TIME space

You Should Worry (a Little) About Falling Space Debris

Clean up your room: A NASA rendering of the low Earth orbit debris field
Clean up your room: A NASA rendering of the low Earth orbit debris field NASA/JSC

A satellite's fiery reentry over Melbourne is a reminder of the danger of putting too much junk in space

Australia knows a thing or two about getting clobbered by stuff from space. It was in 1979 that America’s out-of-control Skylab space station came auguring in from orbit and scattered its remains across the Australian outback—a story captured by this memorable TIME cover. On Thursday there was a repeat performance, when a truck-sized piece of debris from a Russian rocket streaked across the skies over Melbourne—this time in the era of smartphones, which meant that videos and stills of the fireworks went viral instantly, with all sorts of sky-is-falling commentary.

That, in fairness, is perfectly understandable. There’s no light show quite like an incoming meteor or other hunk of ordnance—equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, depending on the size of whatever’s heading earthward. But we really ought to get used to these events, because there’s no shortage of rubbish in space — and the cosmic junk yard is only growing.

It’s been nearly 60 years since Russia’s Sputnik satellite went into orbit, starting its brief life as the planet’s first artificial moon and ending it as its first bit of space garbage. The satellite itself wasn’t the only piece of rubbish that was involved. Its spent booster fell back toward Earth well before Sputnik reached orbit, but all manner of minor debris—bolts, paint chips and other shards of stuff—made it to space. In the six decades since, those early bits of litter have multiplied exponentially. According to NORAD, NASA and other groups that track space debris, there are at least 21,000 orbiting objects 10 cm (3 in.) or larger currently circling the Earth, at least 500,000 in the 1 to 10 cm range, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. The Union of Concerned Scientists lists 1,167 operational satellites now in orbit—and there may be at least as many dead ones.

All of them, eventually, will have to come home, and that gets people spooked, but it shouldn’t—at least not most of the time. First of all, most satellites will incinerate on their way down, though the bigger a piece of junk is and the denser the materials that make it up, the greater the chance it has of striking the surface. Still, fully 70% of that surface is water and most of the land that’s left is entirely uninhabited or only sparsely so. Yes, a burnt-out satellite falling earthward with central Shanghai in its crosshairs would create a deadly mess, but any one individual’s odds of getting hit (which, like it or not, is how most of us reckon these things) are very low.

NASA’s and NORAD’s continuous surveillance lowers that risk even further by modeling orbits and predicting just which pieces are coming in next, and some websites make it easy for the public to stay up-to-date too. The much greater risk from out of control satellites is not to people on Earth, but to other objects still in orbit. Even then though, collisions are less common than they’d seem. The biggest of the relatively small handful of errors in the blockbuster Gravity was (unfortunately) its central premise, which was that a collision between two satellites had created a high speed storm of debris that was racing around Earth in the same orbit as the shuttle and space station and pummeling both structures on each pass. But orbital physics make that impossible.

All objects in the same orbit move at the same speed, so a collision between them is no more likely than if all of the cars on a highway were moving at exactly 60 mph. The gap between any two would never widen or narrow at all. The moment an orbiting object increases its speed even a little, it climbs to a higher orbit, in the same way a lasso will strain to inscribe a wider circle—and will if you loosen your grip on the rope enough—when you spin it faster. When a satellite slows, it drops to a lower orbit. It’s in those orbital shifts that a collision risk exists.

There’s an even greater danger if two satellites orbiting at the same altitude but at different inclinations—say 23º and 56º above the equator—cross paths. Here the accident is more analogous to a westbound car running a stop sign and colliding with a northbound one in the intersection. Such an accident happened in 2009, when an active American satellite and a defunct Russian one crossed paths 500 miles (800 km) above Siberia.

Both of those ships were utterly demolished—which naturally led to a lot of nervous gulps about what would have happened if one of them had been carrying people, though the same regular satellite tracking that goes on every day would likely allow a crewed ship to take evasive action well in advance. Of greater concern is small debris, the kind that’s way too tiny to see but powerful enough to do real damage. The back-of-the-envelope calculation back in the Apollo days was that a chip of paint moving at orbital speed packs about as much of a wallop as a bowling ball moving at 60 mph (96 k/h), and those physics haven’t changed—and never will. Shielding on big-target structures like the space station helps reduce that risk, though nothing can eliminate it entirely.

