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Waste in Space

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By Josh Owen, PhD

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay 

On October 4th, 1957, a Soviet R7 rocket ignited, blasting through the atmosphere and into space carrying Sputnik-I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Only the size of a beach ball, Sputnik-I began orbiting the Earth sending out a detectable signal and ushering in the space age. Since that date, more than 9000 satellites have been launched into space for use in communication, imaging and scientific studies, and are an essential part of our modern, globalized world. However, only 2000 of those launched satellites are currently functioning. While Sputnik-I burned up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere after three months in orbit, many defunct satellites are still orbiting the Earth. As such, the area of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has turned into an enormous junkyard that threatens the future of human activity in space.

The issue of accumulating space debris came sharply into public view in 2007 when China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile and destroyed the Fenyun 1C spacecraft hurtling fragments and debris into LEO. This event, along with the collision of an American and a Russian Satellite in 2009, is believed to have increased the orbital debris population in LEO by approximately 70%. Currently, there are millions of pieces of space debris ranging from bits of paint chipped off spacecraft to pieces of rockets, jettisoned parts and old satellites. Most of this debris is traveling at an incredibly fast velocity, up to 18,000 miles per hour or seven times faster than a bullet. The scale of the problem is extensive as there are currently 6000 tons of debris in LEO. This orbiting junkyard is not a mild annoyance, it has the potential to become a major problem. Donald Kessler, a NASA scientist, predicted in 1978 that one collision can produce debris in orbit which collides and destroys other satellites, producing more debris and collisions leading to a debris belt around the Earth potentially blocking access to outer space; this is known as the Kessler effect. In response to this growing threat, NASA set up the Orbital Debris program in 1979 but since that time the problem of space debris has only grown.

Given the hurdles to be overcome in order to clean up the oceans, the obstacles to cleaning up junk in the expanse of space seem immense. Some ideas to address this challenge have been proposed such as a Swiss satellite-grabbing robot or a Japanese electrodynamic tether to slow down space debris, but they are still in experimental phases. The best current options seem to be managing junk that is already in LEO along with preventing the creation of any new debris. However, with no international space laws regarding debris these solutions are difficult to implement, especially as further collisions in space are becoming increasingly likely. As recently as September 2019, the European Space Agency had to redirect one of its satellites to avoid a collision with a private satellite. In addition, an already crowded field could get even busier as more and more satellites are expected to be launched into orbit each year, with SpaceX alone planning to deploy an incredible 12,000 satellites by 2027.  

Despite these hurdles, attempts are being made to mitigate space debris. The U.S. Department of Defense is attempting to track as many pieces of debris as possible and methods are being developed for spacecraft to detect and quickly dodge pieces of debris. On April 2nd, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) drafted new, proposed rules to prevent satellite collisions. In the new regulations, satellite operators must elaborate how they will ensure the Department of Defense can track their spacecraft during licensing applications. In addition, above 400 km in altitude, the satellites must have the ability to maneuver out of the way of a possible collision. These proposals have alarmed the space sector with some arguing it would disincentivize the growth of the US satellite industry. Others argue that it does not go far enough, particularly as there is no change to the de-orbiting deadline of a satellite in LEO. Currently, the deadline for removal is 25 years, even though the operational lifetime of most satellites rarely lasts that long. However, with stricter rules will come longer licensing approvals, which could simply result in fewer companies licensing satellites in the U.S., potentially exacerbating the problem. To truly combat space waste, effective regulation must be implemented outside the U.S. as well as within.

Like global warming and ocean cleaning, space waste requires international cooperation to ensure the problem is addressed and managed.  Fortunately, there are laws concerning space that could be built upon going forward. In 1959, the United Nations made permanent the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It has 77 members, including the United States, Russia and China. It was the force behind treaties which guarantee freedom for all nations to explore space and the banning of weapons of mass destruction in space. While the committee has guidelines for space debris, tackling this growing problem is likely to require a binding treaty between nations establishing firm rules about tracking, methods for avoiding collisions and de-orbiting plans/timeframes for all space explorers, private or public. Given the importance of satellites to our way of life, the projections for new satellite launches and the growing potential of the ‘Kessler effect’, we can only hope there is a global response to this threat sooner rather than later. 

