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Russian space officials try to blame NASA astronaut for Soyuz air leak in 2018: report –



A closeup image of the suspected drill hole that astronauts discovered in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft in 2018. (Image credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s head of human spaceflight says the agency stands behind its astronauts following claims that a U.S. crewmember at the International Space Station sabotaged a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2018, causing an air leak at the orbiting laboratory. 

On Friday afternoon (Aug. 13), during a media teleconference about recent delays with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders told reporters that the personal attacks against NASA astronaut and Expedition 56 flight engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor were baseless. 

“Serena is an extremely well-respected crew member who has served her country and made invaluable contributions to the agency,” Lueders told reporters. “And I stand behind Serena — we stand behind Serena and her professional conduct and I did not find this accusation credible.”

Related: Space Station commander: It’s ‘absolutely a shame’ to suggest astronauts caused air leak

Lueders expressed those same sentiments on Twitter Friday afternoon, with NASA’s administrator, Senator Bill Nelson agreeing.: 

“I wholeheartedly agree with Kathy’s statement,” Nelson tweeted. “I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts.”

Russian accusations

NASA leadership’s statements on Friday follow on the heels of accusations from an unnamed “high-ranking” official with Russia’s space agency made in the Russian news agency TASS. The agency claims that in 2018, Auñón-Chancellor had an emotional breakdown in space and then damaged a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was docked at the station so that she could return to Earth early.

The article, published on Thursday (Aug. 12), responds to criticism from U.S. media in regards to the near-disastrous incident involving Russia’s Nauka science module and the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month.

Related: Space station situation with Russia’s Nauka module misfire was more serious than stated

NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor speaks at a bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues event on NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, in September 2019.  (Image credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA)

In the TASS article, Russian journalist Mikhail Kotov interviews an anonymous official at Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos

The article is particularly troublesome because it not only names Auñón-Chancellor — the only female astronaut on station at the time — specifically, but it also reveals a medical condition she suffered on-orbit. (Typically NASA keeps all astronaut medical records and conditions private.) 

Auñón-Chancellor was treated upon her return to Earth for a deep vein thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in the jugular vein of her neck. But Kotov implies that dealing with such a condition in space could spur her to want to leave the ISS prematurely, and therefore sabotage the spacecraft that brought her to the orbital outpost in an effort to return home ahead of schedule. 

Leaky Soyuz

On Aug. 29, 2018, ISS controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston noticed a slight pressure drop aboard the orbiting outpost. They notified the crew the next day, and the crew was able to trace the leak to a small hole in Russia’s Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which had docked to the space station in June with Auñón-Chancellor, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev.

Prokopyev, the commander of the Soyuz at the time, solved the problem by patching the 2-millimeter (0.08 inches) hole using epoxy and gauze. NASA officials stressed that the crew was never in any danger. 

Russian space officials decided to investigate the leak, determined to find out its cause. Shortly thereafter, Dmitry Rogozin — the head of Roscosmos — announced that the breach in the Soyuz wall was a drill hole. And according to Rogozin, the person who made the hole apparently had “a faltering hand,” citing nearby scuff marks that likely resulted when the drill slipped.

Russian officials went one step further insinuating that the unsteady hand was likely due to the culprit drilling in microgravity, meaning one of the crew was to blame — not the Russian engineers involved in the assembly and testing of the Soyuz spacecraft before launch down on Earth. 

Space Station astronauts repaired a minor leak in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft (left) on Aug. 30, 2018. A 2-millimeter hole in the orbital module, shown here, caused a slight pressure drop inside the orbiting laboratory. (Image credit: NASA/

NASA officials knew the precise locations of the U.S. astronauts before the leak occurred and at the moment it began, thanks to space station surveillance. The video footage indicated that none of the U.S. astronauts on the station were near the Russian segment where the Soyuz vehicle was docked. But the Russians didn’t buy it. They were convinced that one of the crew sabotaged the Soyuz. 

The recent TASS article takes those claims one step further and insists that NASA video of the ISS could have been tampered with and that Russian officials were denied the chance to examine Russian tools and administer polygraphs, or lie detector tests, to the astronauts. 

But the TASS article seems to dismiss the most likely cause of the hole: human error on the ground. The problem most likely happened on Earth, before launch. This was something that Roscosmos was looking into but the agency has never definitively disclosed the results. 

Most likely a technician accidentally damaged the Soyuz spacecraft and then tried to cover up the error with a makeshift patch. That patch could have then become dislodged during flight or its time on-orbit after repeated exposure to extreme temperature differences as the station orbits the Earth.

