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

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


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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New species of crested dinosaur identified in Mexico

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A team of palaeontologists in Mexico have identified a new species of dinosaur after finding its 72 million-year-old fossilized remains almost a decade ago, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Thursday.

The new species, named Tlatolophus galorum, was identified as a crested dinosaur after 80% of its skull was recovered, allowing experts to compare it to other dinosaurs of that type, INAH said.

The investigation, which also included specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, began in 2013 with the discovery of an articulated tail in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, where other discoveries have been made.

“Once we recovered the tail, we continued digging below where it was located. The surprise was that we began to find bones such as the femur, the scapula and other elements,” said Alejandro Ramírez, a scientist involved in the discovery.

Later, the scientists were able to collect, clean and analyze other bone fragments from the front part of the dinosaur’s body.

The palaeontologists had in their possession the crest of the dinosaur, which was 1.32 meters long, as well as other parts of the skull: lower and upper jaws, palate and even a part known as the neurocranium, where the brain was housed, INAH said.

The Mexican anthropology body also explained the meaning of the name – Tlatolophus galorum – for the new species of dinosaur.

Tlatolophus is a mixture of two words, putting together a term from the indigenous Mexican language of Nahuatl that means “word” with the Greek term meaning “crest”. Galorum refers to the people linked to the research, INAH said.

 

(Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests – CBC.ca

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Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests – CBC.ca


A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.

Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.

While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers. 

“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”

Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 —  visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.

The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.

‘Everything went south, super-fast’

By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.

“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”

Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.

“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.

When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.

“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.

“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.

Strate’s parents say her health deteriorated quickly after being exposed to COVID-19. She died at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge on Monday. (Ron Strate)

Searching for answers

At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.

But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.

“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”

The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.

According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.

‘Unusual but not impossible’

University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.

However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.

“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.

According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.

She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop. 

“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.” 

Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.

‘An amazing kid’

The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.

But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.

Strate, pictured here at three years old, had plans to become a massage therapist. She attended Grade 12 at Magrath High School and was an active, healthy teenager who was involved in sports, music and the school’s suicide prevention group. (Ron Strate)

Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.

She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.

“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.

“She’s an amazing kid.”

Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.

“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.

“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”

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China launches key module of space station planned for 2022

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NASA Updates Coverage of International Space Station Cargo Ship Docking – Net Newsledger

BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.

The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.

Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.

“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.

Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.

The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).

In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.

Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.

Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.

China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.

In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.

The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.

Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.

Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)

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