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May 1, 2020 at 10:03 am

Science Policy Around the Web April 28th, 2020

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By Andrew H. Beaven, PhD

Image by Ondřej Šponiar from Pixabay 

Hubble Marks 30 Years of Seeing a Universe Being Born and Dying

April 24, 2020, marked the 30-year anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch into low Earth orbit. Regarded as the greatest advancement in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope, the telescope has allowed for scientists to better understand dark energy and its effect on the growth of the universe, study the weather of our solar system, and provide incredible images that can appeal to scientists and the general public. For its 30th birthday, scientists used Hubble to capture an image of a “stellar nursery” in the Large Megellanic Cloud, which is ~163,000 light years from Earth. The reddish nebula contains stars at least 10 times more mass than our Sun, and below, a star that is 200,000 times brighter than our Sun has emitted a blue gas bubble.

In the light of science policy, it is worth looking back at the telescope’s fascinatingly long history. In 1946 Lyman Spitzer published a paper on the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere for studying stars. By the 1960s, Wernher von Braun and NASA were involved with feasibility studies, and in 1969, the National Academy of Sciences urged the government to build a space telescope. The 1970s brought Hubble to the federal government for official funding (estimated at $400–500 million, which is ~$1.7–2.2 billion when cost inflated), which the House Appropriations Subcommittee denied in 1975. Fortunately, with aid from the European Space Research Organization (ESRO; and later the European Space Agency, ESA), and a budget of ~$200 million, the proposal was accepted by Congress in 1977. Finally, the Hubble Space Telescope was scheduled for an October 1986 launch, but delayed by the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986. It was not until April 24, 1990, when the telescope was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. However, after a few weeks, scientists found images were blurry and distorted because of a miscalibration when shaping the primary mirror. The primary mirror was replaced in 1993 during a record five back-to-back spacewalks.

Hubble will soon get a companion (and future replacement) in the sky. The James Webb Space Telescope (also developed by NASA with contributions from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency) is slated to be launched in 2021.

(Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

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April 28, 2020 at 9:43 am

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Science Policy Around the Web November 26th, 2019

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By: Andrew H. Beaven, PhD

Source: CDC

How Best To Use The Few New Drugs To Treat Antibiotic-Resistant Germs

Bacteria have existed for 3.5–4 billion years, and their survival demonstrates remarkable environmental plasticity. One consequence of their plasticity is that bacteria are able to rapidly become resistant to antibacterial drugs (drugs meant to help humans and animals stave off infection).

Combatting antibiotic drug resistant bacteria (so-called “superbugs”) has been pinpointed as a major, modern global health concern. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published November 14, 2019 estimates that more than 2.8 million treatment-resistant infections and 35,000 annual deaths occur in the U.S. alone. Notably, the development of new antibiotics has lagged, therefore, scientists are recommending new methods to use old drugs. These include: limiting doses for healthy people and allow the body to do its work; flooding the body with multiple drug types at once; or sequentially changing drug types every 12 to 24 hours.

Given all we know about this global health concern, why is the market not being flooded with new antibiotics? Largely, because it is not lucrative for pharmaceutical companies to chase a moving target. Additionally, antibiotics are only used for short-term ailments (as opposed to those used for chronic illness) and many antibiotics remain unused in an effort to minimize new drug resistance. To help promote new antibiotic research, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Johnny Isakson (R–GA) introduced the Developing an Innovative Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistant Microorganisms Act of 2019 (DISARM Act of 2019; S.1712) to the Senate on June 4, 2019. The goal of the act is to strengthen American antimicrobial research and improve the development pipeline. While the act was called “essential and timely” by the President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, it has not passed the Senate at time of publication.

(Richard Harris, NPR)

As SpaceX Launches 60 Starlink Satellites, Scientists See Threat to ‘Astronomy Itself’

On November 11, 2019, the private American aerospace company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, launched its second Starlink satellite payload rocket into outer space. Starlink is a prodigious project that aims to provide “high speed internet access across the globe,” specifically allowing internet access to “locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.” The Starlink webpage states that they will provide near-global internet coverage by 2021 through their satellite constellation (a network in which satellites work together to provide continuous coverage).

Even with the relatively few Starlink satellites currently in place, astronomers have already noted significant impact on their work. The primary point of concern is that the satellites are very bright, and astronomers say that even if the satellites are darkened, they will have a profound effect on Earth-based astronomy. Additionally, astronomers worry that Starlink will pollute radio wavelengths used to probe deep space and permanently pollute low-orbit space with “space junk.” SpaceX says they are attempting to minimize the effects Starlink has on the scientific community and that the project is moving ahead. Indeed, Mr. Musk has requested the Federal Communications Commission to allow 30,000 more satellites than 12,000 that were already approved. If successful, SpaceX would have eight times more satellites in low-Earth orbit than currently in orbit.

