Hell Planet Nine

 

Is there a ninth planet lurking beyond the orbit of Neptune?

Astronomers have been observing strange gravitational patterns of a cluster of bodies known as “trans-Neptunian objects,” or TNOs, that could be explained by the presence of  massive ninth planet in our solar system. The hypothetical planet, dubbed “Planet Nine,” would orbit our star at hundreds of times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

It’s been a contentious topic, with some writing off the odd behavior of TNOs as being caused by a cluster of much smaller space rocks. Others predict that such a planet would be five times the mass of the Earth, orbiting our star at about 400 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Planet Nine is actually a teeny-tiny black hole left over from the Big Bang. So tiny, in fact, that it’d only measure about five centimeters across — basically impossible to see with any kind of telescope.

“There has been a great deal of speculation concerning alternative explanations for the anomalous orbits observed in the outer solar system,” explained Amir Siraj, a Harvard undergraduate student, in a statement. “One of the ideas put forth was the possibility that Planet Nine could be a grapefruit-sized black hole with a mass of five to 10 times that of the Earth.”

So which is it then? In a new paper accepted into the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Siraj, alongside a team of astronomers from Harvard University and the Black Hole Initiative outlined a newly developed method that could hopefully answer that question once and or all.

Their plan is to look for accretion flares given off as the tiny black hole gobbles up matter surrounding it. If they find some, it’d mean that Planet Nine is actually a black hole. “In the vicinity of a black hole, small bodies that approach it will melt as a result of heating from the background accretion of gas from the interstellar medium onto the black hole,” Siraj said.

“Because black holes are intrinsically dark, the radiation that matter emits on its way to the mouth of the black hole is our only way to illuminate this dark environment,” added Avi Loeb, professor of science at Harvard who was also involved in the research.

The team is placing their bets on the upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) mission taking place at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. Astronomers involved in the mission are hoping to answer questions about the nature of dark energy and dark matter as well as the formation and properties of planets in our solar system.

“LSST has a wide field of view, covering the entire sky again and again, and searching for transient flares,” Loeb said. “Other telescopes are good at pointing at a known target, but we do not know exactly where to look for Planet Nine. We only know the broad region in which it may reside.”

According to Loeb, the LSST’s “unprecedented depth” will be able to spot even the smallest of flares.

It’s not the only attempt to uncover the mysteries behind Planet Nine. Most recently, a different team of astronomers announced it’s hoping to launch a fleet of thousands of “nanospacecraft” to search for the mysterious object.

Unfortunately, that vision is still a moonshot, with cost estimates breaking the $1 billion mark — that is, if it’s even feasible from a technological standpoint in the first place.

READ MORE: Scientists propose plan to determine if Planet Nine is a primordial black hole [Harvard]
More on Planet Nine: A Black Hole May Be Orbiting Our Sun. This Guy Wants to Find It.

Electricity Directly Into Thrust

 

This past autumn, a professor at Wuhan University named Jau Tang was hard at work piecing together a thruster prototype that, at first, sounds too good to be true.

The basic idea, he said in an interview, is that his device turns electricity directly into thrust — no fossil fuels required — by using microwaves to energize compressed air into a plasma state and shooting it out like a jet. Tang suggested, without a hint of self-aggrandizement, that it could likely be scaled up enough to fly large commercial passenger planes. Eventually, he says, it might even power spaceships.

Needless to say, these are grandiose claims. A thruster that doesn’t require tanks of fuel sounds suspiciously like science fiction — like the jets on Iron Man’s suit in the Marvel movies, for instance, or the thrusters that allow Doc Brown’s DeLorean to fly in “Back to the Future.”

But in Tang’s telling, his invention — let’s just call it a Tang Jet, which he worked on with Wuhan University collaborators Dan Ye and Jun Li — could have civilization-shifting potential here in the non-fictional world.

“Essentially, the goal of this technology is to try and use electricity and air to replace gasoline,” he said. “Global warming is a major threat to human civilization. Fossil fuel-free technology using microwave air plasma could be a solution.”

He anticipates this happening fast. In two years, he says, he thinks Tang Jets could power drones. In a decade, he’d like to see them fly a whole airplane.