Ultimately, the answer, as with any environmental issue on Earth, is for people to quit making such a mess of space and clean up what’s already there. But consider how often we actually follow that straightforward advice on Earth. So again: gulp.

TIME

A Stinky Compound May Protect Against Cell Damage, Study Finds

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Cream cheese Getty Images

The research is early, but the implications are big

Correction appended, July 14.

Scientists from the University of Exeter say that a compound found in the smell of rotten eggs and human flatulence might some day be useful in mitigating the cell damage responsible in part for certain diseases.

The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Medicinal Chemistry Communications, examined the impact of hydrogen sulfide gas—which humans produce in small amounts during digestion—on cells’ mitochondria. Although the gas is noxious in large doses, scientists found that cellular exposure to smaller amounts of the compound may prevent mitochondrial damage. This could have future implications in the prevention of strokes, arthritis, heart disease, among other things, the researchers say.

When disease stresses the body’s cells, the cells draw in enzymes to generate “minute quantities of hydrogen sulfide” that protects mitochondria, the scientists says. Mitochondria essentially act as generators for cells’ energy output, and protecting against mitochondrial damage is central to preventing certain diseases. We have exploited this natural process by making a compound, called AP39, which slowly delivers very small amounts of this gas specifically to the mitochondria,” University of Exeter Professor Matt Whiteman said in a statement. “Our results indicate that if stressed cells are treated with AP39, mitochondria are protected and cells stay alive.”

While this experiment was limited to cell exposure in a lab—as opposed to humans inhaling the scent of rotten eggs—the University of Exeter researchers say that they are “working toward advancing the research to a stage where it can be tested in humans.”

Dr. Mark Wood, another one of the Exeter researchers, went so far as to call the compound a “healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases” in a university press release.

This research is interesting but preliminary. While no conclusions can be made at this time, may this news let you wince just a little bit less the next time you’re assaulted by a rotten-egg smell.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly summarized the findings and implications of this study.

TIME space

Great Ball of Fire: Russian Space Trash Flies Over Australia

A ball of fiery space junk shoots over Australia and people think it's a meteor

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A fireball flew through the Australian sky Thursday night.

The object, approximately the size of a small truck, was debris from a Russian Soyuz rocket, CNN reports. The rocket was launched Tuesday from a base in Kazakhstan.

The fireball was traveling at about 18,000 mph when it flew over Australia, wowing people in Melbourne.Most who saw the fireball assumed it was a meteor, spawning the social media hashtag #meteor.

Even Melbourne’s Lord Mayor joined in by retweeting an image of the fireball.

@vanderpava: Awesome #meteor over #melbourne tonight!!! pic.twitter.com/eefkBT0xCY

Twitter user Katharine Nicholson was not so impressed tweeting, “so typical of that #meteor to go to Sydney & Melbourne, but snub #Adelaide.”

“What you are seeing in that fireball is it slowing down really fast. It’s belly-flopping on the world’s atmosphere at 18,000 miles an hour,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told CNN.

Fireballs are “not usually seen because most of the Earth is either ocean —or very sparsely inhabited. And of course, if it comes down in the daytime, you may not notice as easily,” McDowell said.

[CNN]

TIME Environment

Finland’s Capital Plans on Making Private-Car Ownership Obsolete in 10 Years

HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and
HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and 6 pass on the main street Mannerheimintie on Jan. 20, 2010, in Helsinki's city center. Olivier Morin—AFP/Getty Images

Are you paying attention, rest of world?

Finland’s capital, Helsinki, plans on revamping its entire transportation system by linking together several modes of shared transportation to potentially render private cars obsolete by 2025.

It might sound like a far-fetched project, but Sonja Heikkilä, a transportation engineer whose master thesis inspired the new model, says that young adults nowadays are more concerned about affordable and convenient commutes. “A car is no longer a status symbol for young people,” Heikkilä told the Helsinki Times.

Under the new system, city dwellers would be able to plan their journeys and pay fares ahead of time via their smartphones, which would aggregate several transportation options — like ferries, buses, trains, carpools, shared bikes and taxis — into one app, and come up with the most efficient route.