Other companies, such as, Amazon, Telesat, and OneWeb, are following close behind launching similar satellite constellations. Using outer space for private gain yields an important, unanswered question – who can profit from outer space? Megan Donahue, president of the American Astronomical Society acknowledges that “international space law is pretty wide open,” and that it for now the public must trust corporate good will. Currently, a set of United Nations treaties and principles as well as resolutions have laid out guidelines on the peaceful usage of space, but few exact rules are in place.

(Shannon Hall, The New York Times

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November 26, 2019 at 3:14 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 24, 2019

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By: Patrick Wright, PhD

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay 

Why Some Anti-bias Training Misses the Mark

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS) entitled “The mixed effects of online diversity training” reports that online diversity-training programs aimed at reducing gender and racial bias among employees do not substantially affect workplace behavior, particularly among male employees.

The study cohort consisted of 3,016 volunteers (61.5% men) that were all salaried employees across 63 nations of a single global professional-services business. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of three anti-bias sessions: gender bias training, general-bias training, and a control group that received no bias-specific training. Training for the treatment conditions was divided into five sections, including “What are [gender] stereotypes and why do they matter?” and “How can we overcome [gender] stereotypes?” (the word “gender” was excluded from general-bias training sessions). On the other hand, the control condition contained sections such as “Why is inclusive leadership important?” and “What makes teams more inclusive?”; bias nor stereotyping were ever explicitly mentioned. 

Authors acquired data on attitudinal shifts and behavioral changes for up to five months after the training. All volunteers were asked to complete a follow-up survey to help address inequalities that women and racial minorities face in the workplace. Additionally, one a week for 12 weeks after completion of training, employees were texts that included such comments as “Have you used any inclusive leadership strategies this week? Respond Y for Yes and N for No”

Interestingly, authors observed no positive shifts in behavior among male volunteers. Only members of groups that are commonly impacted by bias (e.g. under-represented minorities) were observed to change their behavior. Lead author Edward Chang summarized this finding: “The groups that historically have had more power – white people and men – didn’t move much”. Women volunteers who participated in the training sought mentorship from senior colleagues and offered mentorship to junior female colleagues after the sessions. 

Chester Spell, a Professor of Management in at the Rutgers School of Business in Camden, New Jersey who studies behavioral and psychological health in organizations, believes that for diversity training to be truly impactful, it “has to be part of the DNA of an organization, not an appendix.” Organizations must show that they are serious about fighting bias through a committing to offering many initiatives aimed at educating about the presence and effects bias. Recently, in Spring of 2018, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores on a Tuesday afternoon for a four-hour anti-bias training, specifically racial tolerance, for employees This was in response to a prior incident in which a Philadelphia-area Starbucks café manager call to police resulted in the arrests of two black men who were in the café waiting for a friend. However, Starbucks did not comment on future training plans. 

The most effective means of implementation for anti-bias training plans are still not established. This is an active area of ongoing area of research, especially regarding the idea delivery method and number of sessions. Bezrukova et al, described in a 2016 meta-analysis spanning 40 years on the impact of diversity training, observed little effect of stand-alone diversity trainings on employees’ attitudes toward bias. Offering repeated or longer training sessions that are complemented with other approaches, including deciding hiring criteria prior to candidate evaluation, may be the best approaches going forward. However, individuals in academia have a more favorable opinion and are more receptive of these trainings than those from the business sector. Ülger and colleagues reported in a meta-analytic review across 50 studies of in-school interventions on attitudes toward outgroup members ((members of different ethnic, religious, age groups etc.) that statistically significant, moderate changes in outgroup attitudes can be obtained via anti-bias programs in school. However, there was no evidence that teacher-led or media-based interventions produce positive outcomes compared to the positive outcomes achieved by researcher-led interventions. Notably, one-on-one interventions were the most impactful. 

 (Virginia Gewin, Nature)

Universities Will Soon Announce Action Against Scientists Who Broke NIH Rules, Agency Head Says

During a recent Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in early April, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described that over the rest of the month, many universities will announce action against faculty members who did not comply with agency rules on protecting the confidentiality of peer review, handling intellectual property, and disclosing foreign ties. Dr. Collins told Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the subcommittee, that there are ongoing investigations at more than 55 U.S. institutions and that some scientists have been deemed guilty of not disclosing foreign funding for work that was also being supporting by NIH. 

