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Richard Branson Reaches Space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity

Richard Branson Reaches Space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity

The sky over the Spaceport American in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was afire with lightning last night. The storm was sufficiently fierce to postpone Virgin Galactic’s planned rollout of its twin airships, mothership Eve and a space vehicle called VSS Unity, from their hangar. The delay meant that lift-off for today’s planned flight, which would send a crew on Unity 50 miles above Earth, would be pushed back 90 minutes.

But no matter—Richard Branson still had plenty of time to beat Jeff Bezos into outer space.

And he did it. At 9:25 am MT, about 45 minutes after taking off from the spaceport at the delayed time, the spaceship component of the duo, Unity, was ready to be freed from Eve. Branson and five of his colleagues—two pilots, three other mission specialists—were on board. Branson awaited the ignition of the rocket engine with a smile frozen on his face. Then fire belched from the vehicle and in just under two minutes, it reached altitude. Branson was at the edge of space, around 80 kilometers up. Fifteen minutes later, Branson and his crew were back on Earth, ready to talk about how Virgin Galactic would be offering an identical experience to anyone willing to pay $250,000 or so. Hundreds are already on the waiting list.

Branson is the king of spectacle, so it’s not surprising that the launch had a festival feel to it. In the hours before the launch, Branson’s Twitter feed, along with those of his colleagues, was stuffed with slick videos intended to portray a hero’s journey. We saw him arriving at the spaceport on a bicycle—pedaled across the Atlantic?—greeting his crewmates, who were already decked out in their custom-designed Under Armour suits. “You’re late!” they told him. “Suit up!”

A longer version of the video showed them signing into a log book, with Branson identifying himself as Astronaut 001. The Virgin Galactic founder posted a photo of a welcome observer to the launch—Elon Musk. As Branson walked to the launch pad, he was surrounded by cheering spectators; he paused his fist-bumping stroll to sign some souvenirs offered by little children. The live feed itself was co-hosted by Stephen Colbert. Waiting in the wings was Khalid, who had written a song, “New Normal,” to be unveiled upon the end of the ride.

The only disappointment was that the King of Media’s live feed in the capsule failed during the two minutes of actual space travel. Spectators were denied a view of Branson and crewmates spinning in weightless bliss. (The closest we got was about three seconds of heavily pixelated limbs waving around.) Nor did we hear from the British entrepreneur during his time freed from gravity. “We’ll be sure to capture his magical words and share them with the world when available,” said one of Virgin commentators on the live feed.

Lurking behind today’s Virgin Galactic flight is some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy competition between billionaires. After a successful May crewed test flight, Virgin Galactic’s plan was to have three more test flights this year with Branson on the second of these. But after Bezos announced that he would be among the passengers on Blue Origin’s first crewed flight, Branson hastily changed the Virgin timetable. Unity would head back into flight on July 11, with the quickest turnaround the company has pulled off. And Branson would be on board, along with a cabin-full of his employees. In addition to the personal risk, there was a financial one: Virgin Galactic became a public company in late 2019 by merging with an existing firm on the stock exchange, and an unsuccessful flight would screw the pooch, in terms of share price.

The Olympics Bars Fans, Pfizer Eyes Boosters, and More News

The Olympics Bars Fans, Pfizer Eyes Boosters, and More News

The Olympics bars spectators, the Delta variant continues to spread, and Pfizer plans for boosters and third doses. Here’s what you should know:

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The Tokyo Olympics bars spectators as other countries navigate the return of in-person events

Yesterday, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga announced that there won’t be any in-person spectators at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics due to rising cases of Covid-19. A new state of emergency will go into effect in Tokyo on Monday and last through August 22. The news is a reversal of an announcement from a few weeks ago, when the International Olympic Committee said a reduced number of local fans would be allowed to attend the games in person. Vaccination rates in Japan remain low compared to other countries like the US and Britain.

Meanwhile, as vaccinations continue to rise in other parts of the world, some countries are navigating the return of large in-person events, albeit not without a few hiccups. Singapore has said it will allow larger gatherings for people who are fully vaccinated when more than half of its population has gotten shots, later this month. In the US, concert venues are filling once more. And fans have been gathering across England to watch the European Championship soccer tournament, though researchers think this could be linked to a sudden spike in cases.

