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This Will Change Your Mind About Psychedelic Drugs

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For years, the field of mental health has been largely barren of meaningful treatment advances. But now, scientists have new hope in the least likely of places: psychedelic drugs. Recent research suggests that certain psychedelic substances can help relieve anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction and the fear surrounding a terminal diagnosis.

“The biggest misconception people have about psychedelics is that these are drugs that make you crazy,” says Michael Pollan, author of the new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. “We now have evidence that that does happen sometimes — but in many more cases, these are drugs that can make you sane.”

In the interview below (and video above), Pollan talked with TIME about the therapeutic promise of the drugs, their fraught history and the sheer terror he felt after smoking toad venom.

Walk me through a brief history of psychedelics.

If you ask people about psychedelics or LSD, they’re going to think about the psychedelic ’60s — Timothy Leary, this flamboyant psychology professor who was at Harvard for a few years, studying psilocybin and LSD, and then telling everybody they should take it in a very public way. The drugs kind of escaped the laboratory and were embraced by the counterculture.

The result was a full-scale moral panic against the drugs. President Nixon said Timothy Leary was the most dangerous man in America, which is pretty amazing for a washed-up psychology professor. But before that, there had been more than a decade of very promising research using these drugs in a therapeutic context in a very responsible way.

What do psychedelics do to the human mind?

The honest answer: nobody quite understands. We’re really just at the beginning of exploring that frontier. But psychedelics appear to diminish activity in one very important brain network called the default mode network. That network is very involved with operations having to do with our sense of self: how we integrate what’s happening to us in any given moment, with our abiding sense of who we are.

The interesting thing about psychedelics, both LSD and psilocybin — the ingredient in magic mushrooms — is that they take this network offline. When that happens, you have this sensation of ego-dissolution: that your self is evaporating or dissolving. And that seems to lead to new connections in the brain temporarily forming. Your emotion center starts talking directly to your visual cortex, let’s say, and you see things that you’re hoping or fearing. New connections are made that could produce new insights, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world.

Your book talks a lot about the scientific approach to psychedelics. What do scientists believe that psychedelics can offer people?

The feeling among the scientists is that these chemicals allow us to essentially reboot the brain. If the brain is stuck in these narrow grooves of thought — whether it’s an obsession or a fear or the story you tell yourself — all those deep grooves that lock us into patterns of both thought and behavior are dissolved and temporarily suspended in a way that allows us to break those patterns.

What psychedelics do you think show some therapeutic potential?

There are two drugs that show the most potential and will probably be legalized for medical use soon. One is a drug that isn’t always considered a psychedelic: MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, which has been shown to be incredibly useful in the treatment of trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers or in rape victims. A study recently came out that showed great effectiveness at treating those problems. That’s very encouraging, and that may be the first of these drugs to get approved.

The second is psilocybin. It appears to be very useful in the treatment of anxiety, depression and addiction in both smoking and alcohol.

What happens to a person who has these mental health issues after they take a dose of psilocybin in clinical trials?

Well, it’s important to remember that when psilocybin is used in a medical and healing context, it’s very different than the recreational use of the drug. This isn’t doctors giving you a pill and sending you out into the world. For a period of four or five hours, you are in a room that’s decorated like a cozy den or study. You’re lying down on a couch, you have eye shades on and headphones, which are playing a very carefully curated playlist to make you go inside to have an internal experience. And you’re with two guides at all times, who are there looking out for your interests. It’s an incredibly safe environment in which to let down your defenses, and that’s essentially what happens.

All of our customary defenses that we use to deal with life and the world will be suspended for a period of time, and that creates this opening, this plastic moment where people can reexamine themselves and get some perspective on their habitual ways of thinking and doing.

Then, you come out of this experience, which can be very difficult for some people. It’s not all fun and games. Some people are put in touch with childhood traumas, some people have encounters with death — it can be very dark.

But with the help of the guides, you use that material and try to understand it. After the session, you always come back the next day and have what’s called a period of integration, where the guides, who are trained therapists, help you interpret what happened and figure out ways to put it to good use in changing your life.

How do some people change after taking psilocybin in clinical trials?

One of the big questions about this is: what endures from this experience? One of the interesting studies they did when they crunched the data on the first groups of people who had had a guided psilocybin session was that these were adults, but one of their personality traits that psychologists call openness — openness to other people’s views, openness to new experience, openness to new ideas — increased. To find an actual measurable change in personality as adults is a very unusual finding. Normally, our personalities are fixed by the time we’re in our 20s. But here was a very positive aspect of personality that could change and did change.