The push to systematically uncover potential violations of these intellectual property and confidentiality rules began in August 2018, when Dr. Collins wrote the 10,000 institutions receiving NIH funding to request them to look for any instances of concerning behavior. Dr. Collins spoke of faculty researchers already being fired: “There are increasing instances where faculty have been fired, have been asked to leave the institution, many of them returning back to their previous foreign base.” For example, the MD Anderson Cancer center, part of the University of Texas system, announced last week that they have fired three senior researchers that committed potentially “serious” violations of rules involving confidentiality of peer review and foreign ties disclosure after they were identified by NIH. 

However, both Dr. Collins and Senator Blunt emphasized that this is not a pervasive problem; most foreign scientists working in the United States and funded by the NIH follow funding and disclosure rules. “We need to be careful that we don’t step into something that almost seems a little like racial profiling.”, Dr. Collins stated at the hearing. 

 (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)



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April 25, 2019 at 10:06 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 19, 2019

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By: Neetu Gulati, PhD

Image by Raman Oza from Pixabay 

Scientists Restore Some Function in the Brains of Dead Pigs 

Hours after the animals were killed, scientists have partially revived the brains of dead pigs. This contradicts the dogma surrounding death. Cutoff from oxygen, the brain of a mammal is supposed to die after about 15 minutes. The process was thought to be widespread and irreversible: after the cells in the brain die they cannot be brought back. A study published in Nature has challenged this dogma. While none of the tested brains regained signs of consciousness, the Yale researchers were able to demonstrate that cellular function was either preserved or restored.

The study used 32 brains from pigs that were slaughtered for food. After waiting four hours, well past the 15 minutes of oxygen deprivation needed to “kill” the brain, they hooked them up to a system that pumped in a cocktail of specially formulated nutrients and chemicals called BrainEx for six hours. Compared to brains not given the BrainEx, the treated brains had more preserved structure and less cell death, and some cellular functions were restored. Nevertheless, Nenad Sestan, the lead researcher on the project, was quick to point out that while the brains had some restored activity, “this is not a living brain.”

In fact, the goal of the study was not to restore consciousness, which could lead to many ethical concerns. The scientists monitored electrical activity in the brains and intended to stop any signs of consciousness that may have been detected. Stephen Latham, a bioethicist that worked with the team explained that they would need more ethical guidance before trying any studies that altered consciousness in the pigs brain. To avoid this, the BrainEx cocktail also included a drug known to dampen neuronal activity.

The implications of this study are vast. The breakthrough will hopefully create a better link between basic neuroscience and clinical research, but also even with the ethical considerations, it is likely that people will eventually want to apply this technology to human brains. It may lead to interesting policy discussions, because currently, while there are many restrictions on what can be done with living research animals or human subjects, there are much fewer restrictions on the dead. It may also affect organ transplantation efforts from brain-dead individuals, as they may eventually become candidates for brain revival. A lot still needs to be investigated in the meantime, but the implications are vast and mind-blowing.

(Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)

Darkness Visible, Finally: Astronomers Capture First Ever Image of a Black Hole

Last week it was announced that scientists had captured the image of the shadow of a black hole for the first time in history. The image is the result of an international collaboration consisting of 200 members of the Event Horizon Telescope team. The results were simultaneously announced at news conferences in six locations around the world, including at the National Science Foundation

The data was collected over a 10-day period around the world using eight telescopes, focused on Messier 87 (M87), a giant galaxy within the constellation Virgo. It is within M87 that a black hole billions of times larger than the sun was visualized. After collecting data, it took two years of computer analysis to produce the blurry image of a lopsided ring of light around a dark circle.

Black holes like the one found in M87 are supermassive dense objects that gravity pulls so strongly that no matter can escape. According to Einstein’s principles of general relativity, the collapse of space-time within a black hole can even prevent light from escaping. The first official proof of the existence of black holes came in 2016 when LIGO detected the collision of a pair of black holes. Now, merely three years later, the world has photographic evidence, and features of the black hole can be determined, including its mass: 6.5 solar masses, heavier than most pervious determinations.

