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The Trump administration's new goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024 — 5 years earlier than planned — is a huge gamble with the prestige of the United States.
Why it matters: If the administration succeeds, this week could be remembered as the turning point that restored some of the space program's lost glory. But that's a big if, since the rockets and spacecraft are nowhere near ready.
In setting the 5-year timeline on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, gave stark instructions to an agency that strives to be both bold and risk-averse: "In order to succeed ... we must focus on the mission over the means."
Reality check: The 2024 deadline will require NASA, Boeing and other commercial space companies to ramp up progress on a host of complex projects.
We just have to build and test the stuff — without a lot of time or money.
The numbers that matter: Earlier this month, the Trump administration sent a new NASA budget to Congress that requests $21.9 billion for the agency. That's a 2% cut for the agency as a whole compared to fiscal year 2019.
The destination is a tantalizing scientific target, says Noah Petro, project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission at NASA.
"The farther humans venture into space, the more important it becomes to manufacture materials and products with local resources," Petro says.
The catch: Space historian Robert Pearlman tells Axios the White House's timetable will require NASA to alter its testing protocol for the new SLS rocket. Instead of testing each component separately, the agency may have to put the massive rocket together and test it on the launch pad as a unit or through an uncrewed mission.
Go deeper: What we can learn from a return to the moon
The lunar landing by 2024 directive means that NASA now has a new top-level goal, which will affect everything from spending decisions to rocket testing protocols. It also means that yet again, a new administration has given the space agency new marching orders.
Background: NASA has been buffeted by changing priorities from administration to administration.
Democratic administrations have tended to be more supportive of NASA's Earth science programs than their Republican counterparts.
Context: The moon has never left NASA's sights even after Eugene Cernan boarded the last crew capsule to leave the lunar surface in 1972. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all maintained a return to the moon and then eventually deeper into space, including to Mars, as a target.
The bottom line: While Pence's speech may have caused heartburn for many NASA workers, it thrilled the spaceflight industry. Tommy Sanford, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, says the administration's new timetable is doable and will be beneficial for the pubic and private sectors.
Go deeper: NASA pushes its moon and Mars missions
Measles cases in the U.S. this year are "certainly going to surpass those in 2018," mainly due to the lack of vaccination among certain groups, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), tells Axios.
Why it matters: The extremely contagious virus, which can cause serious complications like pneumonia, brain swelling and even death, requires a vaccination rate in a community to be 93–95% in order to prevent outbreaks.
"Whenever the level of vaccination gets below a certain level, you will get outbreaks."— Anthony Fauci, NIAID director
Driving the news: Rockland County in New York sounded a national alarm when it declared a local state of emergency on Wednesday, with a directive barring unvaccinated children under 18 from countywide public spaces unless they are under 6 months or have a medical exemption.
The U.S.-China trade war could result in a devastating increase in deforestation in the Amazon, according to a new commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The commentary, by Richard Fuchs et. al, finds that the amount of land devoted to soybean production in Brazil could skyrocket by 39% as China looks for other import sources due to ongoing trade disputes with the U.S.
What they did: The authors used data from a UN Food and Agricultural Organization database to examine the flow of soybeans, a crop mainly used for animal feed.
Context: In 2018, the U.S. introduced tariffs of up to 25% on Chinese imported goods worth $250 billion. The Chinese government retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods, including soybeans.
What they found: "We forecast that a surge of tropical deforestation could occur as a result of the fresh demand being placed on China’s other major suppliers to provide up to 37.6 million tonnes of the crop," the authors write.
What they're saying: "The trade-war is a perfect example of the vulnerabilities in global agricultural trade, caused by national agendas," Fuchs tells Axios via email. "It highlights how a few big players ... can cause massive trade shocks and potential shifts in agricultural production."
Our thought bubble, via Axios chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon: "Chinese demand for soy imports has been rising rapidly, and now Bolsonaro is openly advocating the deforestation of a large swath of Amazon rainforest. That combination alone could spell doom for one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. The US-China trade war can only exacerbate what was already a terrible situation."
Iceberg that broke off Jakobshavn Glacier into Disko Bay, Greenland, seen in 2017. Photo: Andrew Freedman
Cholera outbreak hits Mozambique following Cyclone Idai: Aid agencies are rushing to respond to public health threats in the wake of the Category 3 storm.
The Fed takes on climate change: The San Francisco Fed produced a report detailing the economic and monetary policy implications of global warming.
Modi says India shot down a satellite to join space "super league": India joined the small club of nations to shoot down a satellite, raising the stakes in space.
Ebola tops 1,000 cases in Congo, officials express concern: This outbreak is proving to be resistant to containment efforts.
The fastest-melting Greenland glacier has made a temporary U-turn: The Jakobshavn Glacier hit the brakes unexpectedly.
Experts: Eliminating TB is possible this generation, but funding is paramount: The U.S., the biggest contributor to the fight against TB, is cutting back its support.
Red-eyed leaf frog. Photo: Kike Calvo/UIG via Getty Images
Amphibian apocalypse is twice as bad as scientists thought (Jason Bittel, Washington Post)
African elephants are evolving without tusks because of poaching (Caitlin O'Kane, CBS News)
FDA wants women to get breast-density information along with their mammograms (Laurie McGinley, Washington Post)
Why the sexes don’t feel pain the same way (Amber Dance, Nature News)
What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings (JoAnna Klein, NYT)
A nebula known as W40. The "wings" of the butterfly are giant bubbles of gas being blown from the inside out by massive stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope caught sight of an extraordinary star nursery that resembles a butterfly. Its official name does not hint at its otherworldly looks: It’s referred to as Westerhout 40, or W40.
The formation is a nebula, which is a large cloud of dust and gas in space where new stars tend to form. It’s located about 1,400 light-years from the Sun.
How it works: The hottest interstellar gases ejected from the innards of the largest stars are what comprise the butterfly’s wings, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
New stars form inside these giant clouds, where gravity can force material together to form dense clumps. Once they reach a particular density, these clumps allow for star formation, NASA says in a press release.
Radiation and winds emanating from the most massive stars in these clouds of hot gas and dust — combined with the material spewed into space when those stars eventually explode — can form bubbles like those seen in this image. But such emissions also emit the material in many directions, curtailing star formation.
Here’s how NASA describes the image’s details:
“The material that forms W40's wings was ejected from a dense cluster of stars that lies between the wings in the image. The hottest, most massive of these stars, W40 IRS 1a, lies near the center of the star cluster.”
“Another cluster of stars, named Serpens South, can be seen to the upper right of W40 in this image. Although both Serpens South and the cluster at the heart of W40 are young in astronomical terms (less than a few million years old), Serpens South is the younger of the two. Its stars are still embedded within their cloud but will someday break out to produce bubbles like those of W40.”— NASA press release description of the image
The Spitzer image is actually the combination of four images taken with the telescope’s infrared array camera, detecting different wavelengths of infrared light.
1 cool thing: The massive stars formed in this nebula are thought to be 10 times the density of the Sun or greater.
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