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SpaceX's astronaut launch is a boost for the International Space Station – Nature.com

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Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley wearing space suits and helmets touch control panels during a flight simulation

Astronauts Robert Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley will carry out spacewalks to help install a new platform for science experiments on the International Space Station.Credit: SpaceX

On 30 May, tens of millions of space enthusiasts were glued to their screens as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule soared into the air above Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The following day, as the capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS), some 422 kilometres above China’s border with Mongolia, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley made history as the first astronauts to ride a commercial craft into orbit.

This development — a decade in the planning — is undoubtedly an achievement for NASA, and for Space X and its reusable rockets. But it is equally a boost for space science and innovation, and especially the enduring value of global cooperation in space research and technology. Amid the jubilation, this aspect of the achievement should be highlighted more.

For NASA, the launch means, among other things, some more money in the bank. Since 2011, when the agency retired the Space Shuttle, NASA has paid Russia up to US$90 million per person to ferry crews to the ISS aboard the Soyuz craft. Seats on the SpaceX capsule are around two-thirds of this cost, which means that NASA can channel the savings into other priorities, including its ambition to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

The weekend’s launch also consolidates the position of SpaceX, a company that has mushroomed from start-up to major aerospace player in 18 years. Corporations have been entwined with national space agencies from early on — Grumman (now Northrop Grumman) famously designed and built the lunar module that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon’s surface. More recently, other companies have flown humans to space. Virgin Galactic, founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, has pulled off sub-orbital flights and is planning to offer short trips for passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. But SpaceX has succeeded at the more ambitious goal of carrying people all the way into orbit.

The company has achieved this through nimbleness, an outstanding team of engineers and product designers, and the determination of its founder, Elon Musk. Musk — who is never far from controversy — has had a hand in disrupting two established industries, first as one of the early developers of online payment systems such as PayPal, and later as chief executive of Tesla, the electric-vehicle manufacturer. But few thought he would succeed when he announced his intention to compete with much larger and more-established corporations in space technology. Arguably, SpaceX’s most important innovation has been to engineer the Falcon rocket so that it can be reused after launch. Once it has jettisoned its payload, the Falcon returns to Earth and lands, vertically, which other rockets do not do.

Although attention is understandably focused on the launch and docking, the reason for the SpaceX mission to the ISS should not be forgotten — the astronauts’ mission is ultimately in the service of science and international research cooperation. Behnken and Hurley will take part in installing a new hardware platform called Bartolomeo, designed by the European Space Agency and Airbus to enable the ISS to host extra science experiments from teams from all over the world.

When big launches grab everyone’s attention, it is hard for research to get a hearing. Earlier this year, two NASA astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, completed a challenging upgrade of a fundamental physics experiment on the station, the Cold Atom Laboratory — doing in zero gravity what physicists on Earth might have struggled to do. And, last month, the agency’s Human Research Program announced plans for extended flights to the ISS, designed to simulate the effects on the human body of a journey to Mars.

A global endeavour

It’s unfortunate that those following the weekend’s events did not see or hear much about the ISS’s research contributions, or the fact that astronauts have visited the space station from 19 nations — among them Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan. They did, however, see SpaceX and NASA promote the #LaunchAmerica hashtag, and they heard NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine say: “It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

New space launches — regardless of their country of origin — are often accompanied by a heavy display of national symbols. But it would have been much more powerful, and more uplifting, had the launch also recognized the contributions made by other nations, including Russia, which has been reliably carrying astronauts to the ISS all this time.

From Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of Earth in 1961 to the Moon landings of 1969, space has always been an arena of fierce superpower competition — and newer players, not least China, have since come onto the scene. But, in space research, such competition has not prevented nations from cooperating, and that needs to be recognized and celebrated.

There is plenty of opportunity to do so. SpaceX will make its next run to the ISS as early as August. Bridenstine and Musk should use this next mission to demonstrate that space exploration and research are global. At the very least, they should find a new hashtag — something that will resonate with the millions around the world who watched the weekend’s launch with awe, and will inspire them to join the next generation of researchers, engineers and astronauts.

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Fastest-Growing Black Hole as Big as 34 Billion Suns – Nerdist

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The fastest-growing black hole ever observed has been given an approximate weight, and it tips the scale at 34 billion times the mass of the Sun. The researchers who’ve estimated its weight also say it continues to grow, devouring a Sun’s worth of matter per day. On top of claiming those mondo stats, the gorging monster may also help to unlock some key mysteries of the early universe.

European Southern Observatory 

The “ultramassive black hole” (that’s literally a class of black hole), dubbed J2157-3602, was discovered in 2018 and given an initial weight of 20 billion solar masses—a solar mass is a unit of mass equivalent to the mass of the Sun. Since then, researchers have gone back and taken new measurements using the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. (Pictured immediately below.)

J2157 is “about 8,000 times bigger than the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way,” astronomer Christopher Onken of Australian National University told Science Alert. He added that “If the Milky Way’s black hole wanted to grow that fat, it would have to swallow two thirds of all the stars in our galaxy.”

The fastest-growing black hole in the universe has been pegged at 34 billion solar masses.

