TIME space

See Pictures of Philae Detaching From Rosetta

Philae as seen from Rosetta
The Philae lander shortly after separation from Rosetta, on Nov. 12, 2014. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA/EPA

Space probe landed on a speeding comet for the first time ever

A space probe landed on a speeding comet for the first time ever on Wednesday morning. More than a decade ago, Rosetta and a lander called Philae set off to find the commit 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency’s Philae lander separated from the Rosetta orbiter at 09:03 GMT on Tuesday and touched down on the speeding comet around 4:00 GMT.

Scientists hope that exploring the comet will answer questions about how planets are formed.

TIME space

Europe’s Philae Lander Makes Historic Touchdown on Comet

Marking the high point of a $1.3 billion, 10-year mission

After a suspense-packed, seven-hour descent, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander made an unprecedented touchdown on the surface of a comet Wednesday — marking the high point of a $1.3 billion, 10-year mission.

Cheers erupted as the confirming signals were received at from the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, at 11:03 a.m. ET. The signals took 28 minutes to travel at the speed of light over the 317 million miles (510 million km) between Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Earth.

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

Read next: See Pictures of Philae Detaching From Rosetta

TIME China

Experts Are Skeptical Over the U.S.-China Emissions Deal

People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing
People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing on Oct. 11, 2014 Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters

Meeting targets agreed on at the APEC summit requires Washington and Beijing to draw up and rigorously enforce unprecedented policies

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a breakthrough deal on Wednesday, aimed at reducing both nations’ colossal carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

During a press conference in Beijing, President Obama lauded the pact as a “historic breakthrough.” Likewise, in an editorial published in the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and China were “determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge.”

But now comes the hard part.

Under the deal, the U.S. must slash carbon emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and China must start reigning in its release of greenhouse gases nationwide. Based on the initiative, China needs to hit peak CO2 emissions by 2030.

In addition, China, which has long relied on coal to fuel its unprecedented economic growth, also promised to rapidly increase the country’s reliance on nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption. By 2030, Beijing is aiming to have 20% of the country’s energy needs supplied by zero-emission sources.

But to hit these targets, experts argue that both nations must now draw up and enforce unprecedented policies.

As Sam Roggeveen, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, pointed out in a blog post published on Wednesday, the U.S. will have to “double the pace of its carbon pollution reduction to meet the new target.” Domestic politics could easily put a brake on that.

In China, Roggeveen writes, “an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity” must be deployed by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today. Otherwise the goal can’t be met.

Even if the central government had an all-consuming drive to achieve this, economists say it must provide the proper economic incentives to local bureaucrats who are pivotal to executing policies on the ground.

“The feasibility of doing [this] depends on the local bureaucrats, so if the local bureaucrats resist then nothing can be done,” Xu Chenggang, professor who is a specialist in China’s economic development at the University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “[It doesn’t] matter how strong the leader is, to get things done really depends on incentives.”

Xu explains that China’s three decades of robust economic expansion were only possible because local officials were able to profit from the country’s rapid transformation into an industrial powerhouse. However, questions remain over whether there will be as much money to go around during a transition to a greener economy.

“In turns out it’s very, very difficult to find a scheme which is going to give local bureaucrats sufficient incentives to take care of their environment,” says Xu.

And even then, activists say the world’s two largest emitters of CO2 have yet to commit to the types of policies needed to reverse the effects of climate change.

“There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change,” says Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. “Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions.”

Still, others are hopeful that the historic announcement today will at the very least inject some momentum into the push to lower greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

“This is an important development, not so much because of the details,” explains Jim Falk, a visiting fellow at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo. “It states a desire by US and Chinese leaders to add serious momentum to a global agenda to cap and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

— With reporting by Per Liljas and Helen Regan

 

TIME Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Interstellar, Abe Lincoln and Respecting Science

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The host of the new Cosmos has some smart things to say about Hollywood and hard science—in 140 characters

You’ve probably never seen a movie with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That’s too bad, because now you have reason to wish you had. That, at least, is how I felt when I read the stream of Tweets Tyson sent out after he watched Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster that traffics in a lot of the same cosmological physics he tackles in his career as director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and host of the 21st-century update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The experience was a little like binge-watching the Syfy Channel with your smartest nerd friend. There were these, for example:

Then there was this, because your smartest nerd friend is no fool.

And then there was this, because that same nerd friend knows it’s high time science was made cool, fashionable and entirely gender-nonspecific.

Tyson stresses that he is an educator first, and a celebrity, public figure and commentator second, third and fourth. For that reason, he does not pretend to be a film critic.

“If you tell people you liked or didn’t like a movie, a fight immediately breaks out,” he told TIME in a phone conversation today. “I’m not a fighter. If a movie makes no pretense of being scientifically accurate, I like to point out the things they got right—like when Star Wars showed a planet with a double sunset. If a movie does make pretenses of accuracy, I feel it’s my responsibility to point out what they got wrong.”