That would all be awesome, obviously. But it’s difficult to evaluate whether Tang’s invention could ever scale up enough to become practical. And even if it did, there would be substantial energy requirements that could doom aerospace applications.

One thing’s for sure: If the tech works the way he hopes, the world will never be the same.

Tang’s curriculum vitae flits between a dazzling array of strikingly disparate academic topics, from 4D electron microscopy to quantum dot lasers, nanotechnology, artificial photosynthesis, and, of course, phase transitions and plasmonics.

He’s held several professorships, done research at Caltech and Bell Laboratories, published scores of widely-cited papers, edited several scientific journals, and won a variety of awards. He holds a U.S. patent for a device he calls a “synchrotron shutter,” designed to capture electrons traveling near the speed of light.

Tang says he first stumbled onto the idea for the plasma thruster when he was trying to create synthetic diamonds. As he tried to grow them using microwaves, he recalls, he started to wonder whether the same technology could be used to produce thrust.

Other huge stories, like the coronavirus pandemic and the baffling saga of Elon Musk naming his baby “X Æ A-12,” were sucking a lot of oxygen out of the news cycle in early May, when Tang announced his invention to the world. A few outlets picked up Tang’s story, including New Atlas, Popular Mechanics, and Ars Technica, but no journalist appears to have actually talked to him.

Because of that, there was little fanfare surrounding the sheer scope of his ambition for the technology — and it went overlooked that Tang sometimes sounds as though he’s invented a hammer and is now seeing a lot of things as nails.

After describing his plans to conquer aerospace with his new thruster, for instance, he starts to describe plans to take on the automotive industry as well — with jet-powered electric cars.

“I think the jet engine is more efficient than the electric motor, you can drive a car at much faster speeds,” he mused. “That’s what I have in mind: to combine the plasma jet engine with a turbine to drive a car.”

But you wouldn’t want to drive behind it, he warned, because you could be scorched by its fiery jet stream.

Over the course of our interview, Tang also brought up the possibilities of using the technology to build projectile weapons, launch spaceships, power boats, and even create a new type of stove for cooking. On that last point, Tang said that he’s already built a prototype kitchen stove powered by a microwave air plasma torch — but it’s so deafeningly loud that it sounds like a constant lightning strike.

Technically, the Tang Jet is an attempt to build a “plasma thruster,” a concept that’s periodically gained attention in scientific circles. Michael Heil, a retired aerospace and propulsion engineer with a long career of Air Force and NASA research, told Futurism that Tang’s research reminds him of several other attempts to build air propulsion tech that he’s encountered over the years.

Plasma thrusters like those that would power a Tang Jet have been around for a while. NASA first launched a satellite equipped with plasma thrusters back in 2006, but its capabilities are a far cry from what Tang is proposing with his research.

Engineers have long dreamed of a plasma jet-powered plane, but every attempt has been smacked down by the technological limitations of the day. For example, New Scientist reported in 2017 that a team from the Technical University of Berlin attempted to build a similar thruster — but like every attempt over the previous decade, their work never became useful outside of the lab.

The problems with these attempts aren’t so much faults with the theory — the concept of generating thrust with a plasma torch is fairly sound. Rather, issues begin to pop up when working out the logistics of building a vehicle that actually works.

Tang has little interest in commercializing the jet himself. Instead, he wants to demonstrate its merits in hopes that well-funded government leaders or titans of industry will be inspired to take the ideas and run with them.

“The steps toward realization of a full plasma jet engine would cost lots of money, time and energy,” he said. “Such investment is beyond our present resources. Such tasks should be taken by aerospace industries or governmental agencies.”

That’s a common mindset for scientists, said Christopher Combs, an aerodynamics researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“That’s what us academics do, we figure out the physics and say ‘Well I don’t want to make a product,’” he told Futurism. “It’s kind of a common refrain to see people in academia who have had something that gets a lot of attention.”

Though he’s intrigued by the underlying principles of the Tang Jet, Combs says it’s unlikely that it will scale up to the size needed to lift a plane — in other words, the same challenges that proved insurmountable to previous plasma thrusters will rear their heads once again. The current prototype, for perspective, only produces about 10 Newtons of thrust — about the same as a medium-sized model rocket.

