New space suit safeguards astronauts’ “mental wellness”

Working in space can be hard on astronauts’ psyches, according to space researchers, who are developing a new space suit aimed at reducing astronauts’ stress levels while they go about their operations in Earth orbit. The researchers, a group of Florida Polytechnic University scientists and graduate students, are designing a “happy suit” that adjusts oxygen levels, temperature, and light color and levels as needed to help the wearer feel calm and comfortable.

The happy suit will have a full-body lining of Smart Sensory Skin, an experimental technology that will use wireless sensors to monitor any changes in the astronaut’s body that indicate elevated stress, such as accelerated heart rate or rising blood pressure. The sensors will prompt the suit’s internal controls to raise or lower its various settings as needed to help calm the wearer’s nerves.

“It’s vital for astronauts to be mentally healthy during missions and right now there’s no active, real-time solution to help them when they feel stressed or anxious,” said Arman Sargolzaei, a Florida Polytechnic professor of electrical engineering.

Astronauts are prone to mental distress, Sargolzaei explained, attributing it to factors like lack of sleep, insufficient exercise, the steep physical toll of prolonged low-gravity exposure, too much light, and the fear of making mistakes in an environment where even small mishaps can be dangerous. Astronauts living for periods of times on space stations, including the International Space Station, have reported feelings heightened anxiety, irritability, or feelings of overwhelm or discouragement over time.

He described the suit as a way to help astronauts reduce their stress to manageable levels and maintain their moods during the rigors of space work.


Third sixgill shark species discovered in Atlantic Ocean

Researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology have found a brand new shark species — a third type of sixgill shark — swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, according to a new study published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.

Before this discovery, researchers knew about two types of sixgill sharks that lived in the Indian and Pacific Oceans: the bluntnose and the bigeyed. After finding the new species, the team used genetic testing to confirm that it is indeed different from other sixgill types.

“We showed that the sixgills in the Atlantic are actually very different from the ones in the Indian and Pacific Oceans on a molecular level, to the point where it is obvious that they’re a different species even though they look very similar to the naked eye,” said lead author Toby Daly-Engel, a researcher at the Florida Institute of Technology, according to Tech Times.

The Atlantic sixgill — known as the Hexanchus vitulus — can grow up to 6 feet long, which makes it smaller than its cousins. It has saw-like lower teeth as well as six gill slit — the feature that separates them from other five-gilled shark species.

While the finding is interesting from a research standpoint, it is also significant in that it gives the sixgill species better chances of long-term survival.

The new species is one of the oldest animals on Earth. In fact, its ancestors date back nearly 250 million years. That means the ancient fish were around before dinosaurs ruled the Earth and survived numerous mass extinctions. However, as sixgill sharks live so deep below the ocean, they have been hard to study.

The team hopes the new finding will shed more light on the species and give a better idea of their diversity across the world.

“Because we now know there are two unique species, we have a sense of the overall variation in populations of sixgills,” added Daly-Engel, according to The Hindu. “We understand that if we overfish one of them, they will not replenish from elsewhere in the world.”

NWT_Climate NWT_Environment

Climate change threatens King penguin populations

King penguin populations in Antarctica are unsustainable if temperatures continue to rise, according to researchers.

The new study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Our work shows that almost 70 percent of king penguins — about 1.1 million breeding pairs — will have to relocate or disappear before the end of the century because of greenhouse gas emissions,” said co-author, Dr. Celine Le Bohec from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Strasbourg, in a report by BBC News.

The iconic, tuxedoed King penguin, which is the second largest of the 17 penguin species, is in trouble because as ocean waters warm, the fish the flightless birds feed on are moving to cooler waters, away from the penguins’ habitat. This means parent penguins will have to travel farther and farther to get food and eventually foraging trips will be so long that their babies will starve to death.

“Marion and Prince Edward islands, and Crozet island will have the biggest difficulty in the next 50 years, I would say,” said Dr. Le Bohec, in the BBC News report. “These are major population centers. But if we continue with the addition of greenhouse gases then Kerguelen, Falkland, and Tierra del Fuego islands will also have difficulty.”

Few good alternative breeding grounds exist for the penguins and the rapid pace of climate change makes it difficult for the species to adapt.

“If global warming continues at its current pace, the species may disappear,” Le Bohec told Agence France Presse.


State Department pledge $40 million to fight foreign propaganda

The State and Defense departments announced an agreement Monday to pool $40 million into a combined effort to counter foreign-government-sponsored propaganda. The announcement did not mention Russia by name, but observers suggested that mounting evidence of Russia’s intrusion into the 2016 elections was a major motivator for the new joint effort.

Under the agreement, the Department of Defense will pay its contributions to the Department of State-run Global Engagement Center. State established this center in 2016 to take on Islamic terrorist propaganda, but its mandate later expanded to include fighting state-sponsored disinformation.

