TIME Opinion

Why Russia Won’t Catch Up in the Space Race

Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns
Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns Bill Ingalls/NASA; Getty Images

It takes a lot of things to run a successful space program, but petulance, anger and impulsiveness are not among them. That's a lesson Vladimir Putin has to learn.

It’s a hard fact of exploratory history that angry people don’t achieve much in space. You have to be patient when you design your rockets, steely-eyed when you launch them and utterly unflappable when you actually get where you’re going.

That stay-poised doctrine was conspicuously at work in the past few days, as two different space projects played out in two different parts of the world with two very different results. On Friday, Russia scrapped the launch of its new Angara rocket—a booster that has been in development since 1994 and has gone pretty much nowhere. Vladimir Putin was personally involved both in overseeing the launch and in authorizing the stand-down—a line of command that would seem awfully strange if it were President Obama on the horn with Cape Canaveral telling the pad engineers what they can launch and when they can launch it.

On Saturday, meantime, NASA successfully tested its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, a nifty piece of engineering that the space agency admittedly overhyped as a “flying saucer,” but that does kind of look like one and is actually a prototype of a new landing system for spacecraft going to Mars—a place NASA has been visiting with greater and greater frequency of late.

The U.S. and Russia were once the Castor and Pollux of space travel, cosmic twins that dazzled the world with their serial triumphs in the 1960s and ’70s, but they’ve gone in different directions since. America’s manned space program has been frustratingly adrift since the end of the Apollo era, but the shuttles did fly successfully 133 times (and failed disastrously twice) and new crewed spacecraft are in development. The unmanned program, meantime, has been a glorious success, with robot craft ranging across the solar system, to planets, moons, comets and asteroids—and one ship even exiting the solar system altogether.

And Russia? Not so much. The collapse of communism, the loss of Kazakhstan—which put the Baikonaur Cosmodrome, Russia’s Cape Canaveral, in an entirely different country—and hard economic times made space an unaffordable luxury. But now Russia is grimly trying to claw its way back—and the grimness is a problem.

The Angara launch was supposed to take place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, a new installation intended to re-centralize the space program, getting it out of Kazakhstan and back on home soil. It’s of a piece with a range of Russia’s actions lately, which have, much like the Angara, been more fizzle than flight.

Putin’s Crimean land grab seemed bold if larcenous for a moment, but the blowback has been severe and he’s already backing down from further actions, with his ambitions for a renewed Russian empire limited—for the moment at least—to a single Black Sea island with less square mileage than Massachusetts. His long dreamed-of economic union—announced with enormous fanfare in early June and intended to serve as a counterweight to the 28-member EU—turned out to be nothing more than a table for three, shared with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine initially RSVP’ed yes, but that was one revolution and one Russian invasion ago, and the new government is once again tilting west.

And so it will probably go with Russia in space. The original space race was no less political than anything Russia is doing today, but both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were operating from positions of strength, projecting their competing power over a sprawling region of client states and taking the duel to the cosmic high ground. Russia today—with Putin calling the shots on when a booster should be launched and the government issuing petulant threats to quit flying American astronauts to the International Space Station—is acting neither strong nor confident.

It is, instead, joining the long list of states that have dreamed of space but sought to power themselves more with rage than rocket fuel. And consider how far they’ve gotten. North Korea? Pathetic. Iran? Please. China? They’re doing great things now, but that only started when they climbed down from their revolutionary zeal and started focusing on the engineering and physics instead of the ideology and slogans.

Russia may once again become the cosmic pioneer it was—and space fans of good will are rooting for that. With the Cold War over, it matters less whether the first flag on Mars or the next one on the moon is the stars and stripes or the Russian tri-color or even the Chinese stars. As long as a human being is planting it, that will be good enough. So the door is always open, Russia. But please, leave the nasty outside before you come in.

TIME Environment

Watch: NASA Says U.S. Air Pollution Has Plummeted

The air we breathe is a bit better, new images show

Striking new images released by NASA this week show significant reductions in air pollution levels across the United States. In particular, at least one pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, has decreased substantially over the past decade.

After ten years in orbit, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite showed that the decrease is particularly prominent in the Northeast, the Ohio River Valley, and other major cities. For example, NASA reported a 32% decrease in New York City and a 42% decrease in Atlanta between the periods of 2005-2007 and 2009-2011.

Air pollution decreased even though population and the number of cars on the roads have increased, and the shift can be explained as a result of better regulations, technological improvements and economic shifts, scientists said.

“While our air quality has certainly improved over the last few decades, there is still work to do – ozone and particulate matter are still problems,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.



TIME Social Media

Facebook Totally Screwed With a Bunch of People in the Name of Science

Facebook Said to Plan IPO Filing for as Early as Coming Week
The Facebook Inc. logo is reflected in the eyeglasses of a user in San Francisco, Dec. 7, 2011. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you feel down on Facebook, it could have a lot to do with what your friends are posting

Did your Facebook News Feed seem a little too happy, or perhaps a little too depressing, for one week in January 2012? That may have been because researchers were experimenting with your News Feed to figure out more about how humans’ emotions work when we’re physically apart.

