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Chinese Astronauts Return Safely to Earth After 90-Day Space Station Mission

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By Reuters | Updated: 18 September 2021

Three Chinese astronauts returned to earth on Friday after a 90-day visit to an unfinished space station in the country’s first crewed mission since 2016.

In a small return capsule, the three men – Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – landed safely in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in the north of China at 1:34 pm, state media reported.

The Shenzhou-12 mission was the first of four crewed missions planned for 2021-2022 as China assembles its first permanent space station. The process requires 11 missions, including the launches of the station’s three modules.

Construction kicked off in April with the launch of the Tianhe module, the future living quarters of the space station. Slightly larger than a city bus, Tianhe was where Nie, Liu and Tang have stayed since mid-June, marking China’s longest spaceflight mission.

While in orbit, the astronauts conducted spacewalks, validated Tianhe’s life-support system, tested the module’s robotic arm, and sorted supplies for upcoming crewed missions.

The second crewed mission is planned for October, with the next batch of astronauts expected to stay on Tianhe for six months.

Ahead of that Shenzhou-13 mission, China will send an automated cargo spacecraft – Tianzhou-3 – to Tianhe carrying supplies needed by the next crew.

Tianzhou-3 will be launched in the near future, state media said recently.

Blocked by US law from working with NASA and by extension on the US-led International Space Station (ISS), China has spent the past decade developing technologies to construct its own space station.

China’s space station, expected to be completed by the end of 2022, will be the sole alternative to the 20-year-old ISS, which may be retired in 2024.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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US Researchers Test Pig-to-Human Transplant in Donated Body

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By Associated Press | Updated: 21 January 2022

Researchers on Thursday reported the latest in a surprising string of experiments in the quest to save human lives with organs from genetically modified pigs.

This time around, surgeons in Alabama transplanted a pig’s kidneys into a brain-dead man — a step-by-step rehearsal for an operation they hope to try in living patients possibly later this year.

“The organ shortage is in fact an unmitigated crisis and we’ve never had a real solution to it,” said Dr. Jayme Locke of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who led the newest study and aims to begin a clinical trial of pig kidney transplants.

Similar experiments have made headlines in recent months as research into animal-to-human transplants heats up.

Twice this fall, surgeons at New York University temporarily attached a pig’s kidney to blood vessels outside the body of a deceased recipient to watch them work. And earlier this month, surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center gave a dying man a heart from a gene-edited pig that so far is keeping him alive.

But scientists still needed to learn more about how to test such transplants without risking a patient’s life. With the help of a family who donated a loved one’s body for science, Locke mimicked the way human organ transplants are done — from removing the pig “donor” kidneys to sewing them inside the deceased man’s abdomen.

For a little over three days, until the man’s body was removed from life support, the pair of pig kidneys survived with no sign of immediate rejection, her team reported Thursday in the American Journal of Transplantation.

That was only one of several key findings. Locke said it wasn’t clear if delicate pig kidney blood vessels could withstand the pounding force of human blood pressure – but they did. One kidney was damaged during removal from the pig and didn’t work properly but the other rapidly started producing urine as a kidney should. No pig viruses were transmitted to the recipient, and no pig cells were found in his bloodstream.

But Locke said the kidney experiment could have more far-reaching impact – because it shows that a brain-dead body can be a much-needed human model to test potential new medical treatments.

The research was conducted in September after Jim Parsons, a 57-year-old Alabama man, was declared brain-dead from a dirt bike racing accident.

After hearing this kind of research “had the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives, we knew without a doubt that that was something that Jim would have definitely put his seal of approval on,” said Julie O’Hara, Parsons’ ex-wife.

The need for another source of organs is huge: While more than 41,000 transplants were performed in the US last year, a record, more than 100,000 people remain on the national waiting list. Thousands die every year before getting an organ and thousands more never even get added to the list, considered too much of a long shot.

Animal-to-human transplants, what’s called xenotransplantation, have been attempted without success for decades. People’s immune systems almost instantly attack the foreign tissue. But scientists now have new techniques to edit pig genes so their organs are more human-like — and some are anxious to try again.

The recent string of pig experiments “is a big step forward,” said Dr. David Kaczorowski of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Moving on to first-stage trials in potentially dozens of people is “becoming more and more feasible.”

A heart transplant surgeon, Kaczorowski has done experiments testing pig organs in non-human primates that helped pave the way but “there are only things we can learn by transplanting them into humans.”