“You’re talking about scaling something by five orders of magnitude — more than 100,000 times!” Combs said. “Which almost never works linearly. Lots of engineering happens in the middle.”

And even if it were to scale perfectly, there’s the issue of power. Iron Man’s suit was powered by an “Arc Reactor,” and the flying DeLorean was powered by a “Mr. Fusion” unit that turned household trash into more than a gigawatt of power — both of which, unfortunately, are fictional.

Fossil fuels store vastly more energy by weight than batteries, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. And that’s too bad, because the Tang Jet needs a whole lot of power.

According to a paper Tang and his collaborators published about the thruster prototype in the journal AIP Advances in May, the technology produces about 28 Newtons of thrust per kilowatt of power. The engines on the Airbus A320, a common commercial jet, produce about 220,000 Newtons of thrust combined, meaning that a comparably-sized jet plane powered by Tang Jets would require more than 7,800 kilowatts.

For perspective, that would mean loading an aircraft up with more than 570 Tesla Powerwall 2 units for a single hour of flight — an impractical load, especially because the A320’s payload could only carry about 130 of the giant battery units. Long story short, no existing battery tech could provide enough juice.

“Does this thing just become a flying Tesla battery?” Combs said. “With the weight of these batteries, you don’t have room for anything else.”

The battery weight issue doesn’t doom the Tang Jet, but it pushes options for its power source into the fringe. Tang is banking on improvements to battery technology over the next years and decades; those Technical University of Berlin researchers speculated about nuclear fusion. Unfortunately, any possible answers could be decades away or impossible.

It is worth noting that there exist compact nuclear fission reactors, like Russia’s KLT-40S, that produce enough power and weigh little enough that they could fit in a passenger plane or rocket.

But the safety and environmental implications of nuclear-powered aircraft are grim, and Heil was quick to point out that generating enough power isn’t the only problem facing a Tang Jet. Actually getting the electricity from the power source to the thrusters would pose its own difficulties, perhaps requiring superconducting materials that don’t exist yet.

“You need power to generate thrust. And how do you move that power around on the aircraft?” Heil said. “Moving and controlling megawatts from the reactor to the jet is a huge challenge. You have to use big thick copper wires, that adds a lot of weight.”

Overall, both Combs and Heil questioned the feasibility of a practical Tang Jet based on the technology we have today. Without a quick fix to the energy problem, it’s certainly a tall order.

But both said they were fascinated by the research and hoped to see future progress. They also pointed out that a plasma thruster could be useful for pushing satellites or spacecraft that are already in orbit — though at that point it would need to bring propellant with it rather than using atmospheric air, since there’d be none in the vacuum of space.

The bottom line, Heil and Combs agreed, is that we won’t have a firmer grasp of the future of the tech until Tang’s colleagues have evaluated and experimented with it.

“I’m rooting for this, and I’d love to see it pan out,” Combs said. “But the scientist in me has some questions and some concerns.”

More on Tang’s plasma jets: Scientists Create Jet Engine Powered by Only Electricity

Hubble Observed a “Flapping Shadow”

 

“The shadow moves. It’s flapping like the wings of a bird!”

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope just caught the “bat shadow” of a newborn star moving — a sight the space agency evocatively compared to a pair of flapping bat wings.

“The shadow moves. It’s flapping like the wings of a bird!” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, and lead author of a paper about the discovery in the Astrophysical Journal, said in a statement.
The star, called HBC 672 and located some 1,400 light years away in the Serpent nebula, is just one or two million years old — practically a baby in cosmic terms. It casts the shadow due to a warped and flared disk surrounding it.

“You have a star that is surrounded by a disk, and the disk is not like Saturn’s rings — it’s not flat,” explained Pontoppidan. “It’s puffed up. And so that means that if the light from the star goes straight up, it can continue straight up — it’s not blocked by anything.”
 
But if the ring does block it, the light “doesn’t get out and it casts a shadow,” he added.

The disk surrounding the young star is likely made out of gas, dust and rock and has two peaks on opposite ends, like a horse saddle. Light cast through this ring ends up looking like a pair of flapping wings.

The disk itself is too small and far away for Hubble to observe it directly, so the team had to resort to examining its massive shadow.

The astronomers suspect a planet in the star’s orbit could be warping and shifting the shape of the ring, and therefore the movement of its shadow. Such a planet would take an estimated 180 Earth-days to circle its parent star.