You tried various psychedelics for the book. Tell me about your best journey. What did it feel like?

My best was a fairly high-dose psilocybin journey that I had with a guide, a woman in her 50s who was a very skilled therapist and who worked in other modalities as well. I had to work with someone illicitly, and I learned that there is a thriving underground of psychedelic therapists. These are serious professionals, but they are doing something illegal.

What was stunning about it was I had an experience of complete ego-dissolution. I reached a point where my “self” just kind of fell apart into these little pieces of paper. I saw myself get scattered to the wind, but I was all right with it. I didn’t have any urge to stack the papers back up together. Then I looked out; I saw myself spread over the landscape as a coat of paint. And I was fine with it.

The consciousness that was perceiving all of this was not my usual ego. It wasn’t upset or defensive or trying to do anything. It was dispassionate, objective. And I learned a really important lesson in that moment, which is that I’m not identical to my ego. My ego is one of a couple of characters in my mind, and not always the best. The ego is very important — the ego got the book written. But it’s also what punishes us, what keeps us locked in our grooves of thought, and it’s what defends us against the world and against our own consciousness.

What was your worst journey?

My worst journey was on this psychedelic called 5-MeO-DMT, which is the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. Apparently you can milk the toad repeatedly and kind of squeeze the glands on its side or its arm onto a sheet of glass. It dries overnight and looks like brown sugar crystals. Then you smoke it, and it’s instantaneous. Before I even exhaled, I felt like I’d been shot out of a rocket.

I had not only the experience of ego-dissolution, but the dissolution of everything: of my body, of any kind of perceiving consciousness, of material reality. It was all gone. It was just a pure Category 5 storm of energy, and I didn’t know where I was in it. I felt like I was in the middle of an atomic blast or in a world before the Big Bang, when there was only energy and not yet matter. These are metaphors that don’t begin to capture how horrifying it was. I thought this could be death — this could be what it’s like to leave your body, because I had lost my body.

The best thing about this trip is it only lasted about 15 minutes. After a period of time, I felt a perceiving “I” kind of come back. And then I could feel my body. I was like, wow! This is so great, I have a body, and then there’s a floor. And there’s stuff that’s back — matter is back. I ended with this incredible feeling of gratitude such as I’d never felt — not just for my own existence, not just for life, but for anything, that anything exists, that there is something rather than nothing. So I guess that’s a valuable takeaway, but I had to go a long way to have it. And I wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody.

Did you feel your personality changed after trying these drugs?

I kind of feel like I went back to baseline. My wife thinks it’s changed in some ways. Not in a profound way, but I think she would say that I’m more open and more patient, that I deal with emotional situations with a little more availability.

I think she may well be right. Simply spending this much time observing my mind and having experiences where I got to sneak up on it in various ways does have an effect. It’s the same effect that 10 years of psychoanalysis probably would have, although it didn’t take me nearly that long.

How do psychedelics bring together the worlds of science and spirituality?

We often think about science and spirituality as these opposed terms, but in fact a lot of this research is forcing scientists to deal with spiritual questions, and some spiritual people to deal with scientific questions, which is very exciting.

The very first study in the modern era of psychedelic research, of any importance, was a 2006 study done at Johns Hopkins by a scientist named Roland Griffiths, a very prominent drug-abuse scientist. He found that what the psychedelics did in about 80% of cases was induce a mystical experience, which is a spiritual experience that was studied closely by William James 100 years ago. It has various aspects to it. Prominent among them is this dissolving of a sense of self, but that is followed by a merging with the universe, or with nature, or other people. It’s called the noetic sense — this sense that what you’re seeing or feeling or learning on this experience has the status of revealed truth. It’s not just an opinion — it’s objectively true.

We see this experience all over religious literature: people who have had an experience of meeting with the divine. These traits are common, and the fact that you could induce such a spiritual experience with a single administration of a drug was quite remarkable. These people reported that this experience was one of the top two or three in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Now that we can actually induce a spiritual experience using a drug, we can study the phenomenon.

How has the experience of writing this book changed your mind about death?

It made me more curious and a little less afraid. I wouldn’t say it eliminated my fear, and I wasn’t trying to do that, but I was able to kind of look at it with this equanimity.

On this psilocybin trip, I saw the faces of people close to me who had died over the last few years. You understand why traditional cultures would take plant medicines to reconnect with the dead. You can see them and talk to them and they can talk to you. I’m not saying this is a supernatural phenomenon. It’s a psychological phenomenon — at least that’s how I understand it. It made people who were gone more present in my life, and I’m happy for that. I wrote this book during a period when my dad was dying. He had terminal cancer, and I dedicated this book to him before he died.