The Delta variant causes an uptick of cases in the US and around the world

As of this week, the Delta variant is officially the dominant strain of coronavirus circulating in the US. While current vaccines are still effective against the mutation, unvaccinated Americans are at a significant risk. Hospitalizations and new cases are up, particularly in parts of the country where vaccination rates have stayed relatively low. More than 99 percent of Americans who died from the disease in June were unvaccinated. All of this is happening as people are traveling more freely this summer, and other diseases quashed by pandemic prevention measures are able to make their comeback.

The Delta variant continues to cause problems around the world, as well. South Korea, where the virus was once thought to be largely under control, is increasing social distancing measures in Seoul as it faces what might be the worst wave the country has seen yet. And the World Health Organization said yesterday that Africa is experiencing its worst surge in cases, with cases rising in more than 16 countries across the continent.

Drugmakers investigate boosters and third doses amid new research about vaccine efficacy

Pfizer recently announced that it intends to seek emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in August for a third dose of the vaccine to boost immunity, especially amid the rise of the Delta variant. The drugmaker said that early data from its booster study indicates that antibody levels jump significantly after a third dose. That said, even if Pfizer is granted FDA approval, it will be up to public health authorities to determine whether a booster is necessary when many people haven’t gotten their initial doses of the shot. Pfizer and BioNTech are also developing a booster shot that specifically targets the Delta variant.

Researchers are working hard to understand the new strain as well as what continued mutations could mean for immunity. New research published this week found that fully vaccinated people are well protected against the Delta variant but that only receiving one shot of the two doses offers little protection, another reminder of how important it is to receive the full course of vaccination.

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Amazon may be newer to the streaming game—but they’re following an age-old Hollywood playbook.

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More than 20 percent of trans women have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, almost all according to the sex they were assigned at birth. In order for these women to gain access to the medical care they need, they have to undergo evaluations with mental health providers. Meet the one psychiatrist at the heart of it all, whose answer is almost always no.

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There’s nothing like a cold beer on a warm evening. This summer, why not try brewing your own?

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How did the pandemic change sleep habits?

When many workers weren’t commuting to the office and students weren’t going to in-person class, lots of people found themselves sleeping later and longer. For researchers who look at sleep, this provided an opportunity for a real-time study and demonstrated that work schedules often cause people to sleep less and rise earlier than they would if they were listening to their bodies. Now, as more and more people return to work and school in person, some experts are saying this new knowledge about how people sleep and wake should inform schedules.

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The Delta Variant’s Rise, New Vaccine Tactics, and More News

The Delta Variant’s Rise, New Vaccine Tactics, and More News

New outbreaks worldwide, the rise of the Delta variant in the US, and additional research on vaccine efficacy. Here’s what you should know:

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The Delta variant spurs new outbreaks around the world

From Indonesia to Bangladesh, South Korea to Israel, new outbreaks are cropping up around the world thanks to the proliferation of the highly contagious Delta variant. The rapid spread of the strain has pushed many countries to reimpose travel restrictions or reinstate lockdowns. In Australia, for example, nearly half of the population is now sheltering at home as the country’s contact tracing program and lagging vaccination efforts struggle to keep up with outbreaks.

In Europe, new cases have risen 10 percent in a week after two months of decline, and the WHO announced this week that the region is at risk of a new wave of infections. As a result, Portugal reintroduced night time curfews in several major cities. Though the EU’s Covid-19 travel certificate officially launched on Thursday, officials are concerned that this summer won’t be the boon for the tourism industry that many were hoping for.

The White House strategizes as Delta variant cases rise in the US

In the US, the Delta variant has now been detected in all 50 states and Washington, DC. The CDC also reported on Thursday that cases rose 10 percent this week due to a combination of lagging vaccinations in parts of the country and the more transmissible mutation, which is likely to become the country’s dominant strain in the coming weeks. The White House announced this week that it will deploy Covid-19 response teams across the country, focusing on regions where there are lower vaccination rates and a higher risk of outbreak.

Amid the rise of the Delta variant, the CDC doubled down on its mask guidance this week, saying that fully vaccinated people are safe from variants and don’t need to wear masks except in previously designated settings. That said, some places are reconsidering their mask guidelines, including Los Angeles County, which recommended that everyone mask up indoors, whether they’ve received their shots or not.

