Smallest Dwarf Planet in Solar System

 

Moving On Up

The asteroid Hygiea just got a promotion.

Using European Southern Observatory’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers were able to get their most detailed look yet at Hygiea, an object in the asteroid belt.

And based on what they saw, they think the asteroid deserves reclassification as a dwarf planet — making it the smallest one yet identified in the entire solar system.

Four For Four

To be classified as a dwarf planet, an object must meet four requirements: it must be spherical, it must orbit the Sun, it can’t be a moon — and it must not have cleared the neighborhood around itself, which would make it a proper planet.

Astronomers already knew that Hygiea met the latter three requirements, and the new VLT data allowed them to confirm the first.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” lead researcher Pierre Vernazza said in a news release. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

READ MORE: ESO Telescope Reveals What Could be the Smallest Dwarf Planet Yet in the Solar System [European Southern Observatory]
More on dwarf planets: Astronomers Just Found a Dwarf Planet Three Times As Far Away As Pluto

Super-Smart Designer Babies

 

In November, a company called Genomic Prediction announced that it had  developed a multi-gene screening technique for embryos. This method, the company claimed, allowed it to scan an embryo for conditions or traits impacted by numerous genes, including intelligence, and give it a “polygenic score.”

The company said this was so parents could avoid using an embryo with an abnormally low score for in-vitro fertilization. However, it quickly raised concerns about parents using the tech to have super-smart designer babies.

But now it seems that fear was premature: A new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics debunks the accuracy of the technique.

Today, having fertilized embryos undergo genetic testing prior to implantation is a fairly common option for people using in-vitro fertilization. This can allow them to avoid using an embryo that likely wouldn’t lead to a successful pregnancy, or one that would produce a child with birth defects or certain single-gene disorders, such as cystic fibrosis.

The key to that type of testing is that it focuses on individual genes — in the case of cystic fibrosis, for example, the doctor would look for mutations in the CFTR gene.

To test the viability of Genomic Prediction’s multi-gene screening technique, a research team led by Hebrew University of Jerusalem statistical geneticist Shai Carmi created computer models of five hypothetical embryos by combining the DNA profiles of two people. In some cases, the researchers knew the heights of both parents and, in others, their IQs.

They then created “virtual genomes” for the embryos and gave each embryo a polygenic score predicting the height or IQ of the person that would theoretically be born from it.

The researchers found that the technique produced only slight gains — hypothetical children produced by the highest scoring embryos were approximately 2.5 centimeters taller and 2.5 IQ points smarter.

They then put the technique to the test again, this time giving polygenic height scores to all of the offspring in 28 families with an average of 10 children.

In just seven of the families was the child with the highest height score the tallest. And in five families, that child was actually the shortest of the siblings — meaning had their parents used the polygenic screening technique, they may well have ended up with a shorter child than if they’d left height up to chance.

So, while Genomic Prediction’s technique could still allow parents to identify embryos likely to produce children with intellectual disabilities, it doesn’t appear poised to lead to the creation of super-smart designer babies any time soon.

Inhaled Poison

 

A strange vaping-related respiratory illness is sweeping the United States, afflicting more than 800 patients and killing at least 16. Officials still aren’t sure what’s causing “vape lung,” but theories range from the oils in vaping cartridges to fumes from the vaping devices themselves.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, a team of researchers from the Mayo Clinic analyzed samples of lung tissue taken from 17 vape lung sufferers, publishing the results of their analysis in The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.

What they saw when they looked at those samples is downright disturbing: injuries that looked like the ones suffered by people exposed to mustard gas and other poisons.

“All 17 of our cases show a pattern of injury in the lung that looks like a toxic chemical exposure, a toxic chemical fume exposure, or a chemical burn injury,” surgical pathologist Brandon T. Larsen told The New York Times.

“To be honest,” he continued, “they look like the kind of change you would expect to see in an unfortunate worker in an industrial accident where a big barrel of toxic chemicals spills, and that person is exposed to toxic fumes and there is a chemical burn in the airways.”

