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Rare spectacle: Jupiter and Saturn's celestial alignment from around the world – The Globe and Mail

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Stargazers were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime illusion as the solar system’s two biggest planets appeared to meet in an event astronomers call the ‘Great Conjunction’

Jupiter (below) and Saturn (above) are pictured on the sky during the closest visible conjunction of them in 400 years, in La Linea de la Concepcion, southern Spain December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

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Jupiter (L) and Saturn appear about one-tenth of a degree apart during an astronomical event known as a Great Conjunction to the left of The STRAT Hotel, Casino & SkyPod on December 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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Jupiter (L) and Saturn appear about one-tenth of a degree apart during an astronomical event known as a Great Conjunction above Mt. Tamalpais on December 21, 2020 in Larkspur, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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People gather at River Parks trails at 41st and Riverside, to get a look at Jupiter and Saturn on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. The two planets were closer to each other than they’ve been in 800 years. (John Clanton/Tulsa World via AP)

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Groups of people gather near a Christmas tree on the beach as they watch the celestial phenomenon of the planets Jupiter and Saturn align so closely they almost appear as one single “star”, known as a planetary conjunction, in the sky at Cardiff State Beach in California, U.S., December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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People gather at River Parks Trails at 41st and Riverside, to get a look at Jupiter and Saturn on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. The two planets were closer to each other than they’ve been in 800 years. (John Clanton/Tulsa World via AP)

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Jupiter and Saturn as they appear close together during a planetary conjunction alongside the Statue of Liberty in New York City, U.S., December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Bjoern Kils

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People are silhouetted against the sky at dusk as they watch the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Edgerton, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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People are silhouetted against the sky at dusk as they watch the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Edgerton, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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John Galvan and his son Charlie use a telescope to view Jupiter and Saturn during a planetary conjuction, as they appear close together in a rare celestial event in Houston, Texas, U.S., December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

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Kuwaiti astrophotographers follow the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 kms west of Kuwait City, on December 21, 2020. (Photo by YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images)

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People stand in a queue to see a ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn at the Maidan area in Kolkata on December 21, 2020. (Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

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SpaceX Launches Rocket With 143 Satellites – The Most Ever Flown On A Single Mission – Forbes

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Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has successfully launched the Transporter-1 mission, breaking the record for the most number of satellites ever flown on a single rocket.

Today, Sunday, January 24 at 10 A.M. Eastern Time, the company’s Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, with 143 commercial and government satellites on board.

The satellites were launched into a sun-synchronous orbit, one that stays in constant daylight, about 500 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

About eight minutes later, the bottom section of the rocket returned to Earth and landed in the Atlantic Ocean on a floating barge called Of Course I Still Love You – a norm now on SpaceX launches.

The launch was the first in SpaceX’s new “Rideshare Program”, designed to launch many satellites at a time and enable organizations to reach space at a lower cost.

SpaceX has launched rideshare missions before, notably its SSO-A mission in 2018 with 64 satellites on board, but this new program is intended to greatly expand the launch opportunities on offer.

It cost just $5,000 per kilogram to place a satellite on this rocket, or $1 million for 200 kilograms. The total mass of all the commercial satellites on board was about 2,700 kilograms, equating to almost $14 million.

The launch of 143 satellites broke the previous record for the most number of satellites on a launch, set by India in 2017 when it launched 104 on a single rocket.

The satellites on board included 48 satellites from Earth imaging company Planet Labs, a small NASA mission called V-R3x to test ways to track small spacecraft in Earth orbit, and 36 small communications satellites from Swarm Technologies.

Ten of SpaceX’s own satellites in its controversial Starlink internet mega constellation were included, which reached the milestone of 1,000 satellites launched last week.

The total mass of the satellites on board was about 5,000 kilograms.

However, the large number of satellites on board – while impressive – has caused some concern, specifically regarding space traffic management.

SpaceX did not release a detailed manifest of the satellites on board, meaning the purpose and nature of some of them was unclear at the time of launch.

“One of the problems is that we don’t even know for sure what all of the 143 satellites are,” astronomer and spaceflight expert Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told SpaceNews.