The star may be extremely young, but its ring of rock and dust is enormous. The size of just the shadow alone would be hundreds of times the size our entire solar system, according to NASA. Light would take more than a month to travel that distance.

By taking additional pictures using filters, the team was able to create a gorgeous, colored image of the star and its “bat shadow.”

READ MORE: Hubble Sees Cosmic Flapping ‘Bat Shadow’ [NASA]

New idea to Defeat the Coronavirus

 

In order to find new treatments for COVID-19, scientists are probing how the coronavirus alters human cells when it infects and hijacks them.

Medical virologists at the Frankfurt University hospital have been culturing cells of SARS-CoV-2 since February, learning as much as they could about how it affects them, according to a Goethe University Frankfurt press release. Now, they’ve identified a number of compounds — available in existing drugs including the metabolism-inhibiting cancer medication WP1122 — that seem to stop the coronavirus from reproducing inside a host.

The team’s findings were published Thursday in the journal Nature. With those in hand, pharmaceutical companies are already launching clinical trials in a bid to develop new pharmaceuticals that could block the deadly virus.

Some viruses force cells to dedicate all their resources to churning out copies of the virus, but the virologists found that SARS-CoV-2 takes a less extreme approach. Instead of taking over all protein production within the cell, it increases the amount of proteins the cell synthesizes and helps itself to the surplus.

As a result, the team found that they could stop viral reproduction by taking away the building blocks of proteins, and found a number of compounds that did the trick.

“The successful use of substances that are components of already approved drugs to combat SARS-CoV-2 is a great opportunity in the fight against the virus,” lead author and Frankfurt virologist Jindrich Cinatl said in the release. “These substances are already well characterized, and we know how they are tolerated by patients. This is why there is currently a global search for these types of substances. In the race against time, our work can now make an important contribution as to which directions promise the fastest success.”

Detects Ancient Life … in Australia

 

Test Run

In order to make sure it was ready to hunt for extraterrestrial life on Mars, scientists put NASA’s new Perseverance rover through its paces using samples from the next best thing: Australia’s deserts.

When it launches to Mars in July, Perseverance will go on the hunt for signs of ancient, microbial life. Now, new research provides a promising sign that its tech is up to the task: while analyzing samples from Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the rover was able to find physical fossils and signs of microbes from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Historic Reconstruction

After finding traces of ancient life, researchers were able to use data collected by Perseverance to make an educated guess about what environmental conditions they lived in. Their work, published in March in the journal Astrobiology, could help steer future astrobiological research into other worlds’ ancient history.

“What is interesting is that we did find signs of ancient microbial life from the Cambrian period — which is when animals first evolved on earth,” University of New South Wales astrobiologist Bonnie Teece said in a press release. “We found biomarkers, we found organic compounds and we found physical fossils and minerals that are associated with biology on Earth.”

Dry Run

Teece argues that the Flinders Ranges makes a reasonable analog for Mars because of the dry, dusty, and wind-swept terrain, as well as the fact that fossils could be degraded by the same sorts of heat and pressure there and on Mars.

“We wanted to use the same techniques that are on the Rover to pinpoint the best areas for looking for life and show that these techniques work together well,” Teece said in the release.

Editor’s note 5/5/2020: This article has been updated to clarify that Perseverance analyzed samples from Flinders Ranges but wasn’t brought there itself.

READ MORE: Astrobiologists put Mars Rover life-detecting equipment to the test [University of New South Wales]
More on Perseverance: NASA’s New Mars Rover Still Launching in July Despite Coronavirus

Extremely Earth-Like Exoplanet

 

It’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by Kepler.

“This intriguing, distant world gives us even greater hope that a second Earth lies among the stars, waiting to be found,”  Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, who was not part of the research, said in a statement.

The exoplanet, called Kepler -1649c, orbits its small red dwarf star within the system’s habitable zone, a distance at which rocky planets receive enough star radiation to allow for liquid water to exist. It’s almost precisely the same size as large as Earth and receives 75 percent of the amount of light Earth receives from the Sun.

In other words, it’s a distant world that’s likelier than many others to support life. At 300 light-years from Earth, it’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by the Kepler space telescope, according to the researchers.