Countries pilot new strategies for vaccinations as more research emerges

New research suggests that Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines are likely to produce lasting immunity against existing variants, especially among people who previously had the virus, even if the virus evolves significantly over time. Johnson & Johnson also said this week that its shot is still effective at protecting against the Delta variant.

Meanwhile, the UK said it’s preparing to deliver booster shots in the fall in case people need additional protection against new variants, making it one of the first governments to do so. The plan is to start with people over 70 and those who are medically vulnerable, and potentially to dole out boosters and flu shots simultaneously. And in Germany, officials are now urging people to mix Covid-19 vaccines. The country’s Standing Committee on Vaccination said on Thursday that people who received a first dose of the AstraZeneca shot should get an mRNA vaccine for their second dose.

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Burnout is exhausting—and so is burnout discourse. In her final work advice column, WIRED’s Megan Greenwell offers advice for dealing with both.

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Some Americans have long been resistant to government interference on matters of health, and the pandemic has only accelerated the trend. While vocal opponents aligned with the far right to voice objection to masks and vaccines, one scientist used a similar tactic to peddle unregulated, for-profit stem cell treatments.

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How are scientists who work with bats navigating the possibility of spillback?

It’s likely that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from bats in China before jumping to another animal and then to humans. But now, people run the risk of spreading the virus back into animal populations, a phenomenon called spillback. To avoid this, the US Geological Survey and US Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidance for biologists who work with bats, suggesting that they wear protective gear including masks. The likelihood that scientists and wildlife managers transmit coronavirus to bats is relatively low, but North American bat populations in particular have been devastated by disease in recent years. Now, it’s the humans’ turn to protect them.

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How Underground Fiber Optics Spy on Humans Moving Above

How Underground Fiber Optics Spy on Humans Moving Above

When last spring’s lockdown quieted the Penn State campus and surrounding town of State College, a jury-rigged instrument was “listening.” A team of researchers from the university had tapped into an underground telecom fiber optic cable, which runs two and half miles across campus, and turned it into a kind of scientific surveillance device.

By shining a laser through the fiber optics, the scientists could detect vibrations from above ground thanks to the way the cable ever so slightly deformed. As a car rolled across the subterranean cable or a person walked by, the ground would transmit their unique seismic signature. So without visually surveilling the surface, the scientists could paint a detailed portrait of how a once-bustling community ground to a halt, and slowly came back to life as the lockdown eased.

They could tell, for instance, that foot traffic on campus almost disappeared in April following the onset of lockdown, and stayed gone through June. But after initially declining, vehicle traffic began picking up. “You can see people walking is still very minimal compared to the normal days, but the vehicle traffic actually is back to almost normal,” says Penn State seismologist Tieyuan Zhu, lead author on a new paper describing the work in the journal The Seismic Record. “This fiber optic cable actually can distinguish such a subtle signal.”

More specifically, it’s the frequency in the signal. A human footstep generates vibrations with frequencies between 1 and 5 hertz, while car traffic is more like 40 or 50 hertz. Vibrations from construction machinery jump up past 100 hertz.

Fiber optic cables work by perfectly trapping pulses of light and transporting them vast distances as signals. But when a car or person passes overhead, the vibrations introduce a disturbance, or imperfection: a tiny amount of that light scatters back to the source. Because the speed of light is a known quantity, the Penn State researchers could shine a laser through a single fiber optic strand and measure vibrations at different lengths of the cable by calculating the time it took the scattered light to travel. The technique is known in geoscience as distributed acoustic sensing, or DAS.

A traditional seismograph, which registers shaking with the physical movement of its internal parts, only measures activity at one location on Earth. But using this technique, the scientists could sample over 2,000 spots along the 2.5 miles of cable—one every 6 and a half feet—giving them a superfine resolution of activity above ground. They did this between March 2020, when lockdown set in, and June 2020, when businesses in State College had begun reopening.

Just from those vibrational signals, DAS could show that on the western side of campus, where a new parking garage was under development, there was no industrial activity in April as construction halted. In June, the researchers not only detected the vibrations from the restarted machinery, but could actually pick out the construction vehicles, which hummed along at a lower frequency. Still, they noted, by this time pedestrian activity on campus had barely recovered, even though some pandemic restrictions had eased.