Larsen told the NYT that the researchers didn’t notice any oil buildup in the samples, meaning suspicions that vaping oils themselves cause vape lung might be unfounded.

Two of the patients whose lung samples the Mayo team analyzed have already died as a result of their lung damage. But according to Larsen, even patients who don’t succumb to the respiratory illness may face a lifetime of issues because of it.

“Based on the severity of injury we see, at least in some of these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up with people down the road having chronic respiratory problems from this,” he told the NYT. “Some seem to recover. I don’t think we know what the long-term consequences will be.”

White House Cybersecurity Director

 

See Ya

The White House’s cybersecurity team is in a state of turmoil.

In an internal memo obtained by Axios, senior White House cybersecurity director Dimitrios Vastakis detailed his frustration with how the Trump administration has managed a mission established to protect the White House from digital security threats — and then submitted his resignation.

Real Subtle

The Obama administration established the Office of the Chief Information Security Officer (OCISO) in 2014 after it discovered evidence that Russia had breached White House computers. In July, the Trump administration folded OCISO into the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Since then, leadership has attempted to remove the remaining OCISO staff by “reducing the scope of duties, reducing access to programs, revoking access to buildings, and revoking positions with strategic and tactical decision making authorities,” Vastakis wrote in his memo.

Chaos Reigns

To date, at least a dozen OCISO officials have either resigned from or been pushed out, and all that chaos has Vastakis concerned about the future security of White House data.

“Unfortunately, given all of the changes I’ve seen in the past three months,” he wrote, “I foresee the White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.”

And Vastakis isn’t going to be around to watch it happen.

READ MORE: Scoop: Cyber memo warns of new risks to White House network [Axios]
More on cybersecurity: Congressman: The 2020 Election Is Not Safe From Hackers

Human Extinction Is Extremely Likely

 

Forget nuclear weaponsbiological warfare, and the slew of other ways humanity could cause its own destruction for a moment.

If you take into account only naturally occurring phenomena — supervolcanic eruptionsasteroid impacts, and the like — researchers from the University of Oxford recently determined that the probability of our entire species going extinct in any given year is as high as one in 14,000.

Now consider this: In October, a separate team from Oxford published its own paper on human extinction in the journal Scientific Reports — and it found that people don’t seem to see the loss of humanity as uniquely tragic.

The second group of researchers asked more than 2,500 people in the United States and the United Kingdom to rank three possible scenarios from best to worst: no major catastrophe, a catastrophe that wipes out 80 percent of the human population, and a catastrophe that causes complete human extinction.

As you might expect, most people ranked no catastrophe as the best possibility and complete human extinction as the worst. But when asked to think about the difference in “badness” between the possibilities, most people were more bothered by the possibility of losing 80 percent of humanity than losing all of it.

“Thus, when asked in the most straightforward and unqualified way,” the researchers wrote, “participants do not find human extinction uniquely bad.”

When the researchers switched the whole scenario to focus on an animal species, though, survey respondents saw the loss of all zebras as worse than the loss of 80 percent of zebras.

The issue, it seems, is that survey respondents focused a lot on the individual human lives lost in scenario two — and how the deaths might affect those left behind — rather than on the loss of humanity as a whole.

In other words, we tend to think of a world without any zebras as more tragic than a world in which most zebras die. But for humankind, most people believe the reverse.

There was a way to get survey respondents to consider the loss of our entire species as uniquely bad, though: the researchers just had to tell them humanity would be missing out on a long future existence that was “better than today in every conceivable way.”

While there’s seemingly little we could do to prevent an asteroid impact or a volcanic eruption, humanity does have a say in whether we fall victim to nuclear war and the like — and knowing that people are more likely to care about our species’ potential downfall if they’re feeling optimistic about our future could play a role in making sure we don’t go down one of those self-destructive paths.