A report in the Guardian said the service would be like “popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required.”

The new system will be piloted this year in Helsinki’s Vallila neighborhood.

This isn’t the first time that the Finns have taken steps to create environmentally conscious transportation. Last year, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority rolled out Kutsuplus, an on-demand minibus system, which aggregates the destinations of everyone sharing the vehicle into the most efficient route, again using smartphones. The service works out to be more expensive than a regular bus but cheaper than a taxi.

The greatest challenge facing the new plan is making it accessible to all, given that it requires everyone to use a smartphone and be willing to pay higher prices than what they pay for current public transportation. Heikkilä also admits that it might be difficult for the older generation to give up their cars. “Change comes gradually,” she says.

TIME Environment

A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

The U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades—and much of that oil is being transported by railroads that travel through crowded cities

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When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!’” says Johnson.

But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

“Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.

TIME Innovation

IBM Risks $3 Billion to Stay Relevant in Chip Biz

The IBM logo is seen outside the company's offices in Petah Tikva
NIR ELIAS / Reuters

IBM says the money is designed to drive emerging research in carbon nano-electronics, silicon photonics, new memory technologies and quantum as well as cognitive computing.

IBM says it’ll drop $3 billion into a five-year bucket designed to help it shore up its research and early stage development programs. The idea, says IBM, is to generate new chip-related technologies that can power evolving cloud computing and “Big Data” systems.

The move comes as confidence in Moore’s Law — the more rule-of-thumb-than-law that says the number of transistors you can stick on a computer chip will double every two years, resulting in periodic increases in computing power — has been dwindling.

The money IBM’s spending will focus on several confidence-bolstering programs, the first of which targets “7 nanometer and beyond” silicon tech and the basic physics-related challenges governing size and production: the smaller silicon-based chips get, the harder they are to manufacture, and we’re currently approaching a physics-related size wall.

“The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?” IBM Research Senior VP John Kelly said in a press release, calling scaling to 7 nanometers or smaller “a terrific challenge.”

And that’s where IBM’s second research pole comes in, says the company, aimed at coming up with alternative ways to think about how chips are made in a post-silicon world. Think about Intel’s 22-nanometer 3-D tri-gate processors — still silicon-based, but employing a relatively radical design shift that allowed it to improve switching states dramatically and consume half the power of older 32-nanometer chips.

But as IBM notes, dropping to below 7 nanometers would require “a new kind of material to power the systems of the future.” Those alternatives? IBM lists carbon nanotubes (specialized cylindrical nano-structures), graphene (a pure form of carbon potentially superior to silicon), and III-V technologies (metal-oxide as opposed to silicon semiconductors), as well as neuromorphic computing, neurosynaptic computing and cognitive computing (systems that mimic the human brain or nervous system), silicon photonics (moving data with light), machine learning techniques (artificial intelligence) and of course, quantum computing.

IBM says its research teams will combine scientists and engineers from Albany and Yorktown, New York; Almaden, California and others in Europe. And to be clear, it says these aren’t brand new research areas — this is IBM channeling cash to existing programs that are already underway. In other words, it’s a confidence-bolstering move involving the B-word as much as anything.

TIME Science

Researchers Try to Save Huge U.S. Salamander

Rod Williams
In this June 18, 2014 photo, Rod Williams, a Purdue University associate professor of herpetology, holds a hellbender that he and a team of students collected in southern Indiana's Blue River near Corycon, Ind., during a survey of populations of the rare amphibian. Rick Callahan—AP

But hellbenders, which can grow two or more feet long, are facing troubles bigger than an image problem.

(CORYDON, Ind.) — With a long, slimy body and beady eyes, North America’s largest salamander wouldn’t top any cutest animal lists. The hellbender’s alien appearance and mysterious ways have earned the big amphibian a bad reputation and unflattering nicknames ranging from snot otter to devil dog.

But hellbenders, which can grow two or more feet long, are facing troubles bigger than an image problem. The aquatic creatures found only in swift-flowing, rocky rivers and streams are disappearing from large parts of the 16 states they inhabit.