But plenty of questions remain before we can definitively say that the planet is capable of supporting life. For one, we don’t know what its atmosphere looks like — the key determinant of the planet’s surface temperature.

The team made the discovery while re-analzying older observations from NASA’s now-retired Kepler space telescope program. Kepler -1649c orbits its star at an extremely short distance — a full revolution takes only 19.5 Earth days — alongside a similarly sized rocky planet that orbits at half the distance of Kepler-1649c.

“Out of all the mislabeled planets we’ve recovered, this one’s particularly exciting — not just because it’s in the habitable zone and Earth-size, but because of how it might interact with this neighboring planet,” Andrew Vanderburg, researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the paper published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in the statement.

The two rocky planets orbit their host star at an exact ratio: Kepler-1649c completes nine orbits in almost exactly the same time the inner planet completes four orbits. The researchers believe this could make the system extremely stable over a long period of time.

“The more data we get, the more signs we see pointing to the notion that potentially habitable and Earth-size exoplanets are common around these kinds of stars,” said Vanderburg.

“With red dwarfs almost everywhere around our galaxy, and these small, potentially habitable and rocky planets around them, the chance one of them isn’t too different than our Earth looks a bit brighter,” he added.

READ MORE: New Earth-sized planet found in habitable sweet-spot orbit around a distant star [TechCrunch]
More on exoplanets: Bizarre Exoplanet Might Be a Gas Giant That Lost its Gas

39 Feet of Moon Dust

 


Victor Tangermann 

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have started analyzing data collected by the country’s Yutu-2 Moon rover’s ground-penetrating radar. The instrument peered 40 meters (131 feet) below the lunar surface — and found it was sitting on top of a mountain of fine dust.

China’s Chang’e 4 lander touched down on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, becoming the first man-made object to do so. Shortly after, it deployed the rover Yutu-2 from its belly. The rover has been exploring the South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest and oldest crater on the Moon, ever since.

Using high-frequency radar to look beneath the surface, it found that it was sitting on top of 12 meters (39 feet) of fine Moon dust, as detailed in a paper published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

“That’s a lot of regolith,” David Kring, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times. “That’s food for thought.”

The fine particles were likely the result of many small meteorite collisions and a ton of solar radiation, as New Scientist reports.

Below the dust, between 12 and 24 meters (39 and 79 feet), the rover spotted larger rocks, likely what’s left of larger asteroid and meteorite impacts. Further below that, the rover detected alternating layers of fine and coarser soil.

Most noteworthy is the striking difference between the new readings and the ones taken at Chang’e 4’s landing site, where measurements suggested it landed on top of a dense lava layer buried below the surface, the remains of a volcanic event.

“The subsurface structure at the Chang’e 4 landing site is more complex, and suggests a totally different geological context,” Yan Su, co-author from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told New Scientist.

READ MORE: China’s rover has discovered what lies beneath the moon’s far side [New Scientist]
More on the mission:China Claims Its Moon Rover Found a Colorful “Gel-Like” Substance

In the Coronavirus

 


When a mysterious new coronavirus started to spread out of Wuhan, China, last year, fear began to grow that it would turn into a new global pandemic.

Now, months after reports of an outbreak began, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has infected nearly 100,000 and killed just over 3,300 people around the world — a rapid spread in which some historians see parallels to deadly historical diseases.

Graham Mooney, a medical historian at Johns Hopkins University, told Futurism that the ongoing coronavirus outbreak bears a number of striking similarities to past outbreaks like Smallpox and Ebola — and especially to the Spanish flu pandemic that killed tens of millions around the world during the years between 1918 and 1922.

We’re about three months into the coronavirus outbreak, whereas the real devastation of the 1918 flu began about six to seven months in, after the virus started to cause deadly, rapidly-developing bacterial infections and pneumonia deep in patients’ lungs.

And while there are major obvious differences, one disturbing takeaway is that political leaders — and to a lesser extent the communities they govern — are making the same mistakes they did in the past.

“I think what that means,” Mooney said, “is public health as an endeavor, as a professional career, hasn’t quite gotten it right yet when it comes to convincing those in power to make the right decisions.”

