TIME space

Scientists Shoot Down Claim That Alien Life May Be on Comet

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image made by the Rosetta space probe
ESA/Reuters The Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image taken by the Rosetta space probe on June 13, 2015.

The findings did not hold up to scientific scrutiny

Scientists have picked holes in a widely-reported presentation by researchers claiming microbial life may exist on the comet now home to the Philae lander.

The claim originated in a presentation before the Royal Astronomical Society, in which researchers said the makeup of the comet, 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, suggested the presence of living organisms. The scientists argued that data from Rosetta, the European Space Agency probe orbiting the comet, showed the capacity for micro-organisms to eke out life beneath the comet’s black crust.

But the findings did not hold up to scientific scrutiny. For example, the researchers suggested that the comet’s deep black crust suggests that it may be partly made of hydrocarbons—the basic molecules of life. That’s a possible explanation, but many black surfaces, like a lava field for instance, don’t necessarily suggest life.

Researchers also cited “viral particles” as evidence of life on the comet. It is indeed possible to detect both entire viruses and mere molecular bits of them with the aid of either electron microscopy or RNA analysis. But Rosetta, which is equipped with none of the necessary hardware and never comes within several kilometers of the comet, is not in any way capable of doing that work.

None of this says that asteroids and comets aren’t good places to look for life—or at least the precursors. Meteors have already been found to carry amino acids and other building blocks of life. If the chemicals are sealed inside the matrix of the rock in the presence of water, which is entirely plausible, and kept warm by radioactive elements, which could also be on board, there’s no telling what can be cooked up.

But, for now at least, the presentation remains unconvincing to the majority of the scientific community.

“No scientist active in any of the Rosetta instrument science teams assumes the presence of living micro-organisms beneath the cometary surface crust,” Uwe Meierhenrich, a professor at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis told the Guardian by email.

—Additional reporting by Jeffrey Kluger.

TIME climate change

Nobel Laureates Issue A Call To Action On Climate Change

Brian Schmidt
Australian National University

The Declaration on Climate Change has 36 laureate signatures

At the 65th annual edition of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings, held from June 28-July 3 in Lindau, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, 65 laureates gathered with 650 young scientists from 88 countries for a week of lectures and discussion that included several calls to action.

Laureates Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Peter Agre joined their voices in the call for expanded recognition and support of scientists in Africa. Laureate Richard Roberts urged his colleagues to reverse European opinion on GMO crops in order to facilitate their wider use in the developing world. And 2014 Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi made an impassioned speech urging the attendees’ commitment to end the exploitation and enslavement of children and support their universal right to education.

But most prominent—and formal—was raised on the final day of the conference, held on nearby Mainau Island: a call to address climate change. 2011 Physics laureate Brian Schmidt introduced the Mainau Declaration 2015 on Climate Change, signed by 36 Nobel laureates, to the hundreds of laureates, scientists and other attendees. “Nearly 60 years ago, here on Mainau, a similar gathering of Nobel Laureates in science issued a declaration of the dangers inherent in the newly found technology of nuclear weapons—a technology derived from advances in basic science,” he said. “We believe that our world today faces another threat of comparable magnitude.”

While Schmidt acknowledged that there were laureates who did not want to publicly express an opinion, he stated that “those of us who sign do so because we feel we have a moral-bound duty as a scientist on an issue that has such lasting consequences…We say this not as experts in the field of climate change, but rather as a diverse group of scientists who have a deep respect for and understanding of the integrity of the scientific process.”

Beyond being a statement of laureate concern and support, the Declaration was very squarely aimed at Paris. “We believe that the nations of the world must take the opportunity at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 to take decisive action to limit future global emissions,” the declaration read. It was then ceremoniously signed onstage by the laureates to sustained applause.

After the ceremonies, the conference attendees returned by boat to Lindau to celebrate the finale of an extraordinary opportunity to spend a week with enough Nobel laureates to field seven baseball teams. Amid the farewells, there was discussion of the significance of the declaration as well as questions over not signing because one was not “an expert in the field,” a position in which the rest of the public also finds itself. One laureate, speaking off the record, explained, “As a citizen, I agree with the conclusion of the declaration, but to sign as a laureate makes me uncomfortable. I felt as a scientist, it would be like signing a research paper I didn’t write.”