With some of the satellites being as small as a shoe box, they will be hard to track in orbit, a necessity to avoid collisions with other satellites.

This single launch alone will increase the number of active satellites in orbit by about five percent, given there are only about 3,000 active satellites currently orbiting Earth.

Or, in other words, one out of every 20 active satellites now in orbit were launched on this Transporter-1 mission.

Nonetheless, the launch is a huge milestone for SpaceX, letting it offer a new type of service unmatched by any other launch provider.

At $5,000 per kilogram, the flight was far cheaper for the satellites on board than on a rival commercial rocket.

For example, the New Zealand-based launch company Rocket Lab offers space on its smaller Electron rocket at about $20,000 per kilogram.

However, while these smaller launchers can’t match SpaceX on price, they can offer a dedicated launch to a specific orbit with a short wait time.

SpaceX with its rideshare missions, on the other hand, can only launch multiple satellites into one orbit, posing some issues to then move the satellites elsewhere.

Still, the service has clearly proven popular, and a Transporter-2 mission is expected later this year.

Now many will be hoping, if these launches are to become more regular, that more can be done to safely manage the large amounts of satellites deployed in orbit.

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Watch SpaceX's first dedicated rideshare rocket launch live, carrying a record-breaking payload of satellites – Yahoo Canada Shine On

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Eat This, Not That!

Sure Sign You’ve Already Had COVID, According to Dr. Fauci

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 410,000 Americans, and that doesn’t even count those who caught the virus and never got better, still suffering from Long COVID. In fact, these “long haulers” may never get better, and remain a shell of their former selves, tortured by a series of never-ending and ever-changing symptoms that debilitate them, with no cure yet available. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the President and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has witnessed Long COVID first hand and wants you to know: “This is a phenomenon that is really quite real and quite extensive.” Read on to hear about one sure sign you may have it—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus. You Might Feel Like You Have Myalgic EncephalomyelitisDr. Fauci has said that the effects of Long COVID are new and need further research—but that it resembles an existing syndrome. “You don’t want to be scaring people and alarming them, but they really should know that we don’t know what the long-term consequences are, even when it looks like a routine infection,” Dr. Fauci told Medscape in July. “We better be careful. Even after you clear the virus, there are postviral symptoms. I know, because I follow on the phone a lot of people who call me up and talk about their course. And it’s extraordinary how many people have a postviral syndrome that’s very strikingly similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. They just don’t get back to normal energy or normal feeling of good health.”The other symptoms he has listed include myalgia—which are body aches and pains—and headaches, among others.What is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis?A syndrome misunderstood by even some doctors, “ME/CFS is a multi-system disease that causes profound metabolic dysfunction and is accompanied by physical and cognitive limitations,” according to the experts at #MEAction. Hallmark symptoms include:Post-Exertional Malaise, which #MEAction defines as “a reduction in functioning and a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal physical or cognitive exertion.”Unrefreshing SleepHeadaches of a New Type or SeverityCognitive Symptoms—some call this “brain fog,” which Dr. Fauci calls an “inability to concentrate”And More.”People experience symptoms on a spectrum from severe to mild, but 75 percent of people with the disease are unable to work and 25 percent are homebound or bedridden,” according to #MEAction. “Based on past viral outbreaks, we are expecting 10-12 percent of all people with Covid-19 will go on to develop ME/CFS.””Unfortunately, we are still far away from a cure,” Adriane Tillman, Editor of #MEAction, tells us. “The paramount problem is the abysmal lack of research funding allotted to ME/CFS by our government. The bottom line is that research funding for ME/CFS is absurdly deficient. If you add up all the funding that the NIH has allocated to ME/CFS research over the past two decades, it wouldn’t even reach the total amount that the NIH should be spending in one year on ME/CFS based on the disease burden (the number of people who are sick and the effect on the quality-of-life).”Dr. Fauci has alluded to more research being done “now” on Long COVID, but no specifics have been mentioned. “It’s essential for us to learn all we can about how SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, leads to such widespread symptoms,” wrote National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins last week. “It’s also essential that we develop ways to better treat or prevent these symptoms. The NIH held a workshop last month to summarize what is known and fill in key gaps in our knowledge about Long COVID syndrome, which is clinically known as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). In December, Congress authorized funding for continued research on PASC, including an appropriation of funds for NIH to support continued study of these prolonged health consequences.”ME/CFS-like symptoms are also being studied in Post-COVID care centers at hospitals like Mt. Sinai. But we’re still at the “tip of the iceberg,” according to one scientist. “We need to dig in and do the work that needs to be done to help relieve the suffering and stop this madness,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, at the NIH workshop, which also included Dr. Fauci.What to Do if You Feel You Have Myalgic EncephalomyelitisContact a medical professional if you feel you have Long COVID or ME/CFS. Note that they are likely to treat your symptoms but are still learning to understand both ME/CFS and Long COVID. Also, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. “The pathway to recovery or diagnosis for COVID-19 long haulers will not be uniform,” reports #MEAction. “Some long haulers will recover, a subset will go on to develop chronic illnesses like ME/CFS or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), and some will have long-term consequences due to organ damage alone. Some long haulers are reporting symptoms that resemble ME/CFS, including post-exertional malaise, as well as cognitive challenges and sleep issues.” For the full list of 98 symptoms that COVID long haulers say they have suffered (not all are ME/CFS), don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.