Fighting An Invisible Enemy

When the Spanish flu hit, scientists barely knew what viruses were. The first microscope capable of even seeing them wasn’t built until the 1930s, and doctors hadn’t yet developed vaccines or any sort of antiviral or antibacterial medications.

In other words, doctors had no effective treatment against the 1918 flu. Physicians threw everything they had at it: bloodletting, oxygen, and rudimentary vaccines that didn’t work, all to no avail.

On top of that, the pandemic was drastically exacerbated by World War I. Early reports of the 1918 flu came from training camps and barracks where it spread rapidly among soldiers who were limited in both personal space and an understanding of disease control — and who also got shipped out to Europe.

On March 11, 1918, an Army private in Kansas complained about flu-like symptoms. By that afternoon, there were over 100 other sick soldiers. Within five weeks, that number increased ten-fold and 47 soldiers had died.

Meanwhile, civilian communities hit by the flu were left without doctors or healthcare professionals, as many of those resources had been sucked into the war effort.

But despite the similarities, COVID-19 is following a very different trajectory than the Spanish flu; there’s no global war raging, but there are fast and easier ways for a higher volume of people to travel quickly across the globe, spreading the virus far from where it began.

Parallel Treatments

Our understanding of microbiology and pharmacology has progressed substantially over the last hundred years. Quarantines, though, are as effective as ever.

“There are some obvious differences, but… really the parallels are in non-pharmaceuticals interventions that can take place, like mandatory quarantine of the diseases so public health officials know where they are and who’s got them,” Mooney said.

Some of Mooney’s research has focused on managing the balance between individual liberty and the needs of society during a public health emergency. For instance, he said that more governments are likely to pursue “oversteps and measures such as controlling or at least managing or trying to prevent public gatherings as well. You see some of that happening now in some countries where they’re beginning to think about suspending public gathering.”

“But mostly the interventions are individual quarantines,closure of schools,” he added.

Historically, isolation and quarantine have worked best if enacted early enough. Limiting exposure to disease is still among the best ways to limit its spread. The challenge was — and remains — the ability to pinpoint infection quickly, and isolate the patient before they spread it to others.

For instance, China blocked transportation in and out of the first cities to be hit by the coronavirus, effectively quarantining the disease’s epicenter from the rest of the world. The U.S. quarantined nearly 200 citizens who tried to flee China, urging thousands of others to isolate themselves on top of that.

“The big question is whether it’s appropriate for the state to be able to tell people you’ve got to go to the hospital, you’ve got to stay away from school, you’ve got to keep your business closed,” Mooney said.

Appropriate or not, the state has historically wielded that power in the face of deadly outbreaks.

Mooney cited legislation that, in the face of the Spanish flu, let authorities show up and cart people off to isolation hospitals — a policy that he said hit racial minorities, the poor, and anyone else living in overcrowded areas the hardest.

Controlling Narratives

But the most disturbing parallel between today’s outbreak and those of yesteryear is how governments have controlled the flow of information.

Because the Spanish flu coincided with World War I, many of the countries first affected by it had heightened control over their media due to the war effort. In fact, the only reason the pandemic is called the Spanish flu is because Spain, a neutral country, allowed its newspapers to report about the disease.

On top of that, U.S.’s Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.”

The government relied heavily on the Sedition Act to stamp out news about the pandemic lest it embarrass the state or detract from the war effort, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The result was a media ecosystem full of inaccurate information and propaganda telling the public not to worry, all while cities like Philadelphia turned into ghost towns and entire communities were wiped out.

This time around, China responded to early reports of an emerging coronavirus outbreak by punishing whistleblowers and censoring social media. As a result, efforts to contain the outbreak failed, in part because people didn’t get the information or warnings they needed. For instance, when a Wuhan-based doctor was one of the first to warn of an outbreak — which he mistook at the time for a resurgence of SARS — he was arrested and silenced by the government over “spreading rumors.” He later contracted the virus and died from it.

Now, having learned seemingly nothing from China’s errors, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed, and spread false information about, the outbreak. He’s called it a political conspiracy to make him look bad, and on Wednesday dismissed World Health Organization reports and common-sense practices like staying home from work when sick.