Looking ahead

Related stories

Relations between the two space agencies have grown more strained over recent years, but NASA leadership is hopeful for a continued orbital partnership. 

Prior to the launch attempt of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on July 30, Nelson told that he applauded the long-standing relationship between the two agencies. “Terrestrially, we have enormous tensions with Russia, but in space we have cooperation.” 

Nelson also said that he expects Russia will continue to work with NASA to maintain the ISS and that he hopes to announce sometime soon that a cosmonaut will fly on an upcoming SpaceX Crew Dragon flight, something the agency has been trying to arrange for quite some time. 

Perhaps cosmonauts will make their U.S. commercial spaceflight debut with the SpaceX Crew-4 mission, currently slated to launch in2022, Nelson has said, but nothing is confirmed yet. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Ancient Jordanian town destroyed by a meteor blast may have inspired Biblical stories, scientists say –



A thriving town in the Jordan River valley was utterly annihilated by the explosion of a meteor 3,600 years ago, which produced a flash and shock wave that scorched and shattered buildings, animals and people.

That’s the scenario painted by a large collaboration of archaeologists, earth and space scientists who have been studying the remains of the Bronze Age town at a site called Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea.

Before its destruction, Tall el-Hammam was a bustling town of perhaps 8,000 people, with mud-brick buildings and a four-story palace. There is evidence that the site of the town had been occupied for several thousand years.

Archaeologists have been excavating the ruins of the town for more than 15 years, revealing a rich history during its long occupation that included ruins from fires, warfare and earthquakes.  

Their findings were published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

The ‘destruction layer’

But their excavations also revealed destruction that didn’t have any ordinary explanation: a one-and-a-half-metre-thick layer of debris the team dubbed the “destruction layer,” encompassing the whole settlement, and dated to 1650 BC. This layer showed signs of an incredibly violent event.

It included melted pottery and bricks, soot, melted plaster and metal, that only could have resulted from temperatures approaching 2,000 C. It also contained ruins of flattened buildings, including the town’s palace and four metre-thick outer wall.

“The city was built with millions of mud bricks, in the walls, the ramparts, the buildings,” space physicist Malcolm LeCompte, who was part of the research team, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. “Much of the mud brick was just disintegrated and blown away off the upper stories of these structures into the next valley.” 

Researchers stand at the Tall el-Hammam archaeological site in Jordan. (Phil Silvia)

Most gruesomely, the debris also contained the remains of humans and animals that had been burned and torn apart.

“The human remains and bones were abundant. There’s very few total skeletal remains. Those that do remain are pretty disarticulated — just shattered,” said LeCompte. “It’s pretty horrifying, actually.” 

The extreme temperatures and the widespread and violent destruction began to point the research team to a culprit. But microscopic examination of the debris also helped build the case. They found sand grains with unique cracks and fractures within them called “shocked quartz,” which are often found in the debris from super-high velocity impacts, like those generated by a meteor strike.

This led them to conclude that the best fit for what they were seeing was an “air burst” by meteor likely composed of rock and ice. The object, perhaps 50 metres across, would have hit the Earth’s atmosphere above the town travelling at perhaps 60,000 km/h. At that speed the atmosphere would have behaved as if it was almost solid, causing the meteor to explode violently.

“The evidence we have suggests that it was something like … a megaton-yield event in terms of its equivalent in atomic or nuclear bombs.” said LeCompte.

On the ground, the flash of heat from the explosion would have caused hair and textiles to burst into flame, and melted metal and brick. Moments later, a shock wave would have hit, causing winds that researchers estimate reached speeds of up to 1,200 km/h — knocking structures in the town flat and killing every living thing in the town.

“The shock wave would have come and just torn them apart,” said LeCompte.

Tall el-Hammam is located just north of the Dead Sea in the Joran River valley. (NASA)

It will happen again, LeCompte warns

The researchers point out that there are modern precedents for an event like this. In 1908 a similar-sized object is thought to have exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia, in what is known as the Tunguska event. It flattened 2,000 square kilometres of forest, and started a huge forest fire.

In 2013 a roughly 200-metre meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, shattering windows and causing more than 1,000 injuries.

So far the team has found some material they think could be from the meteor, including tiny samples of rare metals often found in meteorites, but need to do more work to confirm their origin. LeCompte points out that excavation in the area can be difficult, particularly as much of the local landscape is currently occupied by Syrian refugees.

One intriguing, if speculative, possibility that the researchers have suggested is that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam might be the inspiration behind Biblical legends like the destruction of Sodom — in what is described as a “rain” of “fire and brimstone” — or the destruction of the walls of Jericho.