Hurdles remain before formal testing in people begins, including deciding who would qualify to test a pig organ, said Karen Maschke, a research scholar at the Hastings Center who will help develop ethics and policy recommendations for the first clinical trials under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists also still have much to learn about how long pig organs survive and how best to genetically alter them, cautioned Dr. Robert Montgomery of NYU Langone Health, who led that centre’s kidney experiments in the fall.

“I think different organs will require different genetic modifications,” he said in an email.

For the newest kidney experiment, UAB teamed with Revivicor, the subsidiary of United Therapeutics that also provided organs for the recent heart transplant in Maryland and the kidney experiment in New York. Company scientists made 10 genetic changes to these pigs, knocking out some genes that trigger a human immune attack and make the animals’ organs grow too large — and adding some human genes so the organs look less foreign to people’s immune systems.

Then there are practical questions such as how to minimise time spent getting pig organs to their destination. UAB housed the altered pigs in a germ-free facility in Birmingham complete with an operating room-like space to remove the organs and ready them for transplant.

Revivicor chief scientific officer David Ayares said future plans include building more such facilities near transplant centres.

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World’s First Space-Based Film Studio SEE to Launch by 2024, to Co-Produce Upcoming Tom Cruise Caper

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By ANI | Updated: 21 January 2022

Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) is planning to launch what it claims is the world’s first entertainment studio and multi-purpose arena in zero gravity. The company is co-producing Tom Cruise’s upcoming space movie.

SEE has unveiled plans to build a space station module that contains a sports and entertainment arena as well as a content studio by December 2024.

Named SEE-1, the module is intended to host films, television, music, and sports events as well as artists, producers and creatives who want to make content in the low orbit, micro-gravity environment. The facilities will enable the development, production, recording, broadcasting and livestreaming of content.

SEE intend to produce its own content and events in the module as well as make it available to third parties.

Axiom Space, who in January 2020 won NASA’s approval to build a commercial component of the International Space Station (ISS), will undertake the construction of SEE-1. The module will dock on Axiom’s commercial arm, named Axiom Station, which will also host other commercial ventures, including space tourism.

Axiom Station will then separate from the ISS in 2028.

SEE, which was co-founded in the UK by entrepreneurs and producers Elena and Dmitry Lesnevsky, is currently planning a fundraising round.

“SEE-1 is an incredible opportunity for humanity to move into a different realm and start an exciting new chapter in space,” said Dmitry and Elena Lesnevsky in a statement.

“It will provide a unique, and accessible home for boundless entertainment possibilities in a venue packed with innovative infrastructure which will unleash a new world of creativity. With worldwide leader Axiom Space building this cutting-edge, revolutionary facility, SEE-1 will provide not only the first but also the supreme quality space structure enabling the expansion of the two trillion-dollar global entertainment industry into low-Earth orbit,” the statement continued.

“Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station, is designed as the foundational infrastructure enabling a diverse economy in orbit,” said Michael Suffredini, president/CEO of Axiom Space.

“Adding a dedicated entertainment venue to Axiom Station’s commercial capabilities in the form of SEE-1 will expand the station’s utility as a platform for a global user base and highlight the range of opportunities the new space economy offers,” added Suffredini.

“SEE-1 will showcase and leverage the space environment in an unprecedented way,” Axiom chief engineer Dr Michael Baine said.

“The inflatable module design provides for around six metres diameter of unobstructed pressurized volume, which can be adapted to a range of activities – including an onboard state-of-the-art media production capability that will capture and convey the experience of weightlessness with breathtaking impact,” Dr Baine explained.

Richard Johnston, COO of SEE. added: “From Jules Verne to ‘Star Trek,’ science fiction entertainment has inspired millions of people around the world to dream about what the future might bring. Creating a next-generation entertainment venue in space inspire opens countless doors to create incredible new content and make these dreams a reality.”

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China Satellite in Close Encounter With Russian Anti-Satellite Missile Test Debris: State Media

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 21 January 2022

A Chinese satellite had a near collision with one of the many chunks of debris left by the fallout of a recent Russian anti-satellite missile test, state media reported.

Moscow blew up one of its old satellites in November in a missile test that sparked international anger because of the space debris it scattered around the Earth’s orbit.

US officials accused Moscow of carrying out a “dangerous and irresponsible” strike that had created a cloud of debris and forced the International Space Station’s crew to take evasive action.

Russia dismissed those concerns and denied that the space debris posed any danger but a new incident with a Chinese satellite suggests otherwise.

In the latest encounter, China’s Tsinghua Science Satellite came as close as 14.5 metres from a piece of debris, the state-run Global Times reported late Wednesday.