As history-making as the declaration was, it was perhaps ironic—or at least awkward—that even as Laureates called for unity, one of their own, Ivar Giaever, the 1973 Physics laureate, had used his lecture at Lindau to rehash a handful of well-worn and unrelated points often made by global warming deniers, including how money spent trying to understand, reverse or mitigate global warming would be better spent helping the poor. But it was roundly dismissed by scientists as intellectually lazy. As laureate Peter Doherty commented in a press conference on Lindau the day before the declaration, “All scientists are comfortable with skepticism. But the difference between skepticism and denial is that the skeptic engages. If you are a skeptic, you talk to other researchers, you look at the data. If you’re in denial, you simply reject everything that’s being published.”

What the scientists seemed to agree on was that they hoped that in addition to their remarkable week with the laureates, they had also been witness to a historic commitment.

TIME space

What I Learned Watching SpaceX’s Rocket Explode

It felt terrible, but lives will be saved in the future

By now, everyone knows the outcome of the story. On the morning of Sunday, June 28, SpaceX CRS-7 launched in spectacular fashion from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Just two minutes and 19 seconds into flight, the Falcon 9 rocket and cargo-laden Dragon capsule exploded above the Atlantic ocean, incinerating approximately 4,000 pounds of supplies to be delivered to the ISS. The cause remains unknown.

Rundowns of the items aboard CRS-7 have been circulated throughout news reports and abbreviated in terse, 140 character tweets: student science projects, privately-funded experiments, food, water filtration systems, hardware, oxygen. The astronauts aboard the ISS are safe until October. The Russians launched a resupply mission last week; the Japanese have one set for August. Surely we can’t all fail.

I watched the Falcon 9 lift off that sunny morning in June while standing atop an empty causeway at Kennedy, as close as any civilian could hope to get to a launch. By the time CRS-7 failed, it was only a small speck of light high above my head. I squinted into the bright sun and craned my neck, turning to the woman beside me and asking: “Was that separation or an explosion?” We weren’t sure.

When the failure was confirmed by nearby NASA employees, I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach, like waking up from a good dream and feeling it all slip away. Thankfully, there were no humans aboard the Dragon capsule that day. But all American space missions in today’s experimental age of public-private partnerships are defined by a sense of potential, carrying a degree of hope — the hope that one day, blasting equipment and human beings out of Earth’s atmosphere could be as routine as a neighborhood grocery run. While CRS-7’s failure won’t single-handedly kill that dream, it does remind us that future is a little father off than we might have thought.

I was on site at Kennedy to witness the launch that morning thanks to something called a NASA Social, part of a program run by the space agency’s public affairs department that invites high-profile social media users to get the same access to a launch or other major event afforded to the credentialed press.

On the morning of Friday, June 26th, approximately 48 hours before launch, 30 people assembled in the nondescript Press Annex that sits on site at Kennedy Space Center in direct view of the famous VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building). I was among them, an eager participant in NASA Social. Investment in unconventional social media ambassadors is nothing new for NASA. Its Curiosity Rover has been sending updates from Mars via a colorful Twitter account that boasts nearly 2 million followers, more than most sentient beings. But allowing space geeks with little connection to mainstream news outlets access to an otherwise inaccessible experience is a smart exercise in public relations.

“Our target audience is humanity,” NASA Social Media Manager John Yembrick told us of the NASA Social program. Our group was stuffed with such strange bedfellows as PhDs in theoretical physics and geology, a former wrestling star, a fashion photographer, Florida natives and a woman who flew from Australia. Human beings with vastly different skill sets and social audiences united for three days to furiously tweet, post, share, like and tag every second of the adventure.

We spoke with the likes of NASA Chief Scientist for the International Space Station Dr. Julie Robinson, SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann, and Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, who arrived carrying a HoloLens augmented reality headset he hopes will revolutionize communication between astronauts and Earth. We met young students who described an experiment they would launch on CRS-7: a genius proposition to use earthworms for trash composting aboard the space station. We toured the facilities where spacecraft are assembled and parts are created. We saw the second of two identical International Docking Adaptors meant to standardize the ISS docking process for different companies and countries; the first was already loaded on the ill-fated Dragon, now lost.

If NASA’s goal with the NASA Social program is to pay service to the Space Believers while cultivating new ones, it’s a rousing success — the sense of potential was palpable among the group. But none of that energy can change this immutable rule: space is hard, and we have much to learn. In his reply to my Facebook post about the loss I felt after watching the Falcon 9 rocket disintegrate into oblivion, NASA Astronaut Ron Garan offered the following: “The lessons learned from the failure will save lives down the road when Dragon launches crew.” He’s right, of course. But it’s still difficult to get swept up in the excitement of space travel, only to be confronted with an explosive reminder of how far the future remains.