“People are going to have a lot of influence over what we’re going to do [about the threats of human extinction in our near future],” Stefan Schubert, co-author of the survey paper, recently told Vox. “So it’s important to find out how people think about them.”

READ MORE: Human extinction would be a uniquely awful tragedy. Why don’t we act like it? [Vox]
More on extinction:This Awful Tabloid Predicts a Killer Asteroid Almost Every Day

USA Spending $750K To UFO Research

 

Military Money

On Thursday, To the Stars Academy (TTSA) — an alien and UFO research group founded by former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge — announced that it had entered into a partnership with the U.S. Army.

Now, new details on the partnership have emerged — including that the Army is planning to spend at least $750,000 on the partnership.

Square Deal

As noted in a new Motherboard story, government document archivist John Greenewald has posted the entire Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between TTSA and the Army online.

The document reveals that the partnership will expire in five years unless the parties choose to renew it, and the government will not directly pay TTSA any money under the terms of the deal.

Instead, it will spend an estimated $750,000 on personnel, facilities, equipment, and other resources that TTSA’s COO Kari DeLonge told Motherboard would be “cost-prohibitive to a small startup-like TTSA.”

Alien Tech

The contract also makes clear what the Army hopes to get out of the partnership: to see if it can use TTSA’s materials and technologies to advance its ground vehicles.

What the document doesn’t mention, however, is TTSA’s claim that some of the materials in its possession are extraterrestrial. Now that the group is getting the resources it needs to study those materials, maybe it’ll have a better chance of figuring out just what exactly it’s gotten its hands on.

READ MORE: Tom DeLonge’s UFO Research Group Signs Contract With U.S. Army to Develop Far-Future Tech
More on the partnership: Tom DeLonge’s UFO Research Group Partners With US Army

Climate Change will KILL us all

 

Global Warning

More than 11,000 scientists in 153 nations have endorsed a newly published statement on climate change — and it’s extremely gloomy.

“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected,” the authors wrote. “It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

Climate Emergency

The statement, published on Tuesday in the journal BioScience, includes decades’ worth of hard data and scientific analysis on climate trends to support the authors’ claims. It also includes a slew of concrete actions humanity could take to address climate change, from replacing fossil fuels with renewables to reducing meat consumption.

“We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the scientists wrote. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems”.

Decades Of Destruction

The timing of the statement’s publication was appropriate for two reasons.

First, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference. And just one day prior to the statement’s publication, the United States officially notified the United Nations that it’s leaving the Paris Climate Agreement — potentially humanity’s best hope of avoiding the disaster foreshadowed by the authors.

READ MORE:More Than 11,000 Scientists Just Officially Declared a Global Climate Emergency [ScienceAlert]
More on climate change: “Climate Apartheid” Is Imminent. Only the Rich Will Survive.
 

First lunar rover of U.K.

 

Space Legs

The United Kingdom plans to send its first lunar rover to the Moon in 2021 — and the robot is unlike any that came before it.

Not only will the rover created UK-based space startup SpaceBit be the smallest one in history, but it will also have legs rather than wheels — a design innovation that could allow it to explore previously unreachable areas of the Moon.

Small Package

SpaceBit unveiled the rover on Thursday at the science and tech festival New Scientist Live, noting that the bot will hitch a ride to the Moon’s surface aboard U.S. space robotics company Astrobotic’s 2021 mission.

The 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) robot is shaped like a cube with four legs, which it will use to gather video and other data for scientists during its 10-Earth-days-long mission.

Intrepid Explorer

SpaceBit and Astrobotic are hopeful that the mission will illustrate the benefits of giving rovers legs — and lead to future missions in which legged rovers explore the Moon’s tubular caves.

“The legs could be better for steep, rocky terrain, and basically any place where wheels start to struggle,” Astrobotic’s CEO John Thornton told New Scientist

READ MORE: Plans for UK’s first moon rover announced at New Scientist Live [New Scientist]
More on Moon rovers: See the Moon Rover Toyota Is Building for Japan’s Space Program