Tyson didn’t find a lot to quarrel with in Interstellar scientifically—which has been the consensus among critics, whether they gave the movie a rave or a pan. But he was more struck by what the movie offers not just cosmologically, but culturally—beginning with those lead characters.

“You don’t have to look too far back in history for the Godzilla-type film in which the scientist is the one responsible for the problem, and he usually dies with his creation,” he says. “In this movie, the characters are all scientists, they all have fully fleshed-out personalities—as parents and children and spouses. It’s an important part of the story and it bodes well for this kind of movie in the future.”

The appeal of Interstellar also speaks to our primal—and improbable—fascination with cosmology. As I wrote in last week’s TIME cover story, the number of people on the planet who actually understand the physics that govern the universe is tiny; what’s more, that science has no direct impact on our lives day-to-day. And yet we can’t get enough of it. Compare that to equally complex fields like biology and medicine. Our health and very lives turn on those areas of study, but if you try to start a technical conversation about them, people go blank.

“I don’t think the fascination with cosmology necessarily begins with the science itself,” Tyson says. “I think it’s a primal fascination with exploration. Not every person has that urge—and that’s good. If we all did, humanity wouldn’t survive because a lot of explorers die. But I’m proud to be a member of a species in which there are enough explorers to lay out the terrain so that the people who follow don’t risk as much.”

There is, as well, something significant in the timing of Interstellar—which opened in the same week as the equally science-wise The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking. Both movies are thriving, but both are also being released into a culture that is increasingly awash in science denialism. We may gobble up what Hollywood offers us, but when it comes time to fund NASA or the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), or time to simply accept the truth of climate change, we turn into primitives, killing the funding we need and ignoring the dangers we face.

As I’ve written before, politicians are increasingly playing the “I’m not a scientist” card, wearing their lack of scientific credentials as both populist badge and political shield, allowing them to deny what the real scientists are telling them without actually saying so. But Tyson believes that this ruse may have run its course.

“There’s a limit to how much you can continue to deny science, and its close cousin technology, without feeling an impact on your wallet,” he says. “It’s enlightened investments in—and innovations derived from—science and technology that fuel economies. To cherry-pick science for your cultural, political or religious morés is to deny the role it’s played in enabling the wealth the country enjoys.”

And while expedience and cynicism are bipartisan scourges, there’s no denying that one party is guiltier of science denialism than the other—and, as Tyson points out in another Tweet, that party just got a whole lot stronger. There’s a certain irony in that.

“Go back 150 years or so,” he says. “That’s when Abe Lincoln established the NAS. It was meant to serve as a scientific advisory body for the betterment of the country—and it was created by a Republican. I don’t think any leader could get into trouble for saying ‘I may not be a scientist, but I’ve got advisers who are—and I’m going to listen to them.’”

Lincoln may have known nothing about the science in Interstellar or the problem of global warming, but he surely would have known enough to listen and learn. Let’s hope his 21st century heirs—of both parties—can learn to do the same.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME animals

You Always Knew Your Cat Was Half Wild But Now There’s Genetic Proof

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Paula Daniëlse—Getty Images/Flickr RM

That kitty curled up on your lap is only one genetic step away from jungle killer

A new study on house cats has found that our feline companions are actually only semi-domesticated.

People began domesticating cats around 9,000 years ago but DNA researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that house cats still have many of the same traits as their wild cousins. The fact that cats have retained the ability to hunt and survive effortlessly in the wild just underscores how little impact we humans have had on them.

Wes Warren, an associate professor of genomics at the university, told the Los Angeles Times, “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.”

That’s not to say humans haven’t had any influence on cats. We originally took them into our homes to hunt rodents and rewarded that behavior with food. According to researchers, this lead to eventual changes in a group of stem cells that resulted in more docile (but not fully domesticated) felines and produced colors and fur patterns that humans liked.

“Our results suggest that selection for docility, as a result of becoming accustomed to humans for food rewards, was most likely the major force that altered the first domesticated cat genomes,” researchers wrote.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Read next: Celebrate National Cat Day With the Most Ridiculous Cover in TIME History

TIME Biology

See 40 Mind-Blowing Images Captured Through a Microscope

In stunning detail not visible to the human eye, the winning entrants in Nikon's Small World photography competition will give you a fresh view of the world

TIME discoveries

How Garbage Kickstarted the Modern Chemical Industry

Accident leads to breakthrough

Throughout the history of science, some of the most important breakthroughs have come about through happy accidents. This certainly bears true in the video above, courtesy of the American Chemical Society, which explains how garbage kicked off the entire chemical industry.