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If dangerous COVID variants were spreading widely in Ontario, would we know? Why scientists are worried – Toronto Star

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With increasing reports of new, more dangerous COVID-19 variants in Ontario, experts say the province urgently needs more genomic sequencing, faster results, and policies that stifle the virus’s opportunities to evolve — a situation reminiscent of the earliest days of the pandemic, when the disease outstripped our ability to track and control it.

The province has ramped up surveillance for three red-flag “variants of concern,” which were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil. Unlike the many viral strains with mostly benign genetic alterations, these three variants carry a host of mutations that scientists believe makes them significantly more contagious or potentially able to evade some immune defences in previously infected and vaccinated people.

This past week, the Simcoe Muskoka public health unit announced that six samples from a vicious outbreak at the Roberta Place nursing home in Barrie had preliminarily screened positive for one of those variants. On Saturday, the health unit said that full genome sequencing confirmed the presence of the U.K. variant in all six. Twenty-nine residents have died after 124 of 127 tested positive for COVID-19 in less than two weeks, along with 84 staff and two visitors.

Public Health Ontario has asked every lab in the provincial COVID-19 testing network to forward all positive samples from Wednesday to be analyzed for the variants of concern — a single-day snapshot of about 2,630 cases. Initial results will be available in two to three weeks, according to Dr. Vanessa Allen, PHO’s chief of microbiology and laboratory science.

Outside of that “point-prevalence” study, the agency is conducting full sequencing on about 350 samples a week, and is poised to triple its capacity to carry out preliminary screening tests. Hospital and university labs are boosting those volumes, including a next-generation, ultra-high-throughput sequencing platform that will soon begin screening hundreds of samples from Toronto daily.

But experts say further investment is needed — financial and logistical — to make sure officials can catch and act on new information in time.

“This feels like February-March 2020 in some ways,” says Dr. Samira Mubareka, a microbiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, who has been involved in sequencing viral genomes from the beginning of the pandemic.

Canada is sequencing about five per cent of positive COVID-19 samples to hunt for variants, Mubareka says, about half of what the U.K. is achieving.

“At five per cent, you would have to have quite a few variants floating around to pick one up. And then you realize, well, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. By then you’re already in a bit of trouble.”

Developing fast, cheap screening tests for variants — ones that give a preliminary yes-or-no answer — is underway, experts say. By this week, PHO will be able to screen up to 1,500 weekly samples, according to a spokesperson. (With the six Roberta Place samples, Ontario has caught 21 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant and none of either the South African or Brazilian ones out of 4,000 tests since September. 

But fully sequencing viral genomes — getting every word on every page of the genetic instruction manual, not just a yes-or-no — is critical to understanding exactly what strains are circulating, including not-yet-identified or even home-grown variants, a realistic threat at this stage of the pandemic.

Turnaround times for full genome sequences need to improve from the current two to three weeks, Mubareka says, pointing to the Roberta Place outbreak: public health needs actionable information, not a weeks-old snapshot.