The rare amphibians breathe almost entirely through their skin, making them a living barometer of water quality because of their sensitivity to silt and pollution, said Rod Williams, a Purdue University associate professor of herpetology who’s tracked Indiana’s hellbenders for nearly a decade.

“These are animals that live up to 30 years in the wild, so if you have populations declining, that alerts us that there could be a problem with the water quality,” he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an assessment of the eastern hellbender — one of two subspecies — to determine if it should be added to the federal endangered species list. The other subspecies, the Ozark hellbender, found only in Missouri and Arkansas, was declared endangered in 2011 after a 75 percent decline.

Such a designation could free up federal money to protect their habitat and aid in their recovery.

Hellbenders —the origin of the name isn’t known— have been present on this continent for at least 10 million years and are found in hill-county rivers and streams in the area stretching from New York to Missouri to North Carolina.

“There’s nothing else like them in North America,” said federal biologist Jeromy Applegate, who’s leading the eastern hellbender assessment.

The wrinkly green and brown animals have a protective slimy coating and a flattened head to help them slide between rocks, a rudder-like tail to propel them through currents and stubby legs and fingers for gripping rocks.

Scientists aren’t certain why the salamanders are disappearing. But dams have tamed some of the fast currents they prefer while sediment runoff from development has filled up the rocky nooks and crannies young hellbenders use for shelter. A fungus blamed for amphibian declines worldwide may also be a factor.

Researchers are urging landowners to plant trees and grasses along rivers to improve the water quality. They’re also raising young hellbenders to be released into the wild to bolster the population.

The St. Louis Zoo, in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Conservation, is raising about 3,000 young Ozark hellbenders from eggs. That’s more than twice the 1,200 Ozark hellbenders believed to still exist in the wild, said Trisha Crabill, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It buys us time to figure out and address the threats,” she said.

In Indiana, hellbenders once inhabited rivers and streams across much of the state’s southern half but are now found only in the Blue River basin in heavily forested hill country along the Ohio River.

Recently, Rod Williams, the Purdue scientist who surveys hellbenders, and his students fanned out across the Blue River near the town of Corydon to look for the nocturnal creatures, which hide out during daytime beneath large flat stones.

Six hours passed before they hit pay-dirt — a feisty 21-inch-long, 1 1/4-pound hellbender that contorted and opened its mouth repeatedly as it struggled to escape. Two team members took a blood sample and collected some of its slimy coating — the trait that earned hellbenders the nickname “snot otter” — before inserting a microchip beneath its skin for future monitoring.

Williams’ surveys have found adult hellbenders but no juveniles — the same worrisome trend seen in several other states.

Even in a few areas where hellbenders’ numbers appear to be stable, some locals wrongly believe they are poisonous or feed on young trout, when in fact crayfish account for almost all of the hellbenders’ diet. Anglers sometimes kill them on sight.

Wildlife officials are trying to educate the public about the harmless creatures.

“If nothing else, if people don’t appreciate the animal for itself, that it has value to the world, then it can serve as a messenger,” Crabill said. “It can tell us what’s going on in the river.”

TIME space travel

Watch: Astronauts Aboard ISS Answer Your Questions

What simple pleasures are missing up in space? A nice, warm shower, for starters

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Three of the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station spoke with TIME this week, via video downlink, to answer some of our readers’ questions on their daily lives 240 miles above Earth.

Watch this video clip for answers to everything–from what types of cameras these three use in space to get stunning shots like this one, to they really miss about the old home planet.

TIME video

Watch TIME.com Chat With the Crew of the International Space Station

A few minutes with 3 men putting in a very long day

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It’s awfully easy down here on Earth to forget about the International Space Station (ISS)—and that’s awfully hard to understand.

This remarkable feat of human engineering shouldn’t be ignored: a flying machine that measures 357 ft. (109 m), by 239 ft. (73 m), weighs nearly one million lbs. (420,000 kg) and has logged more than 80,000 orbits of the Earth since it began carrying crews in 2000.

Is this our Roman Coliseum? Our Pyramid of Giza? History will judge that, but in the contest for wonders of the world, the ISS at least makes the medal round.

On July 9, Time.com got a chance to talk via video downlink with three of the six astronauts aboard the ISS, who shared with us a little bit about their schedule, their work, what they miss on Earth—and about following the World Cup from 230 miles up in space.

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