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Update October 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern
Science & Nature

Update Saturday, Oct. 21 - Oct. 27, 2017

Spacewalkers install new hand on station’s robot arm

In this frame from NASA TV, Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik, bottom, work on the International Space Station on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. The astronauts went out on a spacewalk to give the International Space Station’s big robot arm a new hand. (NASA TV via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - Spacewalking astronauts gave the International Space Station’s big robot arm a new hand earlier this month.

Commander Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei accomplished the job on the first of three NASA spacewalks planned in October.

“One down, two to go,” Bresnik said as the seven-hour spacewalk came to a close. The pair was scheduled to go back out Tuesday, Oct. 10 to lubricate the new arm attachment.

The latching mechanism on one end of the 58-foot robot arm malfunctioned in August. It needed to be replaced before the arrival of an Orbital ATK supply ship in November.

Hustling through their work, the spacewalkers unbolted the old mechanism and promptly installed the spare. Initial testing by ground controllers indicated success.

“All right, gentlemen, we show a good arm,” Mission Control radioed.

“That is great news, Houston,” Bresnik said. “Much rejoicing.”

This bulky bundle of latches - more than 3 feet (a meter) long - is used to grab visiting spacecraft, and provides power and data. The arm can also move like an inchworm across the space station by grabbing onto special fixtures.

The Canadian-built arm has been in orbit for 16 years. Engineers attribute the recent trouble to wear and tear. The original latching mechanisms, one on each end of the arm, have been used nearly 400 times.

The latching mechanism on the opposite end will be replaced early next year.

It was the first spacewalk for Vande Hei, a rookie astronaut who arrived at the orbiting outpost a few weeks ago.

“Congratulations, my friend, on becoming the 221st human to exit in your own personal spacecraft into the void of space,” said Bresnik, a veteran spacewalker.

“That’s it for all of the tender moments you’ll get from me,” Bresnik joked. “Now back to work.”

As the duo worked, they marveled over the views of Earth below and the full moon above. They also cranked out some extra chores. As he packed up an insulating cover from outdoor electronic equipment, Bresnik noted how his son, a new Boy Scout, was working on rolling up sleeping bags back home.

Mission Control assured Bresnik he wouldn’t have to camp outside the space station.

“It would be worth it,” Bresnik replied.

Six men currently live at the 250-mile-high outpost: three Americans, two Russians and an Italian.

On Wednesday, they marked the 60th anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and the beginning of the Space Age.

Researchers shed light on Neanderthals’ legacy in humans

Frank Jordans

Berlin (AP) - Some human traits that are linked to sunlight - including mood and sleep patterns - may be influenced by a person’s Neanderthal forefathers, according to a study published Thursday, Oct. 5.

Researchers examined the genome of more than 100,000 Britons who inherited DNA from Neanderthal ancestors and found they reported higher rates of listlessness, loneliness, staying up late and smoking.

The study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, also confirmed that some Neanderthal DNA found in people of non-African descent affects their skin and hair color, though not in any single direction.

The findings suggest Neanderthals were already well-adapted to low and variable levels of sunlight in Europe when modern humans first arrived there from Africa some 50,000 years ago, said Michael Dannemann, who co-authored the study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Scientists have known for years that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. About 2 percent of the DNA of people of non-African descent comes from Neanderthals, a species that became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

Previous studies have examined the link between diseases and Neanderthal DNA, concluding that the ancient DNA can influence illnesses such as diabetes.

Dannemann and his colleague Janet Kelso decided to look at the impact of Neanderthal DNA on non-disease traits in modern humans. They compared DNA patterns from 112,338 people of British ancestry stored in a databased called the U.K. Biobank with the genome of a Neanderthal found in southern Siberia, near the Russia-Mongolia border.

They were able to link 15 physical traits to Neanderthal DNA, including several traits for hair and skin color but also behavior, such as a person’s ‘chronotype’ - that is, whether they are a morning or an evening person. Those with specific sections of Neanderthal DNA were noticeably more likely to describe themselves as an evening person.

“What we could see is that most of them correlate to how much exposure to sunlight you have,” said Dannemann.

In a separate study, published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers examined the DNA of a Neanderthal genome found in a cave in Croatia.

The paper, also co-authored by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, describes Neanderthal DNA found in modern humans that has been linked to eating disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and schizophrenia.

“This adds to mounting evidence that Neanderthal ancestry influences disease risk in present-day humans, particularly with respect to neurological, psychiatric, immunological, and dermatological phenotypes,” the authors conclude.

Update Saturday October 14 - October 20, 2017

Dubai dreams of flying taxis darting among its skyscrapers

In this Sept. 26, 2017 photo, a Volocopter prototype flies in front of the city skyline during a test flight in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dubai is hoping to one day have flying, pilotless taxis darting among its skyscrapers. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Jon Gambrell

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP) - With a whirling buzz from 18 rotors, the pilotless helicopter gently lifted off the ground and soared up into the afternoon sky, the spire of the world’s tallest building visible behind it.

The recent unmanned flight by the German-made electric Volocopter represents the latest step in Dubai’s pursuit of flying taxis, which would not seem out of place among the Gulf city’s already futuristic skyline - imagine “Blade Runner,” with less rain.

Dubai already has invested in another model of a flying, autonomous taxi, and is working to design regulations for their use. Putting more passengers in the air could free its already clogged highways and burnish the city’s cutting-edge image of itself.

“It’s public transportation for everybody, so you can use, you can order it, you can pay for the trip and the trip is not much more expensive than with a car,” said Alexander Zosel, Volocopter’s co-founder. “If you build roads, you build bridges, it’s a huge amount and it’s always much more cheaper to have a system where you don’t need that infrastructure.”