One of the things the psilocybin research is doing is helping open that conversation — to make people more comfortable talking about it, to get patients to actually deal with it. Oncologists don’t do a very good job of that, and we have very little for the treatment of the psychology of people who are dying. So a drug that takes you into these spiritual realms where you can begin to think it through seems to me an enormous gift.

What role are psychedelic drugs going to play in your life going forward?

I don’t know if they’ll play any role moving forward. I had the experiences I needed to have. I met people who have a psychedelic experience once a year on their birthday, and that seemed about right, to do that sort of stock-taking. But the drugs are illegal, and now I’m out talking about it publicly, so that option has been closed to me until they’re made legal.

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NASA sends coldest place in universe into space

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The coldest place in the universe is on Earth, or was on Earth. NASA has just launched it into space.

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a chamber which cools a cloud of atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero – 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

CAL is a box the size of an ice-chest, designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and it uses lasers and magnets to ensure the atoms are cooled to within the limits of existence.

Getting matter this cold is of huge benefit to scientists because it reveals the effects of quantum mechanics, including superfluidity.

Keeping atoms this cold is not just about using refrigeration, though – it is a matter of eliminating all of the forces acting on (and thus affecting the temperature of) those atoms.

The gravity of Earth is causing NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory to warm up too much under the planet’s enormous pull.

IN SPACE - MAY 23: In this handout image provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour's final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured the first-ever images of an orbiter docked to the International Space Station from the viewpoint of a departing vessel as he returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule. (Photo by Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)
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The experiments will be carried out on the International Space Station

“Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson.

“The experiments we’ll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy – some of the most pervasive forces in the universe.”

On Earth, BECs are dragged down by the pull of gravity and can only be observed for a fraction of a second.

In the microgravity environment of the International Space Station, however, the freely evolving BECs can be observed for up to 10 seconds.

As superfluid, BECs seem to have zero viscosity, where their atoms move without friction as if they were all one solid substance.

More from NASA

“If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever,” said aerospace engineer and project manager Anita Sengupta.

“There’s no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy. If we can better understand the physics of superfluids, we can possibly learn to use those for more efficient transfer of energy.”

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A rare great ape, a 130-foot-tall tree and an extinct marsupial lion make the Top 10 New Species list for 2018

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The highest branches of a Brazilian forest. The permanent darkness of a cave in China. The deepest place on Earth.

Life has carved niches for itself in the most extreme and stunning habitats. As a result, it has taken on surprising — and just plain weird — physical attributes and behaviors.

In celebration of this biodiversity, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has compiled a list of the Top 10 new species that were described by science in the previous year. (Read the 2017 list here.)

This year’s list includes a rare great ape, a hitchhiking beetle, an extinct omnivorous marsupial lion and many species that are critically endangered. As humans alter habitats and contribute to global climate change, species are going extinct at a faster rate than we can name them.

“If we don’t find them, [these species] will be lost forever,” Wheeler said. “And yet they can teach us so much about the intricacies of ecosystems and the details of evolutionary history. Each of them has found a way to survive against the odds of changing competition, climate and environmental conditions.”

Here are the creatures that made the 2018 Top 10 list:

A mysterious single-celled organism

Ancoracysta twista

Location: Unknown

This microscopic marvel is unlike anything scientists have ever seen.

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered the protist living on a brain coral in a tropical aquarium. The organism propels itself with a whip-like tail, called a flagella, and uses unusual harpoon-like structures to stun and consume other protists. Because scientists found the species in captivity, they can’t be sure of its geographic origins in the wild.

The cell’s genetic origins also puzzled its discoverers. A. twista does not fit with any known group of organisms. Instead, it appears to belong to an early lineage of eukaryote that was previously unknown.

Ancoracysta twista was discovered in an aquarium in San Diego. Denis V. Tiknonenkov

Brazil’s lonely giants

Dinizia jueirana-facao

Location: Brazil

These massive trees stand up to 130 feet above the canopy of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, producing woody fruits that grow over a foot long. A member of the legume family, this 62-ton giant is found only in and just outside the Reserva Natural Vale in Espirito Santo, Brazil. With just 25 known trees, the species is considered critically endangered.

The tree’s sister species, D. excelsa, was discovered almost 100 years ago. In September, scientists described the smaller D. jueirana-facao as a distinct species.

The Atlantic Forest — which is home to more than half of the country’s threatened animal species — may be endangered itself. The region once covered 330 million acres, but humans have since cleared 85% of the now-fragmented forest.

