TIME desalination

This Plant in Dubai Makes Half a Billion Gallons of Fresh Water a Day

With 1.8 billion people projected to live in areas afflected by water scarcity by 2025, TIME visits the Jebel Ali plant in the United Arab Emirates where ocean desalination is getting a fresh look.

It’s in your clothes and your food, the appliances in your home and the electricity that powers them. It’s in television and the Internet and the air. It’s in us—or more precisely, we’re it, given that about 60% of our bodies is made of it. To call water the basis of life doesn’t give credit enough, yet we often treat it like an afterthought. Until it’s gone.

Already 1.2 billion people, nearly a sixth of the world’s population, live in areas afflicted by water scarcity, and that figure could grow to 1.8 billion by 2025. Globally, the rate of water withdrawal—water diverted from an existing surface or underground source—increased at more than twice the rate of global population growth over the past century. Climate change could intensify desertification in already dry parts of the planet. The world is projected to hold 9 billion people or more by 2050—and they’ll all be thirsty.

So in 2015 and beyond, the challenge of water scarcity will only grow, which could lead to global instability. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Efficiency can stretch existing supplies (in the U.S., overall water use has fallen even as the population has grown). And an old technology, ocean desalination, is getting a fresh look as high-tech plants churn out millions of gallons of freshwater a day. The Jebel Ali plant in the United Arab Emirates, shown in this photo essay, can produce 564 million gallons (2.13 billion L) of water a day from the sea, a sign of the sheer scale that may be needed in a drier future. The truth is that we can do anything with water—except go on without it.

TIME enivronment

You Can Now Buy a House Made of Straw in the U.K.

Don't be surprised if the Big Bad Wolf comes calling

Straw homes went on sale to the general public this week in the southwest English city of Bristol.

The environmentally friendly homes use prefabricated timber-framed walls that are packed with straw bales, according to the BBC.

The sustainable design — by researchers at England’s University of Bath, together with architecture firm ModCell — has been refined through structural, weight-bearing and thermal-insulation tests.

“I think there’s a lot of misconception about using straw — stories about the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, concerns about fire resistance,” Professor Pete Walker told the BBC.

Researchers say it is a robust and safe construction material, boasting several environmental advantages such as insulation efficiency. Straw homes lose far less heat than a traditional home and can reduce energy bills by up to 90%.

“The more we can build out of renewable materials like straw and timber, the less carbon will be in the atmosphere, so we can reduce climate-change effects,” said ModCell director Craig White.


TIME space

SpaceX Launch Canceled Over High Winds

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket at launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb. 10, 2015.
John Raoux—AP A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket at launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb. 10, 2015.

The second foiled attempt in three days

Dangerously high wind kept a deep-space observatory grounded Tuesday and put off a radically new landing test of the booster rocket.

SpaceX called off its sunset launch with just 12 minutes remaining in the countdown because of gusts of 115 mph several miles up — strong enough to damage the rocket in flight.

It was the private company’s second attempt in three days to launch the spacecraft first envisioned by former Vice President Al Gore and resuscitated by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force.

Last-minute radar trouble foiled Sunday’s launch effort, then SpaceX skipped Monday because of heavy rain.

“Extreme wind shear over Cape Canaveral,” SpaceX’s founder and chief executive Elon Musk warned via Twitter a few hours before Tuesday’s try. “Feels like a sledgehammer when supersonic in the vertical. Hoping it changes.”

It didn’t, and SpaceX decided it was too risky to fly.

SpaceX must launch the observatory by Wednesday or face a delay until Feb. 20. The moon — lunar gravity to be more precise — would be in the way of the spacecraft during that eight-day blackout.

Excellent weather was forecast for Wednesday’s 6:03 p.m. try.

Also on tap will be a bid by SpaceX to land its leftover first-stage booster on an ocean platform. Last month’s inaugural test ended in flames after the launch of a supply run to the International Space Station.

The unmanned cargo ship, Dragon, coincidentally, was scheduled to return home Tuesday.

Loaded with science samples, bad spacesuit parts and other broken equipment, the Dragon departed the space station four hours before the Falcon’s planned liftoff. Splashdown was set to occur in the Pacific off the Southern California coast 1½ hours after the scuttled launch.

Once aloft, the observatory, dubbed DSCOVR, will fly to a point 1 million miles from Earth in direct line with the sun to watch for incoming geomagnetic storms that could trigger power outages on Earth. This so-called Lagrange point, located 92 million miles from the sun, would provide as much as a one-hour lead time to prepare for potentially disruptive solar outbursts.

In addition, DSCOVR will provide a steady stream of pictures of the entire sunlit side of Earth. It was Gore’s idea in 1998 to provide continuous views of Earth from afar that led to this space weather satellite. There was no immediate confirmation as to whether Gore returned for the launch attempt Tuesday as expected

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said from Washington that there hasn’t been a full, sunlit picture of the Earth since Apollo 17 in 1972 — NASA’s last manned moon-landing mission. Subsequent images have been stitched together, he noted, for composite shots.

