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.

TIME climate change

Undersea Volcanoes May Be Impacting Climate Change

An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean
Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science—AP An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean

Does the global warming process actually begin under the sea?

A new study claims that volcanic eruptions along the ocean floor may impact earth’s climate cycle and that predictive models, including those that analyze humanity’s impact on climate change, may need to be modified.

“People have ignored seafloor volcanoes on the idea that their influence is small—but that’s because they are assumed to be in a steady state, which they’re not,” said Maya Tolstoy, a geophysicist and author of the study that appeared in Geophysical Research Letters and was also reported on in Science Daily.

Until now, scientists presumed that seafloor volcanoes exuded lava at a slow and steady pace, but Tolstoy thinks that not only do the volcanoes erupt in bursts, they follow remarkably consistent patterns that range anywhere from two weeks to 100,000 years.

The reason why the study is important is because it offers up the idea that undersea volcanoes may contribute to the beginning of a global warming cycle.

Here’s how:

Scientists believe as the Earth warms and ice melts, pressure is released which causes more land volcanoes to erupt. More eruptions means more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm further and creating a cycle.

But undersea volcanoes erupt for the opposite reason. When more ice is created on a cooling Earth, that lowers sea levels and relieves pressure on undersea volcanoes, bringing about more eruptions.

So that begs the question, could the undersea volcanoes be releasing enough CO2 to affect the warming process on land?

Read more at Science Daily.

TIME astronomy

See New, Close-Up Images of Pluto Taken by NASA Probe New Horizons

The probe is scheduled to fly past the dwarf planet on July 14 this year

NASA’s space probe New Horizons has sent back its first images of Pluto and its moon Charon during the probe’s final approach towards the dwarf planet, which the agency released Wednesday.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The publishing of the images coincides with the birth anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer, who died in 1997.

“This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

The spacecraft, which has traveled 3 billion miles across the solar system for over nine years, is currently scheduled to fly past Pluto and its moons on July 14. (It took the above grainy but exciting images from about 126 million miles away.)

“Pluto is finally becoming more than a pinpoint of light,” said the mission’s project scientist Hal Weaver.

TIME Research

See the Human Body Under a Microscope

Closer than you thought possible

'Science is Beautiful'
‘Science is Beautiful’

The new book ‘Science is Beautiful’ shows how the human body can be alluring even in minutia.

TIME vaccines

Watch the Science Cop Take on Chris Christie’s Vaccine Talk

Christie isn't a doctor, so why is he dishing out advice on vaccines?

Chris Christie called for “balance” this week between public health and parents’ right to choose when it comes to vaccinating their children, going against the prevailing science.

Christie’s office was quick to walk back his comments and say “with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But TIME’s Science Cop Jeffrey Kluger explains why statements like this, and the ongoing decision by many to forego vaccinations, are harming America’s children.

TIME energy

Yet More BP Oil Found at Bottom of Gulf

Birds fly over a man fishing on April 19, 2014 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, days after a BP announcement that it is ending its "active cleanup" on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Sean Gardner—Getty Images Birds fly over a man fishing on April 19, 2014 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, days after a BP announcement that it is ending its "active cleanup" on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

200 million gallons of oil were spilled after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig

Scientists already have reported finding what they called a 1,235-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico left over from the huge 2010 BP oil spill. Now it appears this ring is part of a washroom set: A different team of scientists has found that up 10 million gallons of oil have created what can only be called a “bath mat” beneath the sediment of the gulf’s floor.

First the ring. David Valentine and colleagues from the University of California at Santa Barbara wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2014 that about 10 million gallons of the spilled oil settled on the gulf’s floor. Its size: about the size of the state of Rhode Island.

But what about the rest? As much as 200 million gallons of oil were spilled after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by BP and Anadarko Petroleum Corp., exploded off the coast of New Orleans, killing 11 workers on the rig and injuring 17 more, and allowing oil to gush into the gulf for nearly three months.

Read more: Oil Majors’ Profits Take A Beating

All that oil has been hard to find. But a team of scientists led by Jeff Chanton found between 6 million and 10 million gallons buried in the sediment at the bottom of the gulf about 60 miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta. Chanton is a professor of oceanography at Florida State University (FSU).

Chanton and his colleagues, writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, says they determined how oil caused particles in the gulf to accrete, or clump together, then sink all the way to the floor of a body of water.

Their secret weapon, they wrote, was carbon 14, a radioactive isotope often used to date ancient artifacts. In this case, though, the FSU team used carbon 14 as an “inverse tracer” to find the oil. It works this way: Oil doesn’t contain carbon 14, so any sediment that did contain the isotope would become evident in their search. What didn’t show carbon 14 was oil.

Then Chanton worked with Tingting Zhao, an associate professor of geography at FSU, to create a map of the areas without carbon 14 on the floor of the gulf. From that information he was able to estimate the amount of oil that made up this “bath mat.”

Read more: Low Prices Lead To Layoffs In The Oil Patch

The “bathtub ring” and “bath mat” metaphors may be lighthearted, and at first, Chanton said, he wondered whether the accretion of the oil and its sinking to the floor of the gulf might be benign, if not necessarily beneficial, to the aquatic ecosystem. After all, he told FSU’s news department, the water was clarified and the oil had separated from the water.

But in the long term, he said, it’s a problem because the “mat” of oil removes oxygen from the materials that make up the floor. That, in turn, makes it harder for bacteria to attack the oil and make it decompose.

“This is going to affect the gulf for years to come,” Chanton said. “Fish will likely ingest contaminants because worms ingest the sediment, and fish eat the worms. It’s a conduit for contamination into the food web.”

