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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon Demo capsule. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky
Early Saturday morning, the U.S. will take a key step toward restoring its capability to launch astronauts from its own soil when a SpaceX rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Why it matters: Being able to launch astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011 means NASA will no longer be dependent on Russian rockets for hitching rides to the Space Station, at a cost of about $75 million per seat.
The big picture: The launch at 2:49 am Saturday signals a passing of the baton from government-led space missions to public-private partnerships in which billionaires like Elon Musk, who founded and leads SpaceX, will share the credit for U.S. space exploration.
Details: During the 6-day mission, SpaceX's Crew Dragon will attempt to dock autonomously with the ISS, thereby testing most of the capabilities of the crew transport system.
"I fully expect we're going to learn something on this flight. I fully expect everything will not work exactly right, and that’s cool. That’s exactly what we want to do ”— William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s human spaceflight program
Yes, but: Before they can launch humans into space, SpaceX and Boeing must meet strict safety requirements, including limiting the risk of loss or permanent disability of crew to at or below a 1-in-270 chance.
What to watch: NASA is overseeing and certifying these companies, but it is now taking on the role of supporting player. This doesn't mean NASA will fade into the background, however, says Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which promotes the development of the commercial space sector.
What's next: An in-flight, uncrewed abort test will take place after the demo-1 mission. Assuming all goes smoothly and the company meets certification requirements, then the first crewed SpaceX test flight to the ISS, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, could blast off as early as July. The Boeing timeline is proceeding at a similar pace.
The chest sensor can wirelessly monitor heart rate, breathing rate and temperature. Photo: Northwestern University
Researchers say they have developed a new way to monitor preterm babies using cordless, wafer-thin integrated technology and soft mechanics with little or no adhesive, according to a study published in Science Thursday, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.
Why it matters: While the technology is in the early stages of testing, this could give doctors and nurses better access and monitoring abilities, while allowing the baby to move more freely. Importantly, it would also offer parents a better bonding experience.
Background: Current technology, first developed in the 1960s, uses rigid electrodes with strong adhesives on the baby. These are connected to computing systems that monitor heart rate and oxygen saturation.
What they did: The researchers worked on developing soft mechanics and adhesives that wouldn't damage a baby's skin and creating the lightest technology that could operate without wires or batteries, but could still monitor and integrate vital signs, Xu says.
What they found: Paller says they're "thrilled" at the accuracy of the sensors, the fact they work well when wet, and are compatible with advanced medical imaging techniques like MRI and CT scans. None of the babies have experienced any negative side effects, she adds.
"The technology is fascinating and an exciting example of applied engineering being formulated and utilized to assist the care of some of our littlest, most fragile infants."— Lawrence Eichenfield, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology, Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, who was not part of this study
What's next: Paller says the team is planning to start a large trial in Zambia, India and Pakistan later this year and will continue research in the U.S. If all goes well, she says they hope to have FDA approval in about 5 years.
The World Health Organization Thursday said it was deeply concerned over 2 violent attacks on Ebola treatment centers in 2 cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this past week that resulted in fatalities, traumatized patients and health care workers, and destroyed key medical facilities, Eileen reports.
Why it matters: Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of the lead international organizations involved in the DRC's efforts to contain the deadly virus, is now suspending its medical activities in the heart of the outbreak in Butembo and Katwa after its treatment centers were attacked.
What's happening: A "toxic environment" has been created by a combination of people who don't believe Ebola exists and don't trust the government or international relief workers' efforts plus local politicians "promoting lies about Ebola," DRC spokesperson Jessica Ilunga tells Axios.
What's next: MSF says it will continue its operations in other parts of the DRC, including in the towns of Kayna and Lubéru. The organization has also been supporting emergency preparedness in the city of Goma.
