TIME Science

One Astronaut’s Stunning Vine Shows a Huge Lightning Storm From Space

"A majestic performance that inspires awe and respect"

American astronaut Terry Virts posted a breathtaking Vine recently that showed a huge lightning storm as seen from the International Space Station. It’s the latest Vine that astronauts have been posting since they started using the app. “Massive lightning storm over India,” Virts wrote on Twitter. “A majestic performance that inspires awe and respect.”

Astronauts have recorded tons of fun footage during their time in space, including this fascinating video from Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who explained how exactly they use the bathroom in zero gravity.

Now that Virts, Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov will be in a space longer than anticipated, perhaps we’ll see more of these short clips soon.

TIME A Year In Space

Space Station Astronauts Stuck in the Departure Lounge

Before the fall: An unpiloted Progress spacecraft prepares to plunge into the atmosphere
NASA Before the fall: An unpiloted Progress spacecraft prepares to plunge into the atmosphere

A six-month tour of duty turns into seven, as a failed cargo ship scrambles schedules

Think you hate it when you miss a flight? Tell that to Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov. Since November, all three have had confirmed return seats booked aboard the same Soyuz spacecraft that carried them to the International Space Station (ISS) and has remained docked there ever since. They were set to come home this month, after a long half-year in orbit.

But scheduling is a tricky thing in the space flight business, especially when it comes to the ISS which, like any busy travel hub, must juggle a lot of incoming and outgoing vehicles. Some carry crew, some carry cargo—and all carry a high risk that something can go wrong. Something did go wrong in late April, when an unmanned Russian supply ship, the Progress 59, carrying 2.6 tons of goods—including oxygen, water, propellant, clothing, spare parts and spacewalk hardware—spun out of control after reaching orbit. That made it impossible for the ship to dock with the ISS, and a few days later, the Russian and American space agencies agreed the cause was lost. On May 7, all 24 ft. (7 m) and 21,000 lbs. (9,500 kg) of spacecraft and cargo tumbled back into the atmosphere and incinerated.

That had knock-on effects. Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov, the crew for what’s known as Expedition 42, were to leave behind the newly arrived Expedition 43—Gennady Padalka and year-in-space marathoners Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko—and be replaced by the three person Expedition 44 crew before the end of the month. But a new crew requires a freshly provisioned station, and sending Expedition 42 home on schedule would have left ISS short-handed for too long before a new Progress ship could be readied for launch.

MORE: Watch The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

“The ISS partners prefer to keep crew handovers, or the time when only three crew are onboard, short so we can maximize the important science and research we’re conducting on the orbiting laboratory,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said in an e-mail to TIME.

The plan now is for Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov to wait at least until early June to come home. A new Progress will follow in early July and the Expedition 44 crew will launch in late July.

That, however, depends on the Progress line of spacecraft being declared fit to fly, and the language of NASA’s press release raised some red flags, hinting, perhaps inadvertently, that there might be something more troubling going on than just a one-off malfunction in a single ship. “The partner agencies agreed to adjust the schedule after hearing the Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) preliminary findings on the recent loss of the Progress,” the release said, without saying just what Roscosmos had revealed. More information, NASA said, would not be forthcoming until May 22. Neither NASA nor Roscosmos have responded to an e-mail from TIME requesting clarification.

None of this represents anything like an emergency. The station is fully supplied with essentials that can last at least until the fall, and there is no shortage of work to keep all six crewmembers busy while Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov await their lift home.

This past week, Virts and Kelly completed upgrades on the station’s carbon dioxide scrubbers—the system that removes waste gas from the cabin atmosphere and keeps it breathable. They have also been working with Cristoforetti to stow scientific samples and other equipment aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo craft, which arrived at the station on April 17 with 4,300 lbs (1,950 kg) of food and supplies and will undock and come home on May 21. Unlike Progress vehicles, which are designed to burn up on reentry, Dragons splash down intact, making them suitable for two-way cargo (and eventually crew) runs.

If Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov are disappointed at the postponed homecoming—and how could they not be when it’s been six months since they’ve eaten a steak, tasted a beer or felt anything other than a fan-driven, climate-controlled breeze on their faces—they wouldn’t let on publicly. That’s not in the nature of ISS crews who sign on for long hauls with always-conditional return dates.

They might also spare a thought for crewmates Kelly and Kornienko. When the two of them—who have been on board since March 29—reach the six-month mark in their mission, they’ll still have another whole six to go. It’s not just on Earth that no matter how sorry you feel for yourself, there’s always someone who’s got things a little harder.

TIME Research

This Fish Can Make Its Own Sunscreen

A new study shows many animals can make their own sunscreen, which could help humans down the line

Many animals, especially marine animals like zebrafish and sea urchin as well as some birds, can create their own sunlight protection compound, according to a new study. It may one day be possible to use this process to create a better method of sun protection for humans.

In a new study published in the journal eLife, Oregon State University researchers show that zebrafish can produce a compound called gadusol which protects them from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Even in the deep blue sea, marine animals can be exposed to sunlight. The researchers looked at how the zebrafish produced gadusol and were able to reproduce the process in yeast. The hope is that one day the science could lead the production of a pill or an ingredient added to cosmetics that would provide the same benefit for humans.

Their study reveals what the researchers call the “unexpected discovery” that fish can produce gadusol themselves, while previously it was believed that the compound was obtained through their diet. They found that the same pathways for synthesizing gadusol is present in other animals like birds and reptiles.

Humans don’t have the same genes that encode for the production of gadusol, but since the process can be replicated in yeast it’s possible that the science could eventually lead the creation of an ingredient that could provide humans with extra sun protection.

TIME documentaries

Adrian Grenier Says His Quest for the Lonely Whale is a Lot Like Moby Dick

Actor Adrian Grenier at Lord & Taylor on May 11, 2015 in New York City.
Taylor Hill—etty Images Actor Adrian Grenier at Lord & Taylor on May 11, 2015 in New York City.

It sounds like a children’s nursery tale; a single whale roams the ocean calling out at a unique frequency, looking for friends but finding none. Scientists have spent decades trying to trace the mammal but though its strange haunting call has been heard frequently since 1989, it’s never been found.

Entourage star Adrian Grenier and filmmaker Josh Zeman are leading the latest attempt to find the ‘lonely whale’ on a mission partially funded by Leonardo DiCaprio. Their ship will leave California this fall and sail for 20 days, 400 miles off the Pacific Coast. The crew will use equipment used to track submarines and the expedition will be overseen by marine biologists. Grenier and Zeman hope they will find the ‘lonely whale’ but even if they don’t they will come back with a documentary about the search and the lives of whales.

Grenier tells TIME that they hope to locate the whale to find out why it has been searching for other whales for such a long time. “We are looking to connect with him so as to better understand what he has to say, not only about the plight of whales as they fight to survive ocean noise pollution, but also what he has to say about us and our humanity and ability to connect with nature,” he says.

Herman Melville published his novel on the search for an elusive whale, Moby Dick, in 1851. Grenier sees similarities. “Lonely whale has that kind of adventure, I suppose,” he says. “A lot like Moby Dick, but, it is not like Moby Dick in that we are not hunting this whale.”

The Lonely Whale was first discovered by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts in 1989. Scientists noticed it had a unique call at a much higher frequency than other whales at 52 hertz (Hz), compared to 20Hz for the Fin Whale or 10-39 Hz for a Blue Whale. The whale — nicknamed 52Hz — was heard again in 1990 and 1991 and every year since 2004. Many scientists believe it is the only whale emitting that particular sound.

52Hz also moves in unique patterns around the seas, like blue whales but at times of the year associated with the fin whale. It can be heard in the Pacific Ocean between August and December and then travels as far north as the Aleutian and Kodiak Islands and as far south as the California coast.