DAS could be a powerful tool to track people’s movement: Instead of sifting through cell phone location data, researchers could instead tap into fiber optic cables to track the passage of pedestrians and cars. But the technology can’t exactly identify a car or person. “You can say if it’s a car, or if it’s a truck, or it’s a bike. But you cannot say, ‘Oh, this is a Nissan Sentra, 2019,’” says Stanford University geophysicist Ariel Lellouch, who uses DAS but wasn’t involved in this study but did peer-review it. “Anonymity of DAS is one of the biggest benefits, actually.”

24,000 Years in Ice Still Didn’t Kill These Ancient Critters

24,000 Years in Ice Still Didn’t Kill These Ancient Critters

Rotifers are microscopic freshwater-dwelling multicellular organisms. They’re already known to withstand freezing (even in liquid nitrogen), boiling, desiccation, and radiation, and the group has persisted for millions of years without having sex. The humble yet remarkably hardy bdelloid rotifer has now surprised researchers yet again—a recent study unearthed 24,000-year-old Siberian permafrost and found living (or at least revivable) rotifers there. Surviving 24,000 years in a deep freeze is a new record for the species.

Rotifers aren’t the only living organisms to emerge from permafrost or ice. The same researchers behind this latest discovery had previously found roughly 40,000-year-old viable roundworms in the region’s permafrost. Ancient moss, seeds, viruses, and bacteria have all shown impressive longevity on ice, prompting legitimate concern about whether any potentially harmful pathogens may also be released as glaciers and permafrost melt.

Given that bdelloids are generally only a threat to bacteria, algae, and detritus, however, there’s not much need for concern regarding this particular discovery. But as key players in the bottom of the food chain, newly reemerged rotifers indicate that maybe we should think about how species that haven’t been seen for millennia might reintegrate into modern ecosystems.

The Soil Cryology Lab in Pushchino, Russia, has been digging up Siberian permafrost in search of ancient organisms for roughly a decade. The group estimates the age of the organisms it finds by radiocarbon dating the surrounding soil samples (evidence has shown that there is no vertical movement through layers of permafrost). For example, last year, the researchers reported a “frozen zoo” of 35 viable protists (nucleus-containing organisms that are neither animal, plant, nor fungus) that they calculated ranged from hundreds to tens of thousands of years old.

In their most recent discovery, the cryology researchers found the living bdelloids after culturing the soil samples for about one month. Among rotifer classes, bdelloids have the fairly unusual ability to reproduce parthenogenetically—i.e., by cloning—and so the original specimens had already begun to do so. Although the clones made identifying the ancient parent challenging, this did greatly facilitate further investigation of the characteristics and behavior of the unfrozen strain.

Throughout all of the above permafrost studies, there is always the concern of sample contamination by modern-day organisms. Besides using techniques designed to prevent this, the team also addressed this issue by looking at the DNA present in the soil samples, confirming that contamination was highly unlikely. Phylogenetic analysis furthermore showed that the species didn’t match any known modern rotifers, although there is a closely related species found in Belgium.

The team was naturally interested in better understanding the freezing process and gaining insight into just how these rotifers survived for so long. As a first step, the researchers subsequently froze a selection of the cloned rotifers at -15° C for one week and captured videos of the rotifers reviving.

The researchers found that not all of the clones survived. Surprisingly, the clones generally weren’t much more freeze-tolerant than contemporary rotifers from Iceland, Alaska, Europe, North America, and even the Asian and African tropics. They were a little more freeze-tolerant than their closest genetic relative, but the difference was marginal.

The researchers did find that the rotifers could survive a relatively slow freezing process ( around 45 minutes). This is noteworthy because it was gradual enough that ice crystals formed inside of the animals’ cells—a development that is usually catastrophic for living organisms. In fact, protective mechanisms against this are highly sought after by anyone in the business of cryopreservation, making this latest finding especially enticing from that perspective.

Although the authors aren’t quite in that business, they do plan additional experiments to better understand cryptobiosis—the state of almost completely arrested metabolism that made the rotifers’ survival possible. As for research into cryopreservation of larger organisms, the authors suggest that this becomes trickier as the organism in question becomes more complex. That said, rotifers are among the most complicated cryopreserved species so far—complete with organs such as a brain and a gut.