ESO/H.H. Heyer

Onken and others described these new measurements in a paper recently published in the journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical SocietyIn the paper, which comes via ZME Science, the researchers say that the ultramassive black hole is, on top of being gargantuan, also the most luminous quasar in the known universe. A quasar—pictured at top—is essentially a black hole that’s actively pulling in gas and dust from a surrounding accretion disk. In other words, a “feeding” black hole.

Although J2157 is huge beyond imagination, it isn’t the most massive black hole we’ve ever observed. That title belongs to an ultramassive black hole powering the quasar known as TON 618, which is about 10.4 billion light-years away from Earth. That indescribably large light-swallowing beast weighs in at 66 billion solar masses. Below, for visual reference, is a comparison of all the differently sized black holes.

Like TON 618, J2157 is also astoundingly far from Earth. According to Science Alert, J2157 is some billions of light-years away. However, the measurement isn’t as exact as that for TON 618. J2157 can still help to illuminate the very early universe, however, when it was younger than 1 billion years old. Especially when it comes to gleaning information about the galaxy in which it resides.

[embedded content]

“Is this galaxy one of the behemoths of the early Universe, or did the black hole just swallow up an extraordinary amount of its surroundings?” Onken asked rhetorically. Depending on the answer to that question, cosmological models explaining how the universe has grown over time could be altered. Right now, astronomers are still just trying to figure out how black holes can grow to be as massive as J2157 so early on in the universe’s existence.

What do you think about J2157 and its ability to swallow a Sun’s worth of mass every single day? Do you have any ideas as to how the ultramassive hole will change our understanding of the early universe? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: European Southern Observatory 

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'Very little risk' that pets can infect owners with COVID-19: WHO – Edmonton Sun

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GENEVA — There is ‘very little risk’ that pets can infect their owners with COVID-19, the chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, told a Geneva news conference that felines, ferrets and “even tigers” have been infected with the disease.

“There is very little risk from domestic animals because there was some concern about domestic animals becoming a source of infection,” she said.

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Canadian sparrows changing their tune – Bangkok Post

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The white-throated sparrow of North America, whose singing preferences are the subject of a new study.

WASHINGTON: Members of a Canadian sparrow species famous for their jaunty signature song are changing their tune, a curious example of a “viral phenomenon” in the animal kingdom, a study showed Thursday.

Bird enthusiasts first recorded the white-throated sparrow’s original song, with its distinctive triplet hook, in the 1950s.

Canadians even invented lyrics to accompany the ditty: “Oh my sweet, Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da.”

But starting from the late 20th century, biologists began noticing that members of the species in western Canada were innovating.

Instead of a triplet, the new song ended in a doublet and a new syncopation pattern. The new ending sounded like “Ca-na, Ca-na, Ca-na.”

Over the course of the next two decades, this new cadence became a big hit, moving eastward and conquering Alberta, then Ontario. It began entering Quebec last year.

It’s now the dominant version across more than 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) of territory, in an extremely rare example of the total replacement of historic bird dialect by another.

Scientist Ken Otter at the University of Northern British Columbia, and his colleague Scott Ramsay from Wilfrid Laurier University, described the dizzying pace of this transformation in the journal Current Biology.

“What we’re seeing is like somebody moving from Quebec to Paris, and all the people around them saying, ‘Wow, that’s a cool accent’ and start adopting a Quebec accent,” Otter told AFP.

Their work was based on 1,785 recordings between 2000 and 2019, the majority made by them but with contributions from citizen-scientists, who posted the files on specialist sites like xeno-canto.org.

In the western province of Alberta, about half of the recorded songs ended with the triplet in 2004; ten years later, all the males had adopted the doublet.

In 2015, half of western Canada had converted to the doublet version, and by last year, the new song had been well established on the western tip of eastern Quebec province.

At this rate, the historic triplet version may soon exist only in tape recordings.

Bird influencers

The males of the species sing to mark their territory, and their songs all share a common structure. Usually, if a variation appears, it remains regional and doesn’t make headway in neighboring territories.

The study represents the first time scientists have been able to show this kind spread at huge geographic scale, said Otter.

So how did it happen?

Probably in the same way that children return from summer camp humming new tunes: songbirds from different parts of Canada winter in the same parts of the United States, then return to their own homes in spring.

The researchers verified this theory by tagging a few of the birds.

So it was that in the plains of Texas and Kansas, the new song’s first adopters from western Canada — avian influencers, if you will — popularized the trend among their eastern brethren.

Previous work has shown that young birds can pick up a foreign song after listening to a recording.

But to truly understand why the males were willing to abandon the old song that had once served them well, the scientists have to rely on theories.

Otter believes it may be because females were more attracted to the new song, so young males rushed to adopt it.

“There seems to be some advantage to adding novel elements into your song that make the song, not necessarily more attractive, but increases people’s attention to it,” said Otter.

Going back to the human example, it would be akin to “if all the French women in Paris thought that a Quebec accent sounded much more interesting than a Parisian accent, and so everybody starts adopting a Quebec accent.”

The hypothesis remains unverified.

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