Zeman first heard about the whale at an artists’ colony where it inspired a play and a piece of sculpture. Zeman returned home and started researching the lonely whale. “I was like ‘that’s my story!’ but fine,” says Zeman. “I went to the web and that’s when it all came together. I found 40-year-old men, 16-year-old girls, all inspired by this story of the whale. Everyone loves whales. Not only is the whale so big, it’s also so gentle. Those two things make us step back. There aren’t many creatures out there that we are in awe of.”

Zeman discussed it with producer Lucy Cooper who convinced Grenier to take an interest. The trio used Kickstarter to fund the quest and in March 2015, it closed with more than $400,000 raised, including $50,000 from DiCaprio.

“There are so many things that make it a ‘sticky story’,” says Zeman, who’s currently working on pre-production of the film. “The idea of loneliness and calling out; the human existential crisis of reaching out and never being heard.”

But is the whale really ‘lonely’? Some are sceptical that the whale is really alone at all. According to John Hildebrand, a professor at the Scripps Institution Of Oceanography in California, the whale’s call has been gradually deepening. Its call could be now around 47Hz and this has been been observed in other blue whales around the world which suggests it is unusual but not unique.

Grenier and the team want to examine whether man-made ocean noise might have caused 52Hz to be separated from its school or family. “We’re driving cetaceans crazy,” says Zeman. “Think how sensitive you are. I know people in New York City who are literally driven crazy by their neighbours and such noise. We do the same to these animals day in and day out, every second of every day.”

How will Zeman feel if he sets eyes on 52Hz? “I’ve thought about how I’ll feel many times. I think I’ve rationalised not finding him because we’re searching for something we really don’t have that great a chance of finding. It’s not 100%,” he says. “The story isn’t about is finding this whale, it’s about how this whale has already found us.”

TIME Environment

This Hormone Seems to Be Changing The Sex of Fish in U.S. Rivers

The hormone is used in the raising of cattle, but finds its way to rivers and streams

A chemical compound used to stimulate weight gain in cows may be contaminating aquatic ecosystems in the United States and disrupting the reproductive processes of fish, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications.

Cattle farmers have been using the chemical compound trenbolone acetate (TBA) for decades. The hormone has a potentially toxic byproduct, 17-alpha-trenbolone, but earlier research had seemed to show that the chemical breaks down and becomes harmless when exposed to sunlight. But it turns out that when the chemicals wind up in rivers and streams, they transform back into 17-alpha-trenbolone when it gets dark, according to new Nature Communications study.

“As goes the compound, [so] goes the risk. In the sunlight the compound goes away, therefore the risk has also gone away,” said lead study author Adam Ward, assistant professor at Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “What our study shows is that chemically that’s not true.”

Read More: Rare Cancer Discovered in Pennsylvania Smallmouth Bass

The full extent of the damage that may be caused by the hormone isn’t entirely clear. The hormone 17-alpha-trenbolone leaves cows through their manure and moves into rivers, streams and other bodies of water where it can disturb fish and other water dwellers. The hormone resembles testosterone in its effects, but it’s ten times as strong. It also has been shown to reverse the sex of fish and reduce their rates of reproduction. “We’re releasing this into the environment at levels that are potentially problematic for the ecosystem,” said Ward. “If you’re an amphibian, a fish, a minnow, you spend your whole life being bathed in this sort of low dose of testosterone.”

The implications of the research challenge the way regulators approach risk management in water systems, Ward said. Typical water management programs assess the risk that individual substances pose to the water supply. Managing 17-alpha-trenbolone and all of its related compounds requires considering “potency of mixtures,” Ward said, not just the potency of individual compounds. And trenbolone acetate is far from the only endocrine disruptor affecting aquatic life in lakes and streams across the country, according to research from the U.S. Geological Survey. Vinclozolin, a fungicide, and insecticides like DDT and carbaryl have also led to similar changes.