Erin Sharoni is a Creative Strategist at biotech startup InsideTracker, a writer for DJ Mag and an electronic dance music DJ and producer.

TIME space travel

NASA Says New Horizons Pluto Probe Is Okay After a Scary Glitch

pluto new horizons
NASA

We could finally get a clear picture of Pluto on July 14

NASA said Sunday its New Horizons space probe remains on track for a historic flyby of Pluto after the mission suffered what appeared to be a nail-biting glitch.

Team scientists were on edge this Fourth of July when the New Horizons spacecraft entered “safe mode” just 10 days before its final destination, briefly cutting out communications with Earth before reconnecting, NASA said in a statement. Investigators said the anomaly was caused by an operational glitch that will not compromise the quality of the mission. New Horizons was launched in 2006 and has already traveled 3.5 billion miles.

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “Now — with Pluto in our sights — we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

The New Horizons mission is expected to provide the first close-up observations and detailed measurements of the icy dwarf planet when it approaches Pluto at about 7:50 a.m. ET on July 14. To date, NASA said, only Voyager 2 has explored the far reaches of our solar system, though the spacecraft did not visit Pluto.

TIME space

The Philae Comet Could Be Home to Microbial Alien Life, Scientists Say

Certain features of the comet suggest microbes could be present under its surface

Two top astronomers say the comet that is now home to the Philae lander could also be inhabited by microbial alien life.

Several characteristics of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, such as its organic-rich black crust, are best explained by the presence of living organisms beneath its icy surface, reports The Guardian.

Astronomer and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe and his colleague Max Willis from the University of Cardiff believe comets like 67P could be home to microbes similar to “extremophiles,” which live in the most inhospitable parts of earth.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta craft, which is orbiting the comet, is also said to have picked up strange “clusters” of organic material that resemble viral particles.

UPDATE: Scientists have poured cold water on the claims by Willis and Wickramasinghe that 67P was likely hospitable to alien life.

[Guardian]

TIME Environment

Private-Island Owners Fret About Climate Change

Necker Island
Getty Images Necker Island

"We have 11 islands here and we'd like to keep it that way," David Copperfield says

No man is an island when it comes to climate change — even if he owns one.

Famed illusionist David Copperfield is among the few handfuls of A-list celebrities and billionaire businessmen who own private islands around the world. But he’s also part of an even more exclusive club: Island owners who say they are concerned about climate change and are making efforts to address its impacts.

“It’s something I’m extremely concerned about,” Copperfield, who owns Musha Cay and the Islands of Copperfield Bay, a private island resort off Great Exuma in the Bahamas, told NBC News. “We have 11 islands here and we’d like to keep it that way…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME space travel

Resupply Ship Reaches International Space Station After String of Failed Attempts

"Feels like Christmas in July," the astronauts said

A Russian resupply spacecraft docked on Sunday at the International Space Station (ISS), delivering long-awaited supplies to the crew after a string of failed attempts.

The unmanned Progress 60 cargo craft docked at 3:11 a.m. E.T. after taking off two days earlier from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA said in a statement. The spacecraft was carrying 106 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, 1,940 pounds of propellant and 3,133 pounds of spare parts. “Feels like Christmas in July,” the astronauts reported, though the crew had enough supplies to live and work safely aboard the ISS until October.

The success of Progress 60 came after a series of failed resupply attempts, including the explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket in late June and the burn-up of another Russian resupply spacecraft in May.

TIME Chemistry

Scientists’ Finding May Help Restore Fragrance to Roses

Sweet Smell of Roses
Matt Rourke—AP This file photo shows roses during preparations for the Philadelphia Flower Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia

A study of roses that do have a strong scent revealed a previously unknown chemical process in their petals

(NEW YORK) — Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In fact, many kinds of roses today have little fragrance. But a new discovery might change that.

A study of roses that do have a strong scent revealed a previously unknown chemical process in their petals. It’s key to their alluring odor.

Experts said the finding might let scientists restore a pleasing scent to rose varieties that have lost it because of breeding for traits like color or longevity.