Expanding the province’s genomic surveillance capacity involves more than just buying sequencing instruments, Mubareka says. Similar to the bottlenecks that have stymied conventional COVID-19 testing, it also requires ensuring that information flows quickly through the system — including supporting public health to carry out the same functions that have been vital since the very first case.

“There’s no point in generating this data if there aren’t those key track-and-trace teams on the other side to say, ‘OK, we’ve got this, we’re on it,’ and can actually intervene in an impactful way.”

At Sinai Health’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, scientists are working to adapt a next-generation, ultra-high-throughput sequencing platform to screen hundreds of positive samples for variants daily.

The platform is designed to sequence small genome sections very quickly and in huge volumes. Pre-pandemic, the scientists were using it to study cancer. This year, they worked to convert it into a system that could process thousands of conventional COVID-19 tests, research that is still advancing.

In December, researchers in the U.K. announced that a viral strain carrying a host of mutations was spreading rapidly, and appeared to be roughly 50 per cent more transmissible. The Sinai team pivoted again, adapting the platform to process hundreds of lab samples that already tested positive by rapidly sequencing “fingerprint regions” of the viral genome to look for key mutations.

“Three weeks later, (the information is) not as helpful, says Jeff Wrana, a senior investigator at LTRI who is leading the project. “We need to get it within days.”

The team recently carried out a proof-of-concept experiment, analyzing 900 positive COVID test samples from Sinai’s lab. They hope to start screening every positive sample from Sinai soon — around 400 a day.

Nearly all screening results from the pilot run were unremarkable, long-circulating strains of the virus, Wrana says.

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According to genetic sequences uploaded to GISAID, an open-access database that researchers use to share, track and compare SARS-CoV-2 lineages, the team also found a small number of a viral variant from Brazil. This lineage, known as P.2, is not the same as the Brazilian variant of concern, which has not been detected in Ontario.

“We’re keeping an eye on it, because it could pick up more mutations and become a variant of concern. But at this point it’s just something we’re tracking and keeping an eye on. We’re not particularly concerned about it,” says Andrew McArthur, a professor and bioinformatics specialist at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

McArthur and Mubareka belong to the Toronto Invasive Bacterial Diseases Network, which in December and January also identified a small number of P.2 strains in Ontario, according to GISAID.

P.2 does not carry the spike protein mutation known as N501Y that is shared by all three red-flag variants, associated with significantly increased transmissibility. Aside from N501Y, the three variants of concern boast a large number of mutations in key regions, and scientists are working furiously to understand their combined effects.

The strain Wrana and others identified in Toronto, however, does have a mutation known as E484K, which both the South African and Brazilian variants of concern share. Scientists are worried about variants carrying E484K, because laboratory experiments, case reports of reinfection and epidemiological evidence from South Africa and Brazil suggest the mutation helps evade immune response in people who have already been infected or vaccinated.

The real-world impacts of this are unclear, and even less clear in strains like P.2 that carry one “watchlist” mutation but not the full suite of worrying changes. Our immune systems have an armada of cellular defences, and weakening one part of the system doesn’t neutralize all of it. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in particular are so effective that losing some efficacy may not matter, and they can also be retooled quickly if necessary.

PHO’s Allen says that until the significance of key mutations are better known, the agency and local health units are carrying out additional case investigation for samples with strains carrying mutations like E484K as well as for the official variants of concern.

But that uncertainty is also why we need to remain vigilant — especially right now, scientists say.

“Never underestimate a virus or the cleverness of evolution. These variants are popping up all over,” Wrana says. “They should be aggressively monitored and controlled, because if they do have significant immune evasion properties, it would be devastating.”

Mubareka and McArthur both noted that public health policies and personal behaviour also have a significant effect on the evolution of new variants: every time the virus is transmitted, it has a chance to evolve.

“This is one of the most dangerous parts of the pandemic. Generating new variants is about time and number of patients, and we’ve had a lot of both,” says McArthur.

“The simplest way to reduce the risk of new variants is to drive the numbers down. It’s as simple as that.”

Kate Allen

Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering science and technology for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen

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