The $340 million DSCOVR mission began as Gore’s Triana, named after the lookout who first spotted land on Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. It was canceled for political reasons, however, and the spacecraft put in storage in 2001. NASA and NOAA resurrected it several years later and made the sun its primary mission, with Earth-gazing a secondary objective.

In a repeat of a ground-breaking experiment, SpaceX will fly its leftover first-stage booster to a platform floating 370 miles off the Florida coast. Last month’s test came close, but ultimately failed; the booster ran out of hydraulic fluid for the guidance fins, landed hard and tumbled into the Atlantic in flames.

SpaceX added extra hydraulic fluid for this second test, intended to demonstrate money-saving rocket reusability. But company officials warned the booster would be coming in faster this time from about 80 miles up, making it harder to nail the vertical touchdown. The odds of success remained no better than 50-50, officials said.

Musk intends to land boosters back on firm soil, once the operation is perfected. On Tuesday, officials at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station announced that SpaceX will lease a launch complex once used to shoot off Atlas missiles, and convert it into its first-ever booster-landing pad.

“It’s a whole new world,” Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said in a statement.

TIME space

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Finally Makes It Into Space

SpaceX successfully launched its first deep-space mission Wednesday evening, after two aborted launches in recent days.

The company’s Falcon 9 rocket deployed a satellite that will eventually take up position almost a million miles from Earth, where it will watch for incoming solar storms.

Founder Elon Musk hopes to land the Falcon on a floating barge off the Florida coast. SpaceX’s previous attempt to make that soft landing, which could dramatically reduce rocket launches’ cost, ended in a fiery crash.

TIME space travel

Neil Armstrong’s Widow Discovers Bag of Lunar Landing Souvenirs

30th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Mission
NASA/Getty Images Astronaut Neil Armstrong smiles inside the Lunar Module on July 20, 1969.

One giant leap for the National Air and Space Museum's collection

Neil Armstrong’s widow recently discovered a white purse in the closet of her Cincinnati home, specially designed for space flight and packed with souvenirs from Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969.

Carol Armstrong reported the historic find to the National Air and Space Museum, which unveiled new details about the bag’s contents in a blog post this week. Among the 20 items Armstrong stowed in the bag was the original 16 mm movie camera he used to record the first steps on the moon, an emergency wrench, a power cable and a helmet strap.

“Odds and ends,” he called them in a transmission to mission control, but for a curator at Air and Space Museum, the items took on a more significant meaning decades later. “It is hard to imagine anything more exciting,” wrote Allan Needell of the museum’s Space History Department.

Read next: Hubble Telescope Spots an Emoticon in Outer Space

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

The U.S. Government Is Spending $3.2 Million to Save This Butterfly

One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbo
Marty Melville—AFP/Getty Images One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbolizing the 185 people who lost their lives in the Feb. 22 earthquake is seen after its release by Christchurch youths at a remembrance service in Hagley Park in Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2012, one year after a 6.3 quake hit New Zealand's second largest city

The monarch butterfly's breeding grounds have been threatened in recent years

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has pledged $3.2 million to protect the iconic monarch butterfly, which has seen a 90% drop in its population in recent years.

Of that money, $2 million will go to restoring 200,000 acres of the butterfly’s natural habitat between California and the Midwest, PBS reports. The rest will establish a conservation fund that will award grants to landowners who will work toward conserving areas home to the milkweed plant, on which monarchs exclusively lay their eggs.

“It is weed control that is driving eradication of the milkweed plant,” FWS director Dan Ashe said at a press conference Monday. Conservation efforts will focus on a part of the U.S. between Texas and Minnesota, through which the butterflies migrate annually.

The federal government is currently in the middle of a one-year review of whether the monarch butterfly deserves to be classified under the Endangered Species Act, which would grant it further protections.


TIME space

Hubble Telescope Spots an Emoticon in Outer Space

A smiling lens
Hubble/ESA/NASA Galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849

It's actually a cluster of galaxies

In the center of this Hubble Telescope image is the galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 — and it appears to be smiling back at you.

The two orange eyes of the grinning face are actually two distant galaxies, and the peculiar smile was caused by an effect known as strong gravitational lensing.

Galaxy clusters are so large that they can create a strong gravitational pull that warps the time and space surrounding them. From afar this creates a distorted view of reality, known as a ‘cosmic lens.’

There are thousands of images within the Hubble database that have only been viewed by a few scientists. However, Hubble opens up its massive database to the public to search through. A version of this particular image was brought to attention by a contestant, Judy Smith, through the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition.

Read next: In Praise of Emoticons

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME space

See the Dark Side of the Moon With This Incredible NASA Animation

It's just become the not-so dark side

NASA has released an incredibly detailed animated clip of what the moon looks on the side that is never visible from earth.

In the video, we see the far side going through a cycle of phases, much like what is visible from our planet. But the other side of the moon has different terrain, with fewer of the big dark basalt plains known as maria.

Instead, craters of all sizes cover the entire area.