But LeCompte says those that look at Tall el-Hammam as a historical curiosity are missing the point. Instead, he said, they should look at it as a warning.

“The significance to its past pales in what it foretells for the future, because this is going to happen again,” he said. The Tunguska event shows that the Earth can still be struck by destructive objects from space, and if something similar were to happen over a city or populated region, the devastation would be enormous.

“It just took it out in an instant, so that’s a serious warning of what could happen — what will happen — in the future.”

Written by Jim Lebans. Produced by Mark Crawley.

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Archaeologists find oldest known human footprints in the Americas – HeritageDaily



Archaeologists conducting research in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico has identified the oldest known human footprints in the Americas.

The findings provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas from over 23,000 years ago, a period during the height of the last glacial cycle, known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

Archaeologists have debated for decades when the first people arrived in the Americas, but Vance T. Holliday from the UArizona School of Anthropology and Department of Geosciences said: “Few archaeologists see reliable evidence for sites older than about 16,000 years. Some think the arrival was later, no more than 13,000 years ago by makers of artefacts called Clovis points. The White Sands tracks provide a much earlier date. There are multiple layers of well-dated human tracks in streambeds where water flowed into an ancient lake. This was 10,000 years before Clovis people.”


The team used radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprints to determine their age, which showed human presence at the site lasting two millennia, and the oldest track dating back 23,000 years.

Kathleen Springer from the U.S. Geological Survey said: “Our dates on the seeds are tightly clustered and maintain stratigraphic order above and below multiple footprint horizons – this was a remarkable outcome”.

An analysis on the size of the human footprints suggests that they were mainly teenagers and younger children, whilst other tracks indicate that they were left by mammoths, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and birds.

“It is an important site because all of the trackways we’ve found there show an interaction of humans in the landscape alongside extinct animals, like mammoths and giant sloths.” said Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University. “We can see the co-existence between humans and animals on the site as a whole, and by being able to accurately date these footprints, we’re building a greater picture of the landscape.”


The University of Arizona

Header Image Credit : David Bustos – White Sands National Park

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Bird reports rose during lockdowns | Cornell Chronicle – Cornell Chronicle



Around 80% of bird species examined in a new study were reported in greater numbers in human-altered habitats during pandemic lockdowns, according to new research based on data from the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In the paper, “Reduced Human Activity During COVID-19 Alters Avian Land Use Across North America,” published Sept. 22 in Science Advances, researchers compared online eBird observations from the United States and Canada from before and during the pandemic. They focused on areas within about 100 km of urban areas, major roads, and airports.

Vast amounts of data from a likewise vast geographic area were vital for this study. The researchers used more than 4 million eBird observations of 82 bird species from across Canada and the U.S.

“A lot of species we really care about became more abundant in human landscapes during the pandemic,” said study senior author Nicola Koper of the University of Manitoba, which led the research. “I was blown away by how many species were affected by decreased traffic and activity during lockdowns.”

Reports of bald eagles increased in cities with the strongest lockdowns. Ruby-throated hummingbirds were three times more likely to be reported within a kilometer of airports than before the pandemic. Barn swallows, a threatened species in Canada, were reported more often within a kilometer of roads than before the pandemic.

A few species decreased their use of human-altered habitat during the pandemic. Red-tailed hawk reports decreased near roads, perhaps because there was less roadkill when traffic declined. But far more species had increased counts in these human-dominated landscapes.

The authors filtered pandemic and pre-pandemic eBird reports so that the final data sets had the same characteristics, such as location, number of lists, and level of birdwatcher effort.

“We also needed to be aware of the detectability issue,” said co-author Alison Johnston, assistant director of the Center for Avian Population Studies and Ecological Data in the Lab of Ornithology. “Were species being reported in higher numbers because people could finally hear the birds without all the traffic noise, or was there a real ecological change in the numbers of birds present?”

The study tested whether better detectability might be a factor in the larger bird numbers reported. If it was, the scientists expected that to be more noticeable for smaller birds, which are harder to detect beneath traffic noise. However, effects were noticed across many species, from hawks to hummingbirds, suggesting that the increased numbers were not only caused by increased detectability in the quieter environments.

“Having so many people in North America and around the world paying attention to nature has been crucial to understanding how wildlife react to our presence,” says lead author Michael Schrimpf, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba. “Studies such as this one rely on volunteer birdwatchers, so if you enjoy watching wildlife, there are many projects out there, like eBird and iNaturalist, that can use your help.”

The study was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada with in-kind support provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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