Moving forward, the Event Horizon Telescope partnership plans to continue observations of M87 and collect data of other regions of space. The telescope network also continues to expand: earlier this year another telescope was added to the collaboration, with more antennas also expected to join soon. The collaboration will continue to observe black holes and monitor their behavior to see how things change.

(Dennis Overbye, New York Times


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April 21, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 26, 2019

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By: Mary Weston, Ph.D.

Source: Wikimedia

A Century-Old Debate Over Science Patents Is Repeating Itself Today

In 1923, after the economic devastation of World War I, the Italian senator Francesco Ruffini wanted to bolster scientific research by giving scientists ownership of their discoveries. His scheme would have awarded scientists a patent of sorts on the laws of nature they found. Although he had reasonable scientific support and the backing of the newly formed League of Nations, ultimately scientists around the world strongly rejected the plan for various reasons. Recent proposed changes to scientific discovery patent law possess a striking similarity to these events and proposals nearly 100 years ago.

Ruffini, desiring to increase scientific research, argued that scientists should be able to receive “scientific property” for a discovery, similar to patents awarded for inventions. He cited the example of “Hertzian waves” (i.e. radio waves) as something that resulted in many valuable products. The proposal was a large deviation from the existing law, where patents could only be assigned for inventions – artificial things made by humans, like machines – but not for discoveries of the natural world. Ruffini “was clear that scientific property would not prevent all uses of a natural law. But only practical commercial applications”.

In 2017, the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) and the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Section (ABA’s IP) both submitted proposals to change current laws (Amendment 35, Section 101) and allow for patents on scientific discoveries. Motivation for change stems from recent Supreme Court decisions regarding patents for medical techniques (use of the BRCA1/2 gene for detecting breast cancer and a blood diagnostic test to fine-tune autoimmune disease treatments). Currently legislators, specifically Senators Thom Tillis and Chris Coons, are revisiting these guidelines and roundtables were held in both January and February of this year. 

The demise of the previous 1920s proposal was due to details in implementation, very similar to the problems current proposals face today. These include how to:

  • attribute scientific property when there are many contributors to one discovery (i.e. who “discovered” electricity? Benjamin Franklin? George Ohm?). 
  • deal with unexpected liability, potentially requiring some sort of scientific property insurance scheme. 
  • deal with the scope of some scientific discoveries, possibly being so large that it leads to tremendous and costly amounts of ligation. 
  • write the patents with the specificity required without being too vague and/or speculative. 

Edward S. Rogers, a Chicago lawyer who assisted Ruffini with his proposals in the 1920s, ultimately warned against it in 1931, saying that while the plan was appealing, “the whole scheme seems impractical.”

If changes to the patent law are to occur, the same issues that prevented change nearly 100 years ago will need to be solved – a daunting and challenging task.

(Charles DuanSlate

Japanese Spacecraft Successfully Snags Sample of Asteroid Ryugu

The Hayabusa2, a Japanese asteroid-sampling spacecraft, just successfully retrieved surface pieces from Ryugu, a 3000-foot wide asteroid. To obtain the sample, the probe fired a 0.2 ounce tantalum “bullet” into the boulder-covered surface at close range, and then collected disturbed particles using a “sampling horn” located on the underside of the machine. 

The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) launched the Haybusa2, Japanese for Peregrine Falcon, in December 2014. They told CNN that even reaching the asteroid, 180 million miles from earth, is the “equivalent of hitting a 2.4-inch target from 12,400 miles away”. Upon arrival, the probe circled the small asteroid for 1.5 years collecting data. Then, last September, two probes were successfully released to image and document the asteroid surface. 

The goal of this exploration journey is to better understand the early history and evolution of the solar system. Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, the category that ~75% of known asteroids falls into, and is thought to contain water and other organic materials. One theory suggests that much of earth’s water and organic compounds may have been delivered by asteroids and comets. This will be the first time scientists have visited and collected samples from this type of asteroid and evaluation of its composition may “clarify interactions between the building blocks of Earth and the evolution of its oceans and life,” JAXA described

JAXA is planning two additional sampling expeditions in the next couple of weeks. This second mission will collect additional surface material. The third will use a copper projectile to create a surface crater in order to obtain samples from beneath the asteroid’s surface, which has been weathered by deep-space radiation. The Haybusa2 will depart the asteroid in December 2019 and should arrive back to earth in December 2020.

(Mike WallSpace.com)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 1, 2019 at 12:58 pm