In 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 probe sent back the first grainy images of the moon’s dark side. Fifty years later, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was launched and, since 2009, has been relaying hundreds of terabytes of data, allowing scientists to create detailed maps of the moon’s surface.

For the first time, these animations, created by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, allow people on Earth to see a completely different side of our nearest heavenly neighbor.


TIME space

SpaceX Calls Off Launch of Space Weather Satellite

SpaceX plans to launch rocket
Orlando Sentinel—Getty Images A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket poised on Launch Pad 40 in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on, Jan. 5, 2014,

Former Vice President Al Gore was on hand for the attempt

(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — SpaceX called off Sunday’s planned launch of a deep-space observatory — and a revolutionary rocket-landing attempt — after a critical radar-tracking system failed.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who first envisioned the observatory two decades ago, was on hand for the attempt.

The SpaceX company halted the countdown at the 2½-minute mark following the loss of the Air Force radar system for tracking the rocket in flight. Chief executive officer Elon Musk said via Twitter that the company would try again Monday and that the delay probably was for the best.

“Will give us time to replace 1st stage video transmitter,” the company’s billionaire founder wrote, adding that it was not needed for launch, “but nice to have.”

Besides launching its first deep space mission — an observatory that will shoot to a spot 1 million miles from Earth to monitor solar outbursts — SpaceX will attempt its second landing of a leftover booster on an ocean platform. It’s part of the company’s plan to eventually reuse rockets.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory is refashioned from the Earth-observing satellite conceived in the late 1990s by Gore when he was vice president. It was canceled before ever flying and packed away until several years ago, when NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Air Force decided to resurrect it as a space weather sentinel.

Gore arrived at Cape Canaveral well in advance of the sunset liftoff, eager to see his brainchild finally soar. He told reporters an hour before the planned launch time that he was grateful to the scientists and others who kept his dream alive. The measurements will help measure global warming, he noted, and the steady stream of pictures of Earth may help mobilize the public to put pressure on the world’s government leaders “to take action to save the future of human civilization.”

“The constant ability to see the Earth whole, fully sunlit, every single day … can add to our way of thinking about our relationship to the Earth,” said Gore. He was accompanied by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who flew on the space shuttle as a congressman in 1986.

The $340 million mission is meant to provide a heads-up on intense solar activity that can disrupt communications, power and air travel. That’s why the spacecraft is to be stationed 1 million miles from Earth and 92 million miles from the sun, the so-called Lagrange point where the gravity fields are neutralized.

NOAA’s director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, Tom Berger, likened it to a “tsunami buoy.”

The observatory originally was called Triana, after the sailor who first spotted land on Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage. Now it’s dubbed DSCOVR, short for Deep Space Climate Observatory.

Gore’s presence added to the excitement at the launch site.

Also contributing to the buzz, though, was the experimental landing planned by SpaceX. Musk wants to eventually reuse his rockets to cut down costs and speed up flights.

It will be the second such landing test for SpaceX. Last month’s effort ended in flames.

SpaceX loaded more hydraulic fluid into the first-stage booster this time for the guidance fins; the fluid ran out too soon on Jan. 10, and the booster landed hard and tumbled over. But the path of the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket this time will see the booster descending faster than before, making it harder to nail the vertical landing.

SpaceX officials repeatedly stressed that the landing test is a secondary objective, and that the main job is to make sure the observatory gets a good ride to space.

“Launching our 1st deep space mission today,” Musk wrote via Twitter. He noted that the observatory will end up “4X further than moon.”

“Rocket reentry will be much tougher this time around due to deep space mission,” he added. “Almost 2X force and 4X heat. Plenty of hydraulic fluid tho.”

The modified barge that will serve as the landing zone nearly 400 miles off the Florida coast is almost as big as a football field, but that’s small against the backdrop of the Atlantic. The 14-story booster will descend from an altitude of about 80 miles, with touchdown expected nine to 10 minutes after liftoff.

Last month’s effort resulted in minor damage to the platform.

SpaceX not only patched everything up, but added a name to the platform, painted in large white letters on deck: “Just Read the Instructions.” That’s the name of a ship from the Culture science fiction series written by the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks.

Musk, a Banks fan, already has his company delivering cargo to the International Space Station for NASA and working on a capsule to fly American astronauts there.

TIME Environment

Mysterious Ash Covers Parts of Washington and Oregon

It could be from a Russian volcano

A strange ashy substance is falling from the sky in parts of Washington state and Oregon, but no one knows where it came from.

“While the substance is likely ash is from Volcano Shiveluch, they are a number of volcanoes that are currently active. The source of the material has not been scientifically confirmed,” energy officials said.

Volcano Shiveluch is on the Kamchatka peninsula in extreme northeast Russia and spewed a 20,000 foot ash plume in January. But officials say the substance could be coming from an entirely different part of the globe.

Other theories include dust picked up by wind or leftover ash from last year’s wildfires in Oregon in Idaho. But the substance will have to be scientifically tested to definitively determine what it is.

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