“The prevailing wisdom on risk management is incomplete,” he said. “We’ve got tens of thousands of compounds that we produce and use in this country every year, but we don’t know what happens to them into the environment in complicated systems.”

TIME space

Watch This Astronaut Explain Space Toilets

"For number two, the principle is… suction"

Ever wondered how astronauts go to the bathroom in space? You’re in luck: Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti gives a tour of the International Space Station bathroom in a new video shared by the European Space Agency.

Watch as Cristoforetti, an Italian national who’s returning to Earth this week, explains how to use the high-tech zero gravity toilet — and how the crew’s urine is converted into drinking water.

TIME Sex/Relationships

The Science of How Women Can Have Twins With 2 Different Fathers

It's rare, but not impossible

Paternity tests usually give a straightforward answer—a man either is or isn’t the father. But, for a woman in New Jersey suing for child support, things are a little more complicated. It turns out the man she thought was the father of her twins was only the father of one of the pair.

That result is rare—so rare that the condition has the improbable name “superfecundation.” But it turns out a lot of things can happen when it comes to birthing multiple children at the same time. Here are the different types of multiple births:

Superfecundation twins: When a woman has intercourse with two different men in a short period of time while ovulating, it’s possible for both men to impregnate her separately. In this case, two different sperm impregnate two different eggs. This is what happened to the woman in New Jersey. One child was the product of her relationship with the man she brought to court, and the other child was conceived during a separate encounter with another man. While this phenomenon is rare, research suggests it does happen from time to time. A 1992 study found that superfecundation twins were at the root of more than 2% of paternity suits in the United States involving twins.

Fraternal twins (50% shared genetics): Fraternal twins result when two separate sperm fertilize two separate eggs. Both babies are a mix of the mother and father, but they don’t share the exact same genetics.

Polar body twins (75% shared genetics): You might think of polar body twins as half-identical twins. They occur when an egg divides in two during ovulation, creating a primary body and a polar body, both of which have the same genetics. In most cases, the polar body, which has less cytoplasm, will die off, but in some cases both the primary body and the polar body will be fertilized by separate sperm creating twins with identical genetics from the mother and different genetics from the father. While the theory of polar twinning makes sense from a scientific perspective, there’s some disagreement among scientists about whether polar twinning actually occurs in the real world.

Identical twins (100% shared genetics): Identical twins result when a single sperm fertilizes a single egg and the resulting cell then divides in two. The two bodies, soon to be babies, share the same genetics and look the same.

Things can get complicated when you start dealing with triplets, quintuplets, and even bigger single-pregnancy broods. For instance, a mother having triplets could have identical twins from the same egg and a third child from an entirely different egg and sperm. Once you start to mix and match like that, the possible combinations—to say nothing of the dynamics of the playroom—can get very complex.

TIME Infectious Disease

Scientists Find a Way to Predict West Nile Outbreaks

mosquito-human-skin
Getty Images

Outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease correspond to climate

Scientists have discovered connections between weather conditions and incidence of West Nile virus disease in the U.S., which may pave the way for better outbreak prediction.

The findings, which were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, reveal that U.S. West Nile virus outbreaks occur at a higher incidence when temperatures in the previous year were above average. Rain can also influence outbreaks in different regions.

The researchers, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), say the weather may influence the breeding patterns of the mosquitoes that spread the virus. The weather may also be impacting other carriers of the disease, like birds.

The researchers say that if it’s possible to create an accurate prediction system, it will be easier to alert the public of outbreaks before they happen.

West Nile is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the U.S. The vast majority of infected people have no symptoms, though about 1 in 5 will develop a fever and other other symptoms like headache and vomiting. In very rare cases—less than 1%—people develop neurologic illness. Currently there is no vaccine or treatment.