Dinizia jueirana-facao
Dinizia jueirana-facao weighs an estimated 62 tons. Gwilym P. Lewis
 
The woody pods belonging to Dinizia jueirana-facao. Gwilym P. Lewis

A hunchbacked shrimp

Epimeria quasimodo

Location: Southern Ocean

Last year, scientists discovered 26 new species of tiny crustaceans in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. These amphipods are famous for their bright colors, spines and variety; some live as free-swimming predators and others stay put and feed by filtration. But one species stood out for its humped back, which reminded scientists of Quasimodo of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” E. quasimodo is about 2 inches long.

Epimeria quasimodo
Four specimens of Epimeria quasimodo, named for Victor Hugo’s character Quasimodo the hunchback, in reference to its shape. Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, copyright Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

A hitchhiking beetle

Nymphister kronaueri

Location: Costa Rica

Plenty of creatures use mimicry and camouflage to great effect, but this tiny beetle takes it to another level.

Nymphister kronaueri evolved a set of traits that allow it to live among a particular species of army ant in Costa Rica. Army ants are nomadic, spending a few weeks in one place before migrating for about three weeks to new territory. When the ants move, so must the beetles. That’s when their mimicry comes into play.

The beetle, only 1.5 millimeters long, is shaped, sized and colored just like the abdomen of a worker ant. N. kronaueri uses its tiny mandibles to clamp down on its host’s abdomen as the ants embark on their journey. This makes it look like the ant has two abdomens. These myrmecophiles, or ant-lovers, likely use similar chemical signals as the host ants to avoid detection.

Nymphister kronaueri
Nymphister kronaueri, seen mounted on a card point, lives exclusively among one species of army ant, Eciton mexicanum. C. von Beeren
Nymphister kronaueri
N. kronaueri uses its jaws to attach itself to an army ant worker’s abdomen. D. Kronauer


A new species of great ape

Pongo tapanuliensis

Location: Sumatra, Indonesia

The great ape family welcomed an eighth member in 2017: Tapanuli orangutans.

In 2013, researchers compared the skull of an adult male Sumatran orangutan killed by humans to 34 others. Last year, they announced that they had found enough subtle differences to convince themselves that this individual belonged to a distinct species. Tapanulis, named for the region of the island in which they’re found, live in the southern range limit of Sumatran orangutans. An estimated 800 individuals exist in a small, fragmented habitat.

About 674,000 years ago, orangutans on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo split into separate species. However, the Sumatran species diverged about 3.38 million years ago. In addition to three species of orangutan, the other living species of great ape are western and eastern gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and, of course, humans.

Tapanuli orangutan
An adult female Tapanuli orangutan named Beta. Andrew Walmsley
Tapanuli orangutan
An adult male Tapanuli orangutan named Togos rests in a tree. Only about 800 individuals exist in fragmented habitat in Sumatra. Andrew Walmsley
Beta, left, an adult female Tapanuli orangutan and Togos, right, an adult male. Only about 800 individuals exist in fragmented habitat in Sumatra. Andrew Walmsley

The deepest fish in the sea

Pseudoliparis swirei

Location: Western Pacific Ocean

Plenty of surprises still lurk in the deep ocean.

Researchers exploring the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, found large numbers of weird, tadpole-like fish swarming their mackerel-baited traps. This translucent snailfish was recorded 5 miles below the surface of the ocean, making it the deepest-dwelling fish in the world. Scientists believe the 5-mile mark represents a physiological limit below which most fish can’t survive.

Mariana snailfish, the deepest-living fish in the world, feed in the Mariana Trench, 5 miles below the surface.

Despite measuring just 4 inches in length, the Mariana snailfish is the top predator in its ocean-floor habitat, the researchers observed.

The Mariana snailfish
A CT scan of the Mariana snailfish reveals its bones and a green crustacean it ate. Mackenzie Gerringer / University of Washington Schmidt Ocean Institute

A fungal-feeding flower

Sciaphila sugimotoi

Location: Ishigaki Island, Japan

Among Japan’s well-documented flora, one unusual flower eluded science until now.

In September and October, Sciaphila sugimotoi produces delicate magenta blossoms in only two locations in Ishigaki’s humid forest. The plant lives symbiotically with a fungus, which provides it with the energy it needs to survive. That’s in contrast to most other plants, which derive energy from the sun using photosynthesis.

About 50 plants make up the critically endangered species, researchers suggest.