“This funding is critical to ensuring that we continue an aggressive response to malign influence and disinformation and that we can leverage deeper partnerships with our allies, Silicon Valley, and other partners in this fight,” said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Russia is likely to be a major focus of the joint effort. China and Iran may also be areas of concern.

The new agreement took much longer to negotiate than expected. Politico reported last year that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had up to $60 million available in defense appropriations to transfer to the new center but held off on doing so for months.

According to an aide, Tillerson was leery of disbursing the money to the new center because it might antagonize Moscow and make his own efforts to patch up Russia-U.S. relations more difficult.

Democratic and Republican members of Congress lambasted Tillerson on his reluctance to fund the center, and State officials warned him that the money might disappear altogether if he did not transfer it by September 30. Tillerson finally issued a request for $40 million for the center in mid-September.

Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) applauded the new agreement Monday and said that it was “long overdue.”


New women-led, women-focused TV station opens in Gaza

A TV station the likes of which the Middle East has never seen opened for business this month in Gaza. The station, Taif TV, is entirely women-led and broadcasts content geared entirely toward women audiences. Its founders said that they intend to use the station to give a new voice to Gaza’s women and raise awareness of the issues that women in Gaza and throughout the region face.

“We’re going to start discussing women’s issues and trying to find solutions for their problems. We will also celebrate their successes,” said Sara Okal, a member of the station’s all-volunteer team of “presenters,” e.g., anchors.


The station’s content is a mix of news, talk shows, and entertainment. The shows’ material ranges from serious discussions of women’s rights issues, social inequalities, and violence against women, to lighter fare such as features on fashion, cosmetics, and comedy.


The station first aired February 20, opening for business in a facility that a local production company provides free of charge. The station would have opened February 18 with a public launch party, but the Hamas governing authority cancelled this initial launch by claiming that the station did not have the “correct license” and sent in police to force the station to call off its launch party and postpone any broadcasting until it got its licensing issues sorted out.


The station’s managers contended that they had met all of their licensing-related obligations and pressed ahead.

The station is taking root in a heavily male-dominated society. Men have long dominated political decion-making in Gaza, and unemployment among Gaza’s women stands at 71%, while women with jobs earn a quarter less than their male counterparts.



Boeing, Lockheed Martin consider Brazil as a new rocket-launch site

U.S. space missions that currently launch from Florida might in the near future take off from Brazil. Brazil’s defense minister said Feb. 15 that representatives of SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other firms all made a group visit to Brazil’s equatorial Alcantara and evaluate it as a prospective new launch pad for their rockets.

“They were very impressed,” Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told reporters. “They showed interest, but I can’t say whether it will materialize.”

Smaller aerospace companies also joined the tour, according to an organizer of the event. They included Vector Space Systems, which launches small satellites; and Microcosm, which is researching and developing lower-cost spaceflight technology.

Alcantara is a promising launch pad because it is near the equator, and engineers say that satellites require around 20% less fuel to lift off from the equator than from latitudes further north or south. They attribute this largely to the earth’s rotational speed being faster at the equator than anywhere else, which gives rockets leaving the surface some extra boost.

Many of the world’s existing launch pads are close to the equatorial zone. The European Space Agency launches rockets from a site in French Guiana, just north of Brazil; and India sends its satellites into orbit from an equatorial site near the Indian city of Sriharikota.

The U.S. companies refrained from making any firm commitments on Brazil. A Lockheed Martin representative said only that the company looks forward to “continued dialogue,” and Boeing issued a statement praising “international partnerships” on space-flight development.

Some legal negotiations must take place first. Brazilian officials will have to sign a Technology Safeguards Agreement with the United States to protect U.S. intellectual property before any launches can go forward. A new agreement is currently in the negotiating stages.

NWT_Biology Science TECH

There are no more truly wild horses, study reports

Przewalski’s horses — a unique equine species from Mongolia — are not as wild as scientists previously thought they were, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

Previously, scientists believed that Przewalski’s horses were the last truly wild horse on Earth. However, it turns out that they are the descendants of the first horses humans domesticated some 5,500 years ago. That is a surprising discovery that reveals, as researchers cannot connect the species to earlier horse populations, humans must have tamed wild horses two different times in history.

The finding alters the way researchers view modern horses and challenges common ideas about how humans and horses are connected.

“It’s huge. It changes fundamentally how we think about this. This kind of game-changing research is very rare,” said Robin Bendrey, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the study, in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

In the study, researchers from the University of Toulouse set out to trace how the horse evolved after it was first domesticated. To do that, they analyzed 88 ancient and modern horse genomes that spanned across more than five millennia. That included 20 horses from the Botai settlements in northern Kazakhstan.