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

More from Oilprice.com:

TIME space travel

Virgin Galactic Will Resume Test Flights This Year

British billionaire Richard Branson pose
Adrian Dennis—AFP/Getty Images British billionaire Richard Branson poses in front of a model of the Virgin Galactic.

After a deadly crash last year

The space tourism company Virgin Galactic is set to resume test flights this year after a deadly crash last year, its CEO said, defying expectations that it wouldn’t be ready to take flight again until at least 2016.

“I really think we’re turning the corner,” CEO George Whitesides told the Associated Press. “We’ve gone through one of the toughest things a company can go through and we’re still standing, and now we’re really moving forward with pace.”

The company, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, is completing construction of a new shuttle after one broke apart during a test flight in October, leaving one pilot dead. The accident was the most recent in a long line of setbacks. Successful in-flight testing is one of the company’s last major obstacles to the elusive of commercial space travel.

MORE: What Richard Branson Can Learn From the Virgin Galactic Disaster

[AP]

TIME Health Care

Chris Christie’s Terrible Vaccine Advice

Did I say that? The NJ gov has medical wisdom to share
Jeff Zelevansky; Getty Images Did I say that? The NJ gov has medical wisdom to share

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The New Jersey governor and likely presidential candidate attempts to play doctor—and fails

Last I checked, Chris Christie isn’t a licensed commercial pilot, which is one reason he probably doesn’t phone the cockpit with instructions when his flight encounters turbulence. Chances are, he doesn’t tell his plow operators how to clear a road when New Jersey gets hit by a snowstorm either. But when it comes to medicine, the current governor, former prosecutor and never doctor evidently feels pretty free to dispense advice. And don’tcha’ know it? That advice turns out to be terrible.

Asked about the ongoing 14-state outbreak of measles that has been linked to falling vaccination rates, Christie—the man who prides himself on chin-jutting certainty—went all squishy. “Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated, and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health,” he said. “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

The governor then went further, taking off his family-doctor hat and putting on his epidemiologist hat. “Not every vaccine is created equal,” he said, “and not every disease type is as great a public-health threat as others.”

MORE: Christie Says Parents Should Have Choice on Measles Vaccine

He was not specific about which diseases fall below his public-health threat threshold, but New Jerseyans are free to guess. Would it be polio, which paralyzed or killed tens of thousands of American children every year before a vaccine against it was developed? Would it be whooping cough, which results in hospitalization for 50% of all infants who contract it and death for 2%, and is now making a comeback in California because of the state’s low vaccination rates? Or would it be measles, which still kills nearly 150,000 people—mostly children—worldwide every year?

O.K., so politicians hedge—especially when they’re thinking of running for President. But this isn’t Christie’s first time at the antivax rodeo. In 2009, he shamefully—and un-take-backably—endorsed the central fallacy of the Jenny McCarthy–esque crazies: that vaccines cause autism.

“I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage,” he wrote in a letter to supporters. “Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

In fairness, medical nincompoopery knows no party label, as then Senator Barack Obama illustrated when he was running for President in 2008. “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” he said at a Pennsylvania rally. “Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Christie and Obama have gone quiet on this utterly debunked claim, as has McCarthy herself of late. But Christie’s more recent—if less outrageous—remark is just as dangerous for the very fact that it sounds more reasonable. Vaccines are not intended to be taken cafeteria style, helping yourself to the full course of polio shots while sampling the MMR and saying a firm no-thanks to the lifesaving HPV vaccine. Vaccine coverage, as real epidemiologists will tell you for the trillionth time if that’s what it takes, needs to be around 95% in most cases to create herd immunity—the protection a well-vaccinated community provides to its comparatively few members who truly cannot be vaccinated for demonstrable medical reasons.

New Jersey is barely scraping by on this score, with a 95.3% rate in 2014, and some counties—like Monmouth, lowest in the state at 92.6%, and Hunterdon, at 93.1%—are failing the course entirely. Seems like a bad time for the teacher to tell the class not to worry about studying.

The backlash against Christie—particularly in social media—has been fierce. “Insane. Christie is done,” tweeted CNN’s Campbell Brown. Business Insider jumped on tweets by GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who said Christie had “disqualified” himself from serious presidential consideration and called his statement “wildly irresponsible.” Wilson added: “Hey…you know what’s great? Not having 1 in 3 kids die of preventable diseases.”

Christie—no surprise–quickly began walking back his statement. “To be clear,” his spokesman said Monday, “The governor believes vaccines are an important public health measure and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” Then, alas, the top dog—through the poor spokesman—went all yippy again. “At the same time, different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”

It was a nice, nuanced statement. The problem, as a real epidemiologist will tell you, is that viruses don’t do nuance. Diseases don’t do nuance. They do sickness and death. Vaccines—as Governor Christie is supposed to know—stop that.

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

TIME China

9 out of 10 Chinese Cities Fail Pollution Test

China Smog Air Pollution Jilin
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of the Songhua River due to low temperatures in Jilin Province, China on Jan. 22, 2015.

Only eight of 74 cities monitored met national standards

Nearly 90% of Chinese cities failed to meet government pollution standards last year, according to the country’s environment ministry.

Although only eight of 74 cities monitored were found to meet national standards, the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said the results were an improvement over previous years, Reuters reports.

The country declared a “war on pollution” last year and has since taken steps to reduce the use of coal and eliminate factories that don’t meet certain standards.

Read more: Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution

The government has said that meeting its own standards could take up to 15 years. The city of Beijing, for instance, had an average atmospheric pollutant reading of 93 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter last year — almost three times the state-determined standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

China—the world’s largest polluter— produces a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

[Reuters]

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