The coming year is shaping up to be just as interesting. Here are some of the missions to keep an eye out for.
Artemis 1 is the first flight of the NASA-led, international Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. This will consist of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft which will be sent on a three-week flight around the Moon. IT will reach a maximum distance from Earth of 450,000km – the farthest into space that any spacecraft that can transport humans will have ever flown.
Artemis 1 will be launched into Earth orbit on the first NASA Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket in operation. From Earth orbit, the Orion will be propelled onto a different path towards the Moon by the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage. The Orion capsule will then travel to the Moon under the power provided by a service module supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The mission will provide engineers back on Earth with a chance to evaluate how the spacecraft performs in deep space and serve as a prelude to later crewed lunar missions. The launch of Artemis 1 is currently scheduled for late in 2021.
In February, Mars will receive a flotilla of terrestrial robotic guests from several countries. The United Arab Emirates’ Al Amal (Hope) spacecraft is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. It is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit on February 9, where it will spend two years monitoring the Martian weather and disappearing atmosphere.
Arriving within a couple of weeks after Al Amal will be the China National Space Administration’s Tianwen-1, consisting of an orbiter and a surface rover. The spacecraft will enter Martian orbit for several months before deploying the rover to the surface. If it succeeds, China will become the third country to land anything on Mars. The mission has several objectives including mapping the mineral composition of the surface and searching for sub-surface water deposits.
NASA’s Perseverance rover will land at Jezero Crater on February 18 and search for any signs of ancient life which may have been preserved in the clay deposits there. Critically, it will also store a cache of Martian surface samples on board as the first part in a highly ambitious international program to return samples of Mars to Earth.
In March 2021, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to launch its third lunar mission: Chandrayaan-3. Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008 and was one of the first major missions in the Indian space program. Comprising an orbiter and a surface penetrator probe, the mission was one of the first to confirm evidence of lunar water.
Unfortunately, contact with the satellite was lost less than a year later. Sadly, there was a similar mishap with its successor, Chandrayaan-2, which consisted of an orbiter, a lander (Vikram) and a lunar rover (Pragyan).
Chandrayaan-3 was announced a few months later. It will consist of only a lander and rover, as the previous mission’s orbiter is still functioning and providing data.
If all goes well the Chandrayaan-3 rover will touch down in the lunar south pole’s Aitken basin. It’s of particular interest as it is thought to host numerous deposits of subsurface water ice – a vital component for any future sustainable lunar habitation.
James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but has had a rocky path to being launched. Initially planned for a 2007 launch, the Webb telescope is almost 14 years late and has cost roughly US$10 billion (£7.4 billion) after apparent underestimates and overruns similar to those experienced by Hubble.
Whereas Hubble has provided some amazing views of the universe in visible and ultraviolet region of light, Webb is planning to focus observations in the infrared wavelength band. The reason for this is that when observing really distant objects there will probably be gas clouds in the way.
These gas clouds block really small wavelengths of light, such as X-rays and ultraviolet light, while longer wavelengths like infra-red, microwave and radio can get through more easily. So by observing in these longer wavelengths we should see more of the universe.
Webb also has a much bigger mirror of 6.5-meter diameter compared to Hubble’s 2.4-meter diameter mirror – essential for improving image resolution and seeing finer detail.
The primary mission of Webb is look at light from galaxies at the edge of the universe which can tell us about how the first stars, galaxies and planetary systems formed. Potentially this could include some information about the origin of life as well, as Webb is planning on imaging exoplanet atmospheres in high detail, searching for the building blocks of life. Do they exist on other planets, and if so, how did they get there?
We are also likely to be treated to some stunning images similar to those produced by Hubble. Webb is currently scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket on October 31.
Written by Ian Whittaker, Senior Lecturer in Physics, Nottingham Trent University and Gareth Dorrian, Post Doctoral Research Fellow in Space Science, University of Birmingham.
Originally published on The Conversation.
Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found – Big Think
<p>Imagine it’s 2045. You start hearing rumors from your well-heeled friends about a mysterious corporation based on an undisclosed island that’s offering an unprecedented service: the ability to genetically design your baby.</p><p>The baby will have some of your genetics, and some genetics from a sperm or egg donor, selected by you. But the rest of your child’s genetic profile will be engineered by science. These changes will make it impossible for your child to develop genetic diseases. They’ll also allow you to customize your child for dozens of traits, including intelligence level, emotional disposition, sexual orientation, height, skin tone, hair color, and eye color, to name a few. </p><p>This raises unsettling philosophical questions for some customers. “When does my child stop being my child?” they ask the corporate representatives. These wary customers are reminded of how risky it is to reproduce the old-fashioned way. The Better Genetics Corporation’s motto sums it up: “Only God plays dice—humans don’t have to.”</p><p>This is the world described in a new science-fiction series by Eugene Clark titled <a href=”http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>”Genetic Pressure”</a>, which explores the moral and scientific implications of a future in which designer babies are becoming a major industry. The first book begins with the story of Rachel, a renowned horse breeder who befriends a billionaire client, and soon gets the funding to visit the tropical island on which the Better Genetics Corporation is headquartered. </p><p>There, corporate executives walk her through the process of designing a baby—an experience that feels like an uncanny mix between visiting a doctor and designing a luxury car. The series is told from multiple perspectives, serving as a deep dive into a complex moral web that today’s scientists may already be weaving.</p>
<blockquote>[T]he introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore. </blockquote>
<p>Case in point: In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world’s first genetically engineered babies. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR on embryos, He Jiankui modified a gene called <a href=”https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/CCR5″ target=”_blank”>CCR5</a>, which enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. His goal was to engineer children that were immune to the virus.</p><p>It’s unclear whether he succeeded. But what’s certain is that the experiment shocked the international scientific community, which generally agreed that it’s unethical to conduct gene-editing procedures on humans, given that scientists don’t yet fully understand the consequences.</p><p>”This experiment is monstrous,” Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, told <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/worlds-first-gene-edited-babies-created-in-china-claims-scientist” target=”_blank”><em>The Guardian</em></a>. “The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”</p><p>Importantly, He Jiankui wasn’t treating a disease, but rather genetically engineering babies to prevent the future contraction of a virus. These kinds of changes are heritable, meaning the experiment could have major downstream effects on future generations. So, too, would a designer-baby industry, even if scientists can do it safely.</p><p>With major implications on inequality, discrimination, sexuality, and our conceptions of life, the introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore. </p>
