toxic algae bloom that kills wildlife, returns to southwest Florida

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 12:56

Southwest Florida is warily watching the return of red tide, a toxic algae bloom that cost businesses nearly $150 million in losses last year

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