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Why a rocket launch can’t unite us right now – The Verge

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At 9:30AM ET on Tuesday, three American astronauts symbolically rang the Nasdaq opening bell from space — a celebration of SpaceX’s historic launch that sent astronauts into orbit three days prior. The short ceremony played out live on the Nasdaq’s giant screen in Times Square, with various NASA personnel clapping as one astronaut clanged a bell on the International Space Station.

The video glowed over the same streets where, in the days and nights before, thousands of demonstrators had gathered nearby to protest systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.

This kind of cognitive dissonance has permeated SpaceX’s first passenger flight — the first time that NASA astronauts have launched from the US in nearly a decade. NASA has been waiting for this moment since the last Space Shuttle landed in 2011, and now the agency wants to celebrate. It wants the United States and the world to celebrate, too. But if the space community expects the world to care about the things we do in space, there must be an acknowledgment of how broken things are on the ground and the injustices that still exist in the United States.

That might mean passing up the chance to ring the bell on Wall Street while the economy remains in tatters. It might mean a compassionate statement from the crew addressing the people on the Earth below, instead of answering rote questions from dignitaries and press.

There are eerie echoes between this SpaceX launch and Apollo 8, as others have pointed out. That mission, the first to reach the vicinity of the Moon, launched in 1968, a year that mirrors 2020 in its apocalyptic bleakness. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked protests throughout the country. Space enthusiasts like to look back on that mission with rose-colored glasses, as something that served as a shining beacon of hope during a tough time for the country.

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But as others have pointed out, Apollo 8 didn’t fix the turmoil of the time. Just look at where we stand today. Likewise, SpaceX’s launch did not unite the country or the world, though NASA certainly tried to make that claim. “This was an amazing moment of unity for the nation,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a call with the astronauts after the launch. “It was an amazing moment for the whole world to look out in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges. We’re able to have very, very special moments where we can all look at the future and say that things are going to be brighter tomorrow than they are today.”

If only it were that simple. The problem that NASA and the space community doesn’t often understand is that spaceflight still isn’t inclusive. These launches may be fun and emotional to watch, but they don’t always feel like they’re for everyone. Space is still an exclusive and expensive domain, and the people who are in charge of this industry are still predominately male and white. The idea that a launch could bring the public together during a time when widespread racism and injustice are at the forefront of people’s minds is naive at best.

To be fair to NASA, Bridenstine acknowledged that an important space launch couldn’t “fix” the world. “Look, I think what NASA does is astonishing. It’s impressive, and it does bring people together,” he said. “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high.” He then proceeded to talk about just how many people tuned into NASA and SpaceX’s launch coverage over the weekend.

Those numbers are just not important right now. Yes, the launch must have been a small bright moment for people who turned their attention to a rocket soaring into space for one brief moment this weekend. But if the space community wants to really have a uniting effect on the world, it must be deeply rooted in the happenings of Earth. And the space world seems to exist in a bubble where these things just don’t have an effect.

While NASA acknowledged the problems going on down on the surface throughout the SpaceX launch, the statements didn’t stray much from touting the idea that this launch was a beacon of hope for the world during a difficult time. Meanwhile, the industry has mostly sheltered in its celebratory bubble. While many other major industries have issued a flurry of statements addressing the protests, the giants of the spaceflight industry remained silent.

Instead, compassionate demands for change have been left to individuals in the spaceflight world, including former astronauts.

“It is not this mission that will bring us together but the individual people following it who step forward to lock arms with people we don’t know but must learn to trust,” former astronaut and former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Twitter.

“Today demands we take pride not only in reaching the sky, but also sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion and justice for all, now!” former astronaut Mae Jemison said on Twitter.

“America let’s get our crap together,” former astronaut Leland Melvin said during a Facebook video. “This is unsatisfactory. We’ve got to stop this. And it’s going to be the good people that do nothing now that start doing something to stamp this hatred, evil, and racism out.”

Even if the space industry were to come out with a unified statement, from the outside, it feels like it’s more or less business as usual within the space world. NASA and space companies continue to move forward with many of the same things they had planned, such as handing out contracts for major programs, making major announcements, and launching vehicles. But the times are anything but business as usual. If the space community wants to unite people, then it must make people feel like they are part of space, and that means being conscious of where people’s lives are on the ground. It means committing to fix the wrongs in our society while also building vehicles to break the bonds of gravity.

Only then will people feel like they can come together to wonder in our journey toward the stars.

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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.

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“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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