Tribalism and discrimination
<p>One question the “Genetic Pressure” series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>”[Designer babies] slowly find that ‘everyone else,’ and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable,” author Eugene Clark told Big Think. “Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies.”</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from “normal people”—they call her “soulless” and say she was “made in a factory,” a “consumer product.” </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who’s able to afford designer baby services. If it’s only the ultra-wealthy, then it’s easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there’d necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. “Normal people” could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the “Genetic Pressure” series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone’s more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>”In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators,” he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and “normal” people? In the “Genetic Pressure” series, many “normal” people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with “normal” people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies
<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it’s not totally new territory, considering the West’s dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn’t violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, “… three generations of imbeciles are enough.” </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href=”https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/” target=”_blank”>into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn’t explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href=”https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren’t sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the “Genetic Pressure” series, wouldn’t necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of “desirable” traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it’d effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href=”https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>wrote</a>, this would “jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life.”</p><p><em>”Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps”</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href=”http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3″ target=”_blank”>available now.</a></em></p>
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B.C. researchers find evidence of ancient predatory sand worms that were two metres long – Calgary Herald
Article content continued
The trace fossils showed feather-like structures around the upper parts of the burrows, which the researchers believe would have been caused by the worms dragging their struggling prey under the ocean floor to eat them.
The study’s lead author, earth sciences student Yu-Yen Pan, said the giant burrows are much larger than other trace fossils of ocean worms found in the past.
“Compared to other trace fossils which are usually only a few tens of centimetres long, this one was huge; two-metres long and two to three centimetres in diameter,” she said in a press release. “The distinctive, feather-like structures around the upper burrow were also unique and no previously studied trace fossil has shown similar features.”
The researchers say that these worms likely would have fed similarly to the bobbit worm, often called the “sand striker.”
Bobbit worms wait in their burrow for unsuspecting prey, then explode upwards, grabbing the prey in their mouths and pulling them back down into the sediment.
The researchers also found evidence that led them to believe the worms secreted mucus after each feeding that rebuilt and reinforced their burrows, allowing them to lie in wait for their next victim without being seen.
Pan and an international team that studies the ancient sea floor has named the homes of these worms Pennichnus formosae.
According to the study, previous research on Eunicid polychaetes, the family that these ancient worms and bobbit worms belong to, was limited because they only stuck a small portion of their bodies out from the ocean floor.
These trace fossils have allowed researchers to better understand the activity and habits of the ancient species.
Predatory ocean worms have existed for over 400 million years, and while these ancient burrows are long when compared to others that had previously been studied, giant marine worms are not just creatures of the ancient past.
Bobbit worms can grow up to three metres long themselves, and lay in their burrows just beneath the ocean floor today.
13 new North Atlantic right whale calves recorded this season – CBC.ca
Thirteen North Atlantic whale calves have been spotted off the coast of the southern United States — more than the number born in a single winter since 2016.
The calves, recorded only about halfway through the calving season, are reason for “guarded optimism” about the endangered whale’s population, a researcher says.
“In 2018 we didn’t have any calves born and we’ve had ten or less in most of the previous five years,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Centre for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “So that’s very positive news.”
Calving season for North Atlantic right whales typically runs from the start of December to the end of March. So, it’s possible this could be the first year in a long time the population hits a supposed reproduction average.
Scientists expect 23 calves a year
Hamilton said that given the current state of the whale population, scientists would expect an average of around 23 calves a year. That hasn’t happened in years, likely because of the stress whales are experiencing finding enough food.
The North Atlantic right whale population have recently moved into unfamiliar and more hazardous waters in search of a dwindling food supply.
While there are some first-time mothers with calves this year, several of the mothers haven’t reproduced in a decade.
“On average a right whale should be able to give birth every three or four years, and some of the mothers that are giving birth this year have gone 10 or 11 years without calving,” said Hamilton. “So, there’s a backlog of whales that should be able to calve and it’s really encouraging that they are.”
‘We need to stop killing these animals’
Hamilton says he is optimistic about this year’s calving season, but says it’s important to put things into context.
“We really need to stop killing these animals,” said Hamilton. “We’ve had 32 deaths between 2017 … we know that we’re missing probably two-thirds of the deaths.”
Hamilton estimates that as many as 100 of the whales may have died in the last four years.
Necropsies determined that many of them were killed as a result of blunt trauma likely due to being struck by passing ships. Entanglement in fishing gear has been cited as a cause of deaths.
Both Canada and the United States have implemented restrictions to curb the number of North Atlantic right whale deaths in recent years.
“Clearly we’re not doing enough,” Hamilton said. “Not enough, when we have a population of around 350.”
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