“I think knowledge is power,” Mooney said. “People can’t take appropriate action if they don’t have full information. If you’re a citizen who wants to voluntarily isolate, if you’re a citizen who wants to take other kinds of precautionary measures like social distancing, it helps to have information in hand.”

Lessons Ignored

Ultimately, the response of both the American and Chinese governments shows a disturbing inability to learn from both the scientific and political lessons of the past.

Mooney points out that the way authorities have controlled the narrative around the outbreak reveals that their priorities are backwards. Instead of putting the concern for human life and citizens’ welfare first, leaders like Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have focused more on national pride.

“The argument here should be that human life has a value above a government’s concern for outside attitudes about its ability to control an epidemic,” said Mooney. “You want reliable information, you want evidence-based information, and you want information that comes from sources you can trust.”

People need transparency, he continued, so that they can make informed decisions about travel, sending kids to school, and going about daily life. Without that guidance, there’s no way to organize an effective response on the individual or community level.

Meanwhile, the rush to create a vaccine for a new outbreak rather than invest in public health shows that the leaders remain reactive rather than proactive.

“It’s interesting how these kinds of things repeat themselves, in the sense that every time something like this happens, the focus is the quick fix: getting a vaccine out, setting up emergency measures,” Mooney said. “These are only ever going to be temporary until the next thing comes along.”

A vaccine won’t be ready for at least a year, by some estimates — and when another epidemic rolls around we’ll be back at square one. Meanwhile, healthcare remains prohibitively expensive to many in the U.S. and public health measures are a low political priority for the Trump administration.

“It’s a question of how important is public health compared to investing in the economy, investing in education — it’s a question of priorities,” said Mooney. “It’s easy to put it in a drawer and forget about it until the next pandemic comes along, whereas you could argue that public health is something that needs to be constantly invested in, the eye never be taken off the ball.”

And about those historical laws that let officials show up and take people into quarantine? Mooney says that by and large, the rich went unaffected. Wealthy people with large homes were more or less left to their own devices — their kids weren’t taken to isolation hospitals because it was assumed they had the space and resources to putz around at home in self-imposed isolation instead.

For those today who are exposed, the U.S. government won’t even guarantee that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be affordable, let alone free — suggesting many people in the most at-risk populations won’t be able to access it.

Additionally, Mooney said data shows that people respond according to personal fear: When a vaccine was available for smallpox, people didn’t decide to use it until they were personally endangered, potentially putting their entire community at risk.

“What we really need is affordable healthcare and investment in primary care so the resources are already there on the ground,” said Mooney. “That’s to help people so people have got access to resources that enable them to manage themselves during an epidemic.”

Font: FUTURISM

Evidence of Ancient Life on Mars

 

An international team of astrobiologists claim that organic molecules discovered by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover could be evidence of life on Mars.

In a paper published in the journal Astrobiology, the team argues that the presence of “thiophenes,” which are special compounds found in coal, crude oil and white truffles back on Earth, could be a sign of ancient life on the Red Planet.

“We identified several biological pathways for thiophenes that seem more likely than chemical ones, but we still need proof,” Washington State University astrobiologist and lead author Dirk Schulze-Makuch said in a statement.

The team, however, isn’t jumping to any conclusions just yet.

“If you find thiophenes on Earth, then you would think they are biological, but on Mars, of course, the bar to prove that has to be quite a bit higher,” Shulze-Makuch added.

While thiophenes are made up of two bio-essential elements, carbon and sulfur, it’s still very possible they could’ve been created during meteor impacts that heat sulfates to high temperatures — a possible explanation the researchers are also considering.

If the compounds were indeed a sign of life, they could’ve been the result of bacteria some three billion years ago breaking down sulfates — or alternatively could have been broken down by the bacteria.

But, again, it’s far too early to draw conclusions.

The Curiosity rover analyzes compounds by breaking them down into fragments. The upcoming European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover, however, could fill in the gaps with its Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA), which doesn’t use the same destructive technique as Curiosity.

What has Schulze-Makuch most excited is the possibility of finding differing ratios of heavy and light isotopes in compounds, the result of organisms breaking down elements and “a telltale signal for life,” according to the researcher.

“As Carl Sagan said ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’” Schulze-Makuch said. “I think the proof will really require that we actually send people there, and an astronaut looks through a microscope and sees a moving microbe.”