Sciaphila sugimotoi
Sciaphila sugimotoi appears only during short flowering times in September and October. Takaomi Sugimoto

A bacterial eruption

Thiolava veneris

Location: Canary Islands

In 2011, the underwater volcano Tagoro erupted and wiped out much of the ecosystem off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands. Three years later, a strange new bacteria was the first organism to re-colonize the area.

Dubbed “Venus’s hair” for its long, hair-like structures, the proteobacteria grew to almost half an acre in size and covered Tagoro’s summit with a massive white mat. The colony, scientists suggest, represents the start of a new ecosystem 430 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Thiolava veneris
Thiolava veneris was the first colonizer after the underwater volcano Tagoro erupted off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands in 2011. Miquel Canals / University of Barcelona

A marsupial lion

Wakaleo schouteni

Location: Australia

About 23 million years ago, a lion the size of a Siberian husky roamed the Australian forest. This marsupial ate both meat and plants, and spent part of its days up in the trees.

Fossilized remains of the creature were unearthed in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland. W. schouteni was one of two marsupial lions that existed toward the end of the late Oligocene Epoch 25 million years ago. In the subsequent Miocene, species of the genus Wakaleo, or little lions, grew larger in an evolutionary chain reaction: Prey animals got bigger as plant life changed in response to a drying and cooling continent.

Wakaleo schouteni
An illustration of Wakaleo schouteni challenging a marsupial lion of another species over a kangaroo carcass in the late Oligocene forest at Riversleigh, Australia. Peter Schouten

A cave-dwelling beetle

Xuedytes bellus

Location: China

Du’an Karst, a system of limestone caves in China’s Guangxi province, is a veritable kingdom of cave-dwelling ground beetles.

To date, more than 130 species have been discovered in the region, the latest being Xuedytes bellus. Researchers marvel at how “extremely cave-adapted” the beetle appears, with its dramatically long head and neck and slender body.

Beetles that evolve in the darkness of caves often take on a similar set of characteristics, including narrow bodies, spider-like appendages and loss of wings, eyes and color.

Xuedytes bellus
Xuedytes bellus displays a dramatic elongation of its head and neck. Sunbin Huang and Mingyi Tian

sean.greene@latimes.com

@seangreene89

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How a Pair of Satellites Will 'Weigh' Water on Earth

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The reason we know today just how much ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica is because of a pair of satellites, launched in 2002 by NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ). Now, they are set to be replaced by a more modern duo.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 3:47pm (7:47pm GMT) Tuesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, hoisting into orbit the spacecraft known as GRACE-FO, a follow-on to the prior, 15-year mission known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

How to measure water from space?
Two satellites, each the size of a car, will circle the Earth at a distance of 137 miles (220 kilometres) from each other.

They will be flying about 310 miles (490 kilometres) above the Earth for the next five years.

According to the laws of physics, the slightest variation in mass on Earth modifies the pull of gravity on satellites.

When the lead satellite passes over a mountain, it will get slightly farther from its twin for a few instants because of the extra mass in this area and a slightly stronger pull of gravity.

These slight variations in distance will be constantly recorded by the spacecraft, because each shift signals a change in mass on the planet underneath.

The satellites use a monthly reference point, because unless there is an earthquake or other unusual event, only water has the capacity to change that fast.

Water always has mass, whether it is in the form of liquid, solid, or gas.

When ice melts, the oceans’ mass rises. When it rains a lot in a certain region, the volume of the aquifers mounts. The satellites will pick this up, and the data will show that the mass in a certain area was higher than it was in the prior month, or year.

That is how the GRACE-FO satellites will establish a map of the water on Earth, every 30 days, showing which areas have more and which have less, whether above or below ground.

They operate with a precision equivalent to a change of 0.4 inches (one centimetre) in water height across areas of about 211 miles (340 kilometres) in diameter.

What is the point?
The prior mission, GRACE, allowed scientists to gain an understanding of how much ice Greenland was losing. It was more than they thought, based on ground-observations.

From 2002 to 2016, 280 gigatons of ice melted each year, which led to a sea level rise of 0.8 millimetres.

The satellites were also able to track just how much ice Antarctica was losing, and produced colourful maps that showed losses in red and gains in blue.

The map of California showed plenty of red when it was struck by a massive drought in recent years, and scientists and policymakers were about to calculate how low the water table was falling.

Meanwhile, other parts of the globe such as the Okavango Delta in Botswana saw water reserves mount from 2002 to 2016 due to heavy rains.

Renewing the mission will allow scientists to continue to track trends in sea level rise, glacial and ice melt, and the drying up of certain aquifers.

“Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth – for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living,” said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“You can’t manage it well until you can measure it.”

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and the Germans have invested EUR 77 million (about $90 million).

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