By tweaking the Facebook News Feed algorithm and studying nearly 700,000 Facebook users’ posts, Facebook’s data scientists and researchers found that emotional states can be transmitted between people without face-to-face interaction, according to a study published earlier this month.

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed over 3 million posts containing over 122 million words and used an algorithm to characterize the language as positive or negative. Facebook’s data team then adjusted the amount of positive or negative Facebook language users were exposed to on their News Feeds to see how they would react.

Researchers Adam Kramer, of Facebook; Jamie Guillory, of the University of California, San Francisco; and Jeffrey Hancock, of Cornell University, found that when users were exposed to fewer positive posts, they would themselves produce fewer positive posts and more negative posts. The reverse was true when they were exposed to fewer negative posts. In other words, verbal and textual cues have a big impact on our emotions, even if we don’t hear a person’s tone of voice or see their body language.

“These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods,” said the team in the study.

The data was analyzed by computers, so it’s not like a scientist was poring over your Facebook posts. And if you feel weirded out about Facebook looking at your posts without your consent — well, you’ve already given your consent. You just haven’t read Facebook’s privacy policy, which gives the company permission to carry out studies like these.

In any case, the next time you feel your mood changing while you’re on Facebook, it might have something to do with what your friends are posting.


TIME animals

75,000 Snakes Gathered in Most Terrifying Animal Meet-Up Ever

It's a mating ritual.

When we think of animal meet-ups, the image of corgis frolicking on a beach comes to mind:

A recent animal meet-up in Canada was the exact opposite of that. Every spring, the Narcisse Snake Dens of Manitoba, Canada hosts an event for 75,000 writhing snakes. Say hello to your waking nightmare:

According to National Geographic, the red-sided garter snakes flock to limestone caves for “mating balls.” What’s that? It’s an event in which:

Up to a hundred male snakes vie for a single female. She, in turn, “is desperately trying to get out of the pit,” said Colangelo, an environmental documentary photographer.

Disturbing on just about every level. We’ll stick to corgis in neckerchiefs, thanks.



Russian Rocket Launch Aborted Due To ‘Technical Issues’

The first launch of Russia's flagship Angara space rocket has been automatically stopped minutes before take-off

Russia has postponed Friday’s historic test launch of an Angara space rocket, Russia Today reports. The second attempt will take place Saturday.

The Defense Ministry said the launch was automatically stopped just moments before countdown. Reports from Russian space agency Roscosmos claim “technical issues” are to blame for the scrapped launch.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been due to watch the launch from the Kremlin via video link, reportedly told Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu: “Carefully analyze everything and report to me after an hour.” So far, no further details of the failure have emerged.

The Angara rocket, which has been in development since 1994, is Russia’s first new rocket design since the fall of the U.S.S.R. The program has already cost Russia over 100 billion rubles, or $3 billion.

Russia hopes the Angara rocket could revitalize Russia’s once-pioneering space industry, which has suffered several funding cuts.

The rocket was due to be launched from a base in Mirny, 500 miles north of Moscow. From there it would have traveled to a new spaceport in Kamchatka, a peninsula in Russia’s Far East, reaching it in an estimated 21 minutes.

[Russia Today]

TIME animals

Global Warming is Tough on Chickens Too, You Know

Getty Images

High temperatures are associated with sicker chickens. Researchers are using selective breeding to come up with a solution

May was Earth’s hottest month on record — and as the planet gets warmer, chickens are struggling to adapt. Their body temperatures rise, which leads to higher mortality rates and an increased risk of disease that may threaten global poultry supply in the next decades.

Enter geneticist Carl Schmidt and his team from the University of Delaware, who believe that reducing a chicken’s feather count — making it look bald, basically — will cool it down and reduce health risks.

“We’re going to be seeing heat waves that are both hotter and longer,” Schmidt told Modern Farmer. “And we need to learn how to mitigate the effect of climate change on animals — we need to figure out how to help them adapt to it.”

For three years, Schmidt and his team traveled throughout Uganda and Brazil to study birds with featherless necks and heads in the hopes of crossbreeding them with the feathered North American breeds.

Researchers stress that this is selective breeding, not genetic modification.

Schmidt and his team will spend the next two years analyzing the DNA of the bare-necked birds – however it’ll be much longer until crossbreeding actually takes place.

“It could take two decades of research before resulting in any actual chickens,” he said. But at least a start is being made in preserving a food source that can only become more important as the effects of climate change make themselves more broadly felt.

[Modern Farmer]

TIME psychology

New Retail Mantra: Customers are Scum

Retailers Hope For A Good Christmas Despite The Current Economic Gloom
A woman walks along Carnaby Street holding several shopping bags on December 6, 2011in London. Oli Scarff—Getty Images

The more you're made to feel unworthy of a product, the more you wind up wanting it

“When I went to Louis Vuitton, the sales girls were so [unfriendly]—I could not believe it. I was just dressed normally…and when I walked in [they] stared at me. It was like walking into a freezer, they were so cold toward me…”

That’s a quote from a discussion board on a fashion website. It’s also the introduction to a scholarly article in the June 25 Journal of Consumer Research, which argues that a common reaction to such treatment, is to lust even more passionately for a Louis Vuitton bag. “Our research,” say authors Morgan Ward, of Southern Methodist University, and Darren Dahl, of the University of British Columbia, in a press release, “highlights the fact that we are profoundly attuned to social threats and are driven to buy, wear, and use products from the very people who are disrespectful to us.”