French scientists identified a gene that’s far more active in a heavily scented kind of rose than in a type with little odor. This gene, which produces an enzyme, revealed the odor-producing process.

Results are reported in a study released Thursday by the journal Science.

TIME Crime

Scientist Who Faked HIV Vaccine Research Sentenced to Prison

Dong-Pyou Han AIDS research
Charlie Neibergall—AP In this July 1, 2014 file photo, former Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han leaves the federal courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa.

He was sentenced to more than 4 ½ years in prison

(DES MOINES, Iowa)—A former Iowa State University scientist who altered blood samples to make it appear he had achieved a breakthrough toward a potential vaccine against HIV was sentenced Wednesday to more than 4 ½ years in prison for making false statements in research reports.

Dong-Pyou Han, 58, also must pay $7.2 million to a federal government agency that funded the research. He entered a plea agreement in February admitting guilt to two counts of making false statements.

Government prosecutors said Han’s misconduct dates to 2008 when he worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland under professor Michael Cho, who was leading a team testing an experimental HIV vaccine on rabbits. Cho’s team began receiving NIH funding, and he soon reported the vaccine was causing rabbits to develop antibodies to HIV, which was considered a major breakthrough. Han said he initially accidentally mixed human blood with rabbit blood making the potential vaccine appear to increase an immune defense against HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Han continued to spike the results to avoid disappointing Cho, his mentor, after the scientific community became excited that the team could be on the verge of a vaccine.

Iowa State recruited Cho in 2009, and his team — including Han — continue the research with NIH funding. A group of researchers at Harvard University found in January 2013 the promising results had been achieved with rabbit blood spiked with human antibodies.

Han’s attorney Joseph Herrold, a federal public defender, asked for probation instead of prison.

“Here, there is little reason to believe that Dr. Han has not already been deterred from any future criminal conduct. His conduct is aberrational in an otherwise admirable life,” Herrold wrote in a sentencing report filed Monday. “He regrets the hurt he has caused to his friends and colleagues, the damage he has caused to government funded scientific research, and the pain he has caused any members of the public who had high hopes based on his falsehood.”

Herrold said Han has lost the ability to work in his field of choice and is likely to be deported by immigration officials “and possibly never permitted to return,” separating him from his wife and two adult children who are U.S. citizens. Han, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, is a lawful permanent U.S. resident.

Government prosecutors sought prison time to serve as a deterrent to Han and others who might consider research fraud.

“It is important that we stand up not just for punishing the fraud committed against the United States government, but for the research that should be legitimately taking place on this devastating disease,” U.S. Attorney Nicholas A. Klinefeldt said in a statement.

Judge James Gritzner sentenced Han to 57 months in prison and three years of supervision upon release. Han must repay the National Institutes of Health $7.2 million.

Cho’s team continues to work on the vaccine at ISU and has subsequently obtained funding.

TIME animals

Polar Bears May Die Off Unless Global Warming Is Reversed, Report Says

Polar Bear
Brian Battaile—AP In this June 15, 2014 file photo, a polar bear dries off after taking a swim in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

They rely on ice in the Arctic

(ANCHORAGE, Alaska)—Polar bears are at risk of dying off if humans don’t reverse the trend of global warming, a blunt U.S. government report filed Thursday said.

“The single most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a draft recovery plan, part of the process after the agency listed the species as threatened in 2008.

“Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.”

Halting Arctic warming will require global action, the report said. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, which is reducing the Arctic’s amount of summer sea ice.

Polar bears use sea ice for feeding, mating and giving birth. The Office of Naval Research said the past eight years have had the eight lowest amounts of summer sea ice on record.

The worldwide population of polar bears is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000 animals, and they live in five Arctic nations. Alaska is the only U.S. state with the iconic white bears.

Government scientists this week released another report that outlined two scenarios for polar bears through the year 2100: one in which greenhouse gas emissions stabilize and the other in which they continue unabated.

Under either scenario, the polar bear group that Alaska shares with Russia and Norway would be affected first. It could begin seeing the ill effects of global warming as soon as 2025, according to the study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department’s research arm.

Other bears that make up population groups in Canada and Greenland would be affected about 25 years later. Polar bears living in the high Canadian Arctic fared the best.

Besides global warming, the draft plan outlines other goals, including better management of subsistence harvests; deadly interactions with humans, which could increase as people move farther north in the Arctic; and protecting dens from humans and industrial activity.

Written comments on the plan will be accepted through Aug. 20.

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