Driving in Dubai already makes one yearn for the open skies. Rush hour on Sheikh Zayed Road, a dozen-lane artery running down the length of the city, alternates between dense gridlock and sports-car slalom. Over 1.5 million Dubai-registered vehicles ply its roads, not counting those crowding in from the United Arab Emirates’ six other sheikhdoms.

The Volocopter’s designers envision the electric, battery-powered two-seat helicopters taking off and landing from pads set up across the city. The prototype used in Dubai has a maximum flying time of 30 minutes at 50 kph (31 mph), with a maximum airspeed of 100 kph (62 mph). Batteries charged in climate-controlled areas near the pads would be swapped in as needed.

“I believe (the) urban air taxi will contribute an interesting addition to the existing transportation modes,” Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said. “There are certain routes that are just extremely beneficial if you can go to the third dimension.”

In practice, however, there’s a long way to go. Convincing white-knuckled flyers to get into a buzzing, pilotless helicopter is just the beginning. Unpiloted passenger flights represent a new frontier for regulators. Dubai’s Road and Transportation Authority, which has invested an undisclosed sum in Volocopter, says it will work the next five years to come up with laws and develop safety procedures.

That’s a longer time frame than initially offered by Dubai. Mattar al-Tayer, the head of the RTA, told a conference in February that the Chinese-made EHang 184, a Volocopter competitor, would be regularly flying through the city’s skies by July, though that deadline came and went. The RTA did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Dubai remains at the front of the pack when it comes to embracing new technology.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, says he wants 25 percent of all passenger trips in the city to be done by driverless vehicles by 2030. The city has a deal in place with Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One to study the potential for building a hyperloop line between it and Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital. That technology has levitating pods powered by electricity and magnetism hurtle through low-friction pipes at a top speed of 1,220 kph (760 mph).

For now, the Volocopter’s brief flights in Dubai drew VIP crowds and film crews making advertisements. But its executives say after rules are in place, they will be ready for mass production. Already, Volocopter has drawn the interest of automobile manufacturer Daimler AG, which was part of a consortium that put up $30 million in capital for Volocopter. Even Airbus, a major airplane manufacturer, is looking at building its own flying taxis.

“We’ve proven that it works,” Zosel said. “At the end of this five years, Dubai will be ready.”



Dubai’s Road and Transportation Authority:

Update October 9, 2017

Researchers want to know why beluga whales haven’t recovered

New research aims to find out why highly endangered beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have failed to recover despite protective measures.

Dan Joling

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) - New research aims to find out why highly endangered beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have failed to recover despite protective measures.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has awarded more than $1.3 million to the state for three years of research involving the white whales.

“While we know what we believe caused the initial decline, we’re not sure what’s causing the population to remain suppressed,” said Mandy Keogh, a wildlife physiologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A population of 1,300 belugas dwindled steadily through the 1980s and early ’90s.

The decline accelerated when Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales between 1994 and 1998. Subsistence hunting ended in 1999 but the population remains at only about 340 animals.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five beluga populations in U.S. waters. Cook Inlet, named for British explorer Capt. James Cook, stretches 180 miles (290 kilometers) from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.

Belugas feed on salmon, smaller fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams.

Dubbed “sea canaries,” the whales make a wide range of whistles, grunts and clicks, and use echolocation to navigate under ice and find prey in murky water.

Federal officials declared Cook Inlet belugas endangered in 2008.

The new research will supplement ongoing NOAA Fisheries research and review feeding patterns, social structure of whale pods and the effects of noise.

One new study will focus on beluga prey and habitat. Researcher will analyze teeth collected over the years from hunted or stranded belugas and measure stable isotopes to determine how feeding patterns may have changed during their lives.

“Like tree rings, teeth have annual growth layers,” Mat Wooller, chemical oceanography professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in a statement. “Measuring isotopes in these growth layers can reveal how whales’ feeding habits have changed over the life of an animal.”

Chemical signatures in teeth, Keogh said, can reveal whether belugas ate fish in the water column or prey along the ocean floor.

Streams within Cook Inlet have unique strontium signatures that carry over to the fish that hatch in them, such as salmon and eulachon, a kind of smelt also known as hooligan.

NOAA researchers last week deployed acoustic equipment to record belugas feeding. The whales emit a specific buzz sound after successfully foraging.

“Right now we don’t know what they’re feeding on in winter,” Keogh said.

Researchers also will listen for sounds of transient killer whales, a possible predator, along with industrial noises that could displace belugas from feeding areas.

Researchers also will study pod social structures and compare it to a growing population of belugas in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which has been studied for the past decade by researchers from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium in partnership with state, federal and university scientists.

Segments needed for a growing population may be missing in Cook Inlet, Keogh said.

“For example, we don’t know if belugas need one male for every female, or whether they’re more similar to something like a wolf pack, where not all individuals in the group are reproducing,” she said.

NOAA Fisheries manages the animals, but the state has a strong interest in their recovery. Belugas are a tourist draw as they swim in waters along Alaska highways.

Cook Inlet petroleum helps keep the lights on in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and the state wants to lift development restrictions if the measures are not helping belugas.

“If you don’t know the factors that are preventing them from recovering, it’s really hard to appropriately manage them, or to know what factors to try to alleviate,” Keogh said.



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Spacewalkers install new hand on station’s robot arm

Researchers shed light on Neanderthals’ legacy in humans

Dubai dreams of flying taxis darting among its skyscrapers

Researchers want to know why beluga whales haven’t recovered


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