READ MORE: Organic molecules discovered by Curiosity Rover consistent with early life on Mars: study [Washington State University]
More on Curiosity: NASA Mars Rover Snaps Glorious 1.8 Billion Pixel Panorama

How to build a Nuclear Power Plant

 

Nuke Crew

new site claims to offer a guide to building an entire nuclear power plant, from the reactor vessels to the Homer Simpson-esque control panels.

“We only just launched and in the last two weeks we’ve been flooded with inbound interest from individual engineers, industrial partners, and even international developers,” said Bret Kugelmass, managing director of the nonprofit Energy Impact Center, which created the open source designs in a new interview with Digital Trends.

Climate Crisis

The goal, Kugelmass told Digital Trends, is to provide startups, engineering firms, and other stakeholders a cache of resources to develop new energy resources, with a goal of decarbonizing the global economy by 2040.

To that end, he told the site, his group interviewed more than a thousand experts over the course of two years and visited nuclear sites in 15 countries.

Long View

In much of the world, construction on new nuclear plants has fallen off in the wake of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.

But advocates say new developments would make new plants much safer, and Kugelmass told Digital Trends that the effort has already been met with an outpouring of interest.

He also praised “attention we’ve been receiving from National Laboratories around the world, who are eager to build upon the precedent of the early U.S. nuclear industry when scientific institutions aided private industry in a rapid scale-up of nuclear energy.”

READ MORE: Someone just uploaded open-source nuclear power plant blueprints to the web [Digital Trends]
More on nuclear power: Experts Are Horrified by the Military’s Portable Nuclear Reactor

Student Discovers 17 Planets

 

Planet Party

By combing through data collected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, University of British Columbia astronomy PhD candidate Michelle Kunimoto discovered evidence of an impressive 17 new exoplanets — including a roughly Earth-sized world found in the “habitable zone,” the region around a star where liquid water could exist.

“This planet is about a thousand light years away, so we’re not getting there anytime soon!” Kunimoto said in a statement. “But this is a really exciting find, since there have only been 15 small, confirmed planets in the Habitable Zone found in Kepler data so far.”

Transit Method

Kunimoto used the “transit method” to find the planets, one of the most widely used planet-hunting methods.

“Every time a planet passes in front of a star, it blocks a portion of that star’s light and causes a temporary decrease in the star’s brightness,” she explained. “By finding these dips, known as transits, you can start to piece together information about the planet, such as its size and how long it takes to orbit.”

Stay Tuned

The Earth-like planet is about 1.5 times the size of our own planet, and has an orbit just larger than Mercury’s. But it only gets about a third of the light that Earth gets from the Sun.

Kunimoto and her PhD. supervisor Jaymie Matthews are excited to find more planets in the habitable zone.

“How many Earth-like planets are there? Stay tuned,” said Matthews.

READ MORE:Astronomy student discovers 17 new planets, including Earth-sized world [University of British Columbia]
More on exoplanets: Astronomers Conclude Massive Exoplanet Could Host Life

New Battery Tech

 

Altered Carbon

A team of researchers at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology have announced a new carbon-silicon material that they say could more than double the driving range of electric vehicles — and enable fast charging to more than 80 percent capacity in just five minutes.

Current-day EVs generally use graphite anode batteries, which tend to provide shorter range compared to their gas-guzzling brethren, according to the researchers. Silicon anodes, on the other hand, have ten times the capacity — but are much worse at holding their capacity over time.

Frying Batteries

The team, led by Hun-Gi Jung, came up with a way to keep these silicon anodes stable by using “a simple thermal process used for frying food,” according to a statement, which involves the use of water, oil, and starch.

The results were impressive: they say the new battery has four times the capacity of its graphite anode counterparts and remained stable over 500 cycles. Thanks to carbon present in their silicon anode, the silicon didn’t expand either, which is a common problem with the tech.

“We were able to develop carbon-silicon composite materials using common, everyday materials and simple mixing and thermal processes with no reactors,” Jung said in the statement, noting that their new composites perform so well, they’re “highly likely to be commercialized and mass-produced.”

READ MORE: Researchers develop high-capacity EV battery materials that double driving range [National Research Council of Science & Technology]

More on batteries: This “Quantum Battery” Never Loses Its Charge