Though the researchers first assumed the Botai horses would be the ancestors of modern horses, they found that they are the ancestors of wild horses instead. Not only that, but the Botai appeared to stop domesticating horses at some point, leading to the feral Przewalski’s horses we have today.

That is important because, while scientists have long believed the Botai culture was the first evidence of horse domestication, they have also wondered about the 1,000 year gap that came before domesticated horses began to regularly pop up in the fossil record. This new study sheds light on that mystery and shows the animals were simply domesticated at two different times in two different regions.

“The first time we saw this result, none of us could believe it,” said study co-author Ludovic Orlando, a researcher at University of Toulouse, according to NPR. “It was that surprising — this is like turning upside [down] all the theories. We spent a full year trying to kill the evidence we see, and we are very confident that the evidence we see is extremely robust.”


Parkland student Maddy Wilford, shot 3 times, is ‘grateful to be here’

Maddy Wilford, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was initially thought to be dead as she lay bleeding from three bullet wounds inflicted during the Feb. 14 school massacre.

But, on Monday, the 17-year-old Ms. Wilford appeared at a conference center at Broward Health North hospital with her parents — a cast on her arm the only sign of her terrible injuries, according to a report by The New York Times. Doctors said the bullet wounds to her torso had mostly healed and that she was ready to return to school as soon as next week.

“I’m just glad that I’m making a full recovery and everything’s been going so smoothly,” Wilford said, as she thanked doctors for saving her life, adding “It’s times like these when I know that we need to stick together.”

Her mother, Missy Wilford, said it will take a while for Maddy and the family to heal emotionally.

“She’s very, very lucky, said Dr. Nichiporenko. We’re talking about large-caliber bullets penetrating through the chest and abdomen — those are serious injuries.” He predicted she would make a full recovery from her wounds.

“I’m so grateful to be here,” Ms. Wilford said, and it wouldn’t be possible without those officers and first responders and these amazing doctors; and especially all the love that everyone has sent.”


Self-driving cars may take test drives in California this spring

Self-driving cars with remote-control fallback systems may hit California’s roadways by April, California’s department of motor vehicles said this week. State officials are finalizing new legislation that will approve test runs of a new self-driving vehicle model in which human operators stationed at remote-control systems miles away from the cars will be able to log in and take over the controls in an emergency.

“We think we have the ultimate backup system – which is a human,” said Elliot Katz, co-founder of Phantom Auto, which last month at the CES technology conference demonstrated how cars driving in Las Vegas could be remotely controlled from Mountain View, California, over 500 miles away.

The new regulations are on track to get approval from California’s legal-compliance agency on February 26. A 30-day public notice period will take place, after which the new regulations will take effect in April.

Uber tested self-driving cars in Arizona last year, but human drivers rode inside these vehicles to take over in an emergency. California law required any self-driving cars to similarly have human minders inside as a fallback until now.

Engineers involved in self-driving vehicle development said that the remote-controlled systems California will approve are already in use by NASA and the military. The systems could greatly accelerate the rollout of practical and commercially viable driverless cars, as well, the engineers said: Ridesharing services such as Uber will be able to deploy driverless cars without having to seat paid backup human minders in each car, for example.

The remote-control car technology is currently under development at Nissan, Waymo, and startups Zoox, Phantom Auto, and Starsky, among other companies.


Beech trees are on the rise throughout the American northeast

Climate change is causing beech trees to grow rapidly in the northeastern United States, a problem that could threaten many different woodland areas throughout the region.

This discovery comes from a 30-year study that shows higher temperatures and rising precipitation levels have allowed beech trees to dominate certain forested regions. The team discovered that such broad shifts could lead to major problems in both the northeastern U.S and southeastern Canada. Not only could the change threaten certain ecosystems, but it could also harm the logging industry because beech has much less commercial value than birch or pine.

“There’s no easy answer to this one. It has a lot of people scratching their heads,” said Aaron Weiskittel, a researchers at the University of Maine, according to “Future conditions seem to be favoring the beech, and managers are going to have to find a good solution to fix it.”

In the research, a team of scientists from various U.S. universities tracked trends in northeastern forest composition from 1983 to 2014. During that time the number of American beech trees significantly increased, while species like sugar maple, red maple, and birch all decreased.

There are several issues with this trend, and one of the biggest is beech bark disease. That illness causes trees to die young, which greatly stunts forest growth. In addition, as deer do not typically eat beech, the trees are much more likely to continue their spread.

The new findings build on past research that shows environmental changes allow beech trees to take over forests and push out other species. The researchers hope their discovery will help officials plan for better future forest management and give a better idea of how climate change affects certain areas.

“We’re really dealing with the fallout from climate change, and how do we manage to accommodate for that,” added Weiskittel, according to ZME Science.

This new research is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.