To reach the findings, the researchers conducted an analysis of how weather impacts the disease in counties nationwide from 2004 to 2012. They tracked reports of illness as well as weather-related factors like precipitation and temperature. In the Northeast and Southeast, for example, when there was an annual temperature increase of 1.8° Fahrenheit above the 2004-2012 average, there was a fivefold spike in the likelihood that there would be a larger-than-usual West Nile outbreak.

MORE: You Asked: Why Do Mosquitoes Always Bite Me?

The scientists saw some interesting differences in links with precipitation across the country. The data showed that in the East, a fall and spring that were drier than normal were linked to an above-average number of West Nile outbreaks. But the opposite was true in the West. Wetter-than-average seasons meant more West Nile.

“We’re still many steps away from implementation, but I could envision CDC using a West Nile virus forecast to put out alerts for different regions of the country at the beginning of the summer so that people are aware of the potentially heightened risk and would be more likely to wear mosquito repellent or long sleeves when they’re outside,” says study author Micah Hahn, a scientist with both NCAR and CDC.

Hahn says mosquito control agencies could also use such a forecast to make decisions about how many seasonal workers to hire or implementation of mosquito control.

“If we can predict West Nile virus outbreaks, we can target public health messages to high risk regions of the country,” says Hahn. “Counties will have additional information to use for deciding when, where and if they should do mosquito control.”

Such a tool could be becoming increasingly necessary. “Our study does not assess the impact of climate change on West Nile virus,” says Hahn. “That said, as a scientist studying climate and vector-borne diseases, I can say that we expect to see changes in weather extremes, more heavy rainfall events or more droughts, for example, as the climate continues to change, which may influence the distribution, abundance, and infection rate of mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus.”

TIME animals

Rare Cancer Discovered in Pennsylvania Smallmouth Bass

A smallmouth bass fish
Joel Sartore—National Geographic/Getty Images A smallmouth bass fish, Genoa, Wisconsin .

It's the first confirmed case of its kind in the Susquehanna River

A rare cancerous tumor was discovered on a smallmouth bass pulled out of the Susquehanna River.

The fish was caught last year, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission confirmed the case this week. Fish are not particularly susceptible to cancer, and it’s the first such case in the species in that location, though fish were previously found with sores and lesions, the Washington Post reports.

The disease may be the result of pollution, and officials want the river to be included on the EPA’s list of “impaired waterways.” The EPA, however, says it bases that list on water quality, not the health of species living there.

A Pennsylvania Department of Health official said that consuming fish with cancer should not pose a risk to humans, but urged fishers not to eat those with sores and lesions.

[Washington Post]

TIME climate change

How the California Drought Is Increasing the Potential for Devastating Wildfires

Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.
James Quigg—AP Firefighters battle a wildfire in The Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville Calif., March 31, 2015.

Forest Service anticipates spending more than $1 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 fires to fight forest fires this season.

California’s four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.

“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.”

In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report.

Widespread tree death can be described as a 20-year “sequence of flammability,” Covington said. First, dead needles on pine trees dry up and start a period of “extreme fire danger.” When the needles fall to the ground, they remain extremely vulnerable to catching fire but are less likely to spread. Finally, over the years, the trees fall to the ground. If they catch fire, have the potential to destroy the surrounding soil and destabilize the habitat.

Other factors contributing forest fire risk include an increase in the presence of various invasive species that wreck havoc on the local environment and poorly located hazardous fuels.

When the Forest Service isn’t focused on fighting wild fires, agency officials spend time and resources trying to prevent the possibility of future fires through ecological restoration, a process of restoring an ecosystem to its natural state. The process doesn’t prevent fires, but it makes them less likely to grow to massive proportions.

Forest Service workers have treated more than 9,300 acres thus far this year, but Covington says it’s not enough. Ecological restoration projects should aim to handle hundreds of thousands or millions of acres to be most effective, he says.

“The science strong is on this,” Covington said. “Ecological restoration will not only prevent severe fires, but all bring in the way of resource benefits for wildlife, for watershed conditions, for scenic beauty and even possibly some restoration jobs.”

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