Meanwhile, DRC health officials are looking for some patients who are missing after the attacks — some with confirmed cases of Ebola and others suspected of being infected — who had been in the Butembo treatment center, Ilunga says
"We are of course extremely worried. Health agents should never be the target of violence. They have the right to be safe when they are saving lives."— Jessica Ilunga, DRC Health Ministry
Sea ice floes in the Arctic Ocean, near Spitsbergen, Norway. Photo: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
The Arctic Ocean could become seasonally free of sea ice on the earlier side of the 2030–2050 time period, due to the combination of global warming and natural variability, a new study finds.
Why it matters: The study zeroes in on the role played by a natural climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), which can transport more heat into the Arctic, quickening ice melt.
Details: According to the study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, Pacific Ocean variability influences when seasonally ice-free conditions will emerge.
Details: In the past few years, the IPO has started to shift from negative to positive, and if this continues, the study shows, there's an increased chance of more rapid ice loss during the next few decades. This could cause ice-free summers to emerge as early as 2030, though this date isn't precise.
What they're saying:
But, but, but: Researchers didn't look at whether enhanced heat transport would occur via short, intense warm surges or longer-term, slower warm advection. In recent years, the Arctic has seen a sharp uptick in short-lived but disruptive warm surges, including this winter.
Hurricane Florence makes landfall in North Carolina in 2018. Photo: NOAA via Getty Images.
Sudden leadership shakeup hits NOAA: The nation's top oceans, weather and climate agency now has a new acting administrator.
Genetic testing firms share your DNA data more than you think: That DNA testing company you used may share your data with law enforcement or others, Kim Hart writes.
Congressman says climate change isn't real because ... plants: GOP Rep. Paul Gosar dismissed climate change concerns on the basis of photosynthesis.
Scientists slam report of White House climate change review panel: Scientists objected to the White House's plan for an "adversarial peer review" committee on climate.
Biological researcher He Jiankui, Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Normalizing extreme weather: People tend to compare the weather to their recent experience, a bias that makes historic extremes seem more normal, Kendra Pierre-Louis writes for NYT.
The real designer babies: We're already designing babies to be more free of disease, Emily Mullin writes for OneZero.
Bill Gates' picks: Bill Gates predicts the 10 game-changing technologies of the coming year for MIT Tech Review.
Baby blue whale nursing captured off the South Coast of Sri Lanka in 2015. Photo: Patrick Dykstra/Barcroft Images
Blue whales, which are the largest creatures on Earth, rely on their memory of productive foraging sites in order to seek out prey.
Why it matters: This insight, which comes from a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps explain how these oceanic behemoths can reach such massive sizes. It also identifies a vulnerability that could challenge the species as warming and acidifying waters cause fish to shift in abundance and range, making historical knowledge less useful to the emerging reality.
What they did: Researchers examined 10 years of movement data for 60 blue whales, each of which was tracked via satellite tracking tags, in the California Current Ecosystem, as well as oceanographic conditions involving the emergence of waves of krill, a small, shrimp-like crustacean that serves as a key food source for blue whales.
What they found: Researchers learned that whale migration more closely matches the 10-year average location of the spring green-up in this region compared to the contemporaneous conditions, which varied more significantly.
In other words, as blue whales migrate thousands of miles across the world's oceans, they seek out areas that are their historical best bets, as if consulting a self-taught guidebook to eating krill.
Context: Researchers have long been able to examine timing of food availability along land migration routes, but assessing such interactions in marine ecosystems provides greater challenges.
"These long-lived, highly intelligent animals are making movement decisions based on their expectations of where and when food will be available during their migrations," says Briana Abrahms, a research ecologist with NOAA and lead author of the new study, in a press release.
Why you'll hear about this again: Phenology, which is the study of life cycle events in the natural world, is already revealing sensitivities to climate change, with changes in the timing of flowering plants posing challenges for pollinators that arrive too early or late, for example.
The new study leaves unanswered the question of what will happen to blue whale populations if warming and acidifying ocean waters from climate change cause food availability to change dramatically, making a history-based hunting strategy less effective.
Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week! See you back here next Thursday.