The reason, they explain in “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand,” makes sense, in a somewhat appalling way: if someone acts like you’re not good enough to own a particular product (or belong to a particular country club or attend a particular college), you might just walk away in defeat. But you might try even harder to prove that yes, damn it, you are good enough. It might not work with the college or the country club, but you’re going to own that bag, even if you have to buy it online—as it turns out many consumers end up doing when they feel dissed in a brick-and-mortars store.

Some luxury retailers have evidently tried to democratize their salespeople, ordering them to be friendlier and more welcoming to the riff-raff who wander in. But given the results of the study, that may actually be bad for business. Treat customers like scum, and they’ll just buy more.




TIME space

Fine, You Reached Pluto. So What’s Next?

First stop, Pluto. It's an open ticket after that
First stop, Pluto. It's an open ticket after that Antonio M. Rosario; Getty Images

After a nine-year journey, it's a shame to let a perfectly good, $700 million spacecraft go to waste, so scientists are looking for a second world for it to visit

It will be a very big deal when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft finally arrives at Pluto next July, after a nine-year, four-billion-mile-plus journey. Sure, the tiny, icy world was demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” a few months after launch, but being shuffled ignominiously into a lesser category doesn’t make Pluto any less interesting. Once considered to be a weird little world orbiting alone at the edges of the Solar System, it’s now recognized as just the biggest member (more or less) of a huge swarm of frozen objects known collectively as the Kuiper Belt. A close look and a barrage of scientific measurements of Pluto and its moons could give astronomers all sorts of information about a totally unexplored part of the Sun’s immediate neighborhood.

But once you’ve spent $700 million on a space probe, it’s a shame to let it go idle after zipping past its prime target. All along, therefore, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, has been planning to visit a second Kuiper Belt object (or KBO) after the Pluto encounter. The problem: while planetary scientists are sure there are billions of KBO’s out there, they’ve only identified 1,500 or so over the past 22 years—and none of them is on New Horizons’ projected trajectory.

The problem is that KBO’s are so vanishingly faint that even the most powerful telescopes have trouble picking them out. In the last few years, Stern and his team have joined the hunt, hoping to increase the haul. “We started searching using very large ground-based telescopes like the Keck and the Subaru,” says Stern, “but it’s a very tough, state-of-the-art problem.” They’ve actually discovered more than 50 new KBO’s this way, but those too are nowhere along the route the space probe is flying. Statistically speaking, says Stern, “we need about twice that many overall to get one or two in the bag to choose from.”

That being the case, Stern and his team have been lobbying for time on the Hubble Space Telescope to try and pinpoint a likely target—and the telescope’s stingy Time Allocation Committee has finally said yes (they’re stingy by necessity, not meanness: the number of requests from astronomers for observing time is vastly more than the Hubble can handle).

Stern and his crew will now get 200 orbits of the Hubble, each lasting about 90 minutes, to search for New Horizons’ next stop. There’s a catch, though says Stern. “We get 40 orbits right off the bat, but we have to find at least two new objects in that time or they don’t give us the other 160.”

They have to do it soon, too. It’s pretty much impossible that there will be any KBO literally on New Horizons’ flight path, so the probe will have to fire its engines to adjust its trajectory slightly. “We have to fire right after Pluto,” says Stern, “and in order to do it accurately we have to track the new object for months to account for its orbit. We have to find the object by the end of the summer, more or less.”

Even with the Hubble, there’s no guarantee of success. “There’s no shortage of KBO’s,” says Stern. “But finding them is really, really difficult.” If they beat the end-of-summer deadline, though, scientists will have a second shot at trying to understand what goes on at the very edge of the Solar System, which will be a very good thing. It will likely be a long time before humanity comes out this way again.

TIME weather

Prepare for El Niño, UN Weather Agency Warns

United Nations weather agency tells governments to brace for the weather event, and the devastating droughts and floods it brings

There’s a real risk that weather event El Niño will occur before the year’s end, the U.N.’s weather agency has said.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued a statement saying there’s a 60% chance of El Niño occurring between June and August. This likelihood increases to 75-80% from October to December.

Many governments have already begun preparing for El Niño’s arrival, which can be devastating. The event starts as a body of warm water developing in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The water then flows towards the western coast of South America setting off a chain of weather events globally.

El Niño can result in droughts or floods in particular regions and usually has the overall effect of raising global temperatures, on top of man-made global warming. WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud commented: “We remain vulnerable to this force of nature but we can protect ourselves by being better prepared.”

Many governments are believed to have begun planning for El Niño. India is expected to experience weaker monsoons whilst Australia may suffer terrible droughts. South America, by contrast, usually falls victim to widespread floods.

Experts believe that the Pacific, which has already warmed to weak El Niño levels, will continue to increase in temperature over the coming months, peaking during the last quarter of 2014 and dissipating after the first few months of 2015.

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