TIME movies

Neil deGrasse Tyson Fact-Checked Interstellar

And it passed muster

Celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fact-checked Interstellar on Twitter last night, and he didn’t seem to have very many objections.

He also said some of the scientific renderings of life in space in and around black holes seemed possible, or at least plausible:

More: What Interstellar Got Right and Wrong About Science

If you’re not sure what he’s talking about, TIME’s very own Jeffrey Kluger also explained the science behind Interstellar in a bit more than 140 characters.

So does Neil deGrasse Tyson wish he got to explore the way Matthew McConaughey’s character did in the movie?

Um, no.

TIME space

The Ten-Year Journey to Land on a Comet

The first spacecraft to attempt such a daring maneuver could reveal secrets of the solar system

Traveling in space takes a lot of patience—but the wait is often worth it. That’s a fact the European Space Agency (ESA) is about to learn in a very big way.

On November 12, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will drop an oven-sized research vessel onto the surface of a comet where it will perform a variety of scientific experiments. The mission—the first of its kind—has been 10 years in the making. If successful, it could reveal secrets about the anatomy of comets, the formation of our solar system and perhaps even the origins of life. “What we believe is that we will study the most primitive material in the solar system,” says Dr. Gerhard Schwehm, who served as Rosetta’s mission manager at the ESA from 2011 until his retirement earlier this year.

Comets are considered the bones of the ancient solar system. Their long, elliptical orbits mean they spend most of their time in the deep freeze of space, far from the sun, which preserves their original composition. And their small mass means very weak gravity, which in turn means low gravitational pressure and heating—something else that messes with internal chemistry on larger bodies.

Rosetta’s target comet, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, known as 67P, resembles nothing so much as a 2.5-mile long (4 km) unshelled peanut, albeit one tearing through space at 11 miles per second (39,600 mph, or 63,730 k/h). It hails from a region called the Kuiper Belt, a band of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Unlike asteroids, comets contain a great deal of ice. As they approach the sun, some of that ice vaporizes into a cloudy atmosphere called a coma. When charged particles called solar wind hit the comet, the gas streams away, forming a blue ion tail.

A photo illustration of the Rosetta probe and Philae lander above the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. ESA/Getty Images

In the past three months, Rosetta has has been flying along beside 67P, taking numerous measurements of its chemistry, including the composition of its singularly unpleasant gasses. Gorgeous from a distance, the comet emits copious amounts of both ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which means that if you could smell it (and be thankful you can’t) you’d get a nose full of rotten eggs, horse stable and formaldehyde.

But the real fun and the real risk will start on when Rosetta releases its probe—dubbed Philae—to attempt its historic landing. The vehicles will separate at a distance of about 14 miles (22.5 km) above the comet. A 14-mi. plunge to the surface of the Earth would be over very quickly, but with 67P’s gentle gravity, Philae’s fall will take 7 hours. Once it makes contact with the comet’s surface, a thruster on its top will ignite for one minute to keep it from bouncing away, while two harpoons will anchor it to the ground.

Philae carries 10 scientific research tools to study the surface and interior of the comet, including a camera, a thermometer, and seismographs in its feet to listen to the cracks and pops within the core as the comet out-gasses. It also carries a drill to collect and analyze sub-surface samples. Even the harpoons have a research purpose, using sensors to detect the resistance of the ground they penetrate. All of this data may offer clues for the conditions—temperatures, pressures and other variables—in which the comet’s dust was originally formed.

“It shows the evolution of the universe,” says Schwehm.

And perhaps the evolution of biology too. It’s possible that water and the life-forming molecules within it arrived via comets that smashed into Earth billions of years ago. If there are commonalities between our oceans and the icy stuff on the comet—namely, organic compounds such as nucleic acids and amino acids—we can, as Schwehm says, “put pieces of the puzzle together.”

Throughout its stay on 67P, Philae will remain in constant contact with Rosetta, which will relay its transmissions the 317 million mi. (510 million km) back home, a journey that even at light speed takes 30 minutes. When they are on opposite sides of 67P, the two probes will transmit radio waves to each other through the body of the comet itself to study its internal structure.

Philae’s stay on 67P will be a short one. Once it is in place, a 64-hour countdown begins before the probe’s on-board battery runs down. Solar panels covering nearly every surface of Philae’s body can provide some juice, but the weak sunlight that bathes the probe at such great solar distances cannot keep it running in even a low-power mode for more than a few weeks.

That seems an awfully small payoff for the 10 years it took the spacecraft to arrive—a spiraling trip that included three fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars to pick up speed thanks to the planets’ gravity. But Rosetta has a longer life ahead of it after Philae dies, escorting 67P around the sun and observing its rate of water loss, surface temperatures, and the way its shape changes as it loses mass. It will keep that job up as long as it can, before accompanying the tiny world back to the distant solar system, and breaking contact with Earth forever.

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