The “extremely dangerous” event happened on Tuesday, the report added, citing a social media post by Chinese space authorities that has since been removed.

Space debris expert Liu Jing told the Global Times that it was rare for debris and spacecraft to be just a dozen metres apart, adding that the probability of collision this time was “very high” and should theoretically have called for evasive action.

Anti-satellite weapons are high-tech missiles possessed by few nations, and the move reignited concerns about an escalating arms race in space – encompassing everything from laser weapons to satellites capable of shunting others out of orbit.

The test was the fourth ever to hit a spacecraft from the ground, and generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris.

Last year there were close encounters between the Chinese space station and satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which led to Beijing accusing the US of irresponsible and unsafe conduct in space.

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Earth’s Interior Is Cooling Faster Than Expected: Research

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By ANI | Updated: 17 January 2022

A measuring system that measures the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite in the laboratory, under the pressure and temperature conditions that prevail inside the Earth, has been developed by a team of researchers.

The study has been published in the ‘Earth and Planetary Science Letters Journal’.

The evolution of our Earth is the story of its cooling: 4.5 billion years ago, extreme temperatures prevailed on the surface of the young Earth, and it was covered by a deep ocean of magma. Over millions of years, the planet’s surface cooled to form a brittle crust. However, the enormous thermal energy emanating from the Earth’s interior set dynamic processes in motion, such as mantle convection, plate tectonics, and volcanism.

Still unanswered, though, are the questions of how fast the Earth cooled and how long it might take for this ongoing cooling to bring the aforementioned heat-driven processes to a halt.

One possible answer may lie in the thermal conductivity of the minerals that form the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle.

This boundary layer is relevant because it is here that the viscous rock of the Earth’s mantle is in direct contact with the hot iron-nickel melt of the planet’s outer core. The temperature gradient between the two layers is very steep, so there is potentially a lot of heat flowing here. The boundary layer is formed mainly of the mineral bridgmanite. However, researchers have a hard time estimating how much heat this mineral conducts from the Earth’s core to the mantle because experimental verification is very difficult.

Now, ETH Professor Motohiko Murakami and his colleagues from Carnegie Institution for Science have developed a sophisticated measuring system that enables them to measure the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite in the laboratory, under the pressure and temperature conditions that prevail inside the Earth.

For the measurements, they used a recently developed optical absorption measurement system in a diamond unit heated with a pulsed laser.

“This measurement system let us show that the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite is about 1.5 times higher than assumed,” ETH Professor Motohiko Murakami said.

This suggested that the heat flow from the core into the mantle is also higher than previously thought. Greater heat flow, in turn, increases mantle convection and accelerates the cooling of the Earth. This may cause plate tectonics, which is kept going by the convective motions of the mantle, to decelerate faster than researchers were expecting based on previous heat conduction values.

Murakami and his colleagues have also shown that rapid cooling of the mantle will change the stable mineral phases at the core-mantle boundary. When it cools, bridgmanite turns into the mineral post-perovskite.

But as soon as post-perovskite appears at the core-mantle boundary and begins to dominate, the cooling of the mantle might indeed accelerate even further, the researchers estimated, since this mineral conducted heat even more efficiently than bridgmanite.

“Our results could give us a new perspective on the evolution of the Earth’s dynamics. They suggest that Earth, like the other rocky planets Mercury and Mars, is cooling and becoming inactive much faster than expected,” Murakami explained.

However, he could not say how long it will take, for example, for convection currents in the mantle to stop.

“We still don’t know enough about these kinds of events to pin down their timing,” he said.

To do that calls first for a better understanding of how mantle convection works in spatial and temporal terms. Moreover, scientists need to clarify how the decay of radioactive elements in the Earth’s interior -one of the main sources of heat-affected the dynamics of the mantle.

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Avatar Robot Goes to School for Ill German Boy

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By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2022

Joshua Martinangeli, 7, is too ill to go to school. But the German student can still interact with his teacher and classmates through an avatar robot that sits in class in his place and sends a blinking signal when he has something to say.

“The children talk to him, laugh with him and sometimes even chitchat with him during the lesson. Joshi can do that quite well, too,” Ute Winterberg, headmistress at the Pusteblume-Grundschule in Berlin, told Reuters in an interview.

Joshua cannot attend classes because he wears a tube in his neck due to a severe lung disease, said his mother, Simone Martinangeli.

The project is a private initiative paid for by the local council in the Berlin district Marzahn-Hellersdorf.

“We are the only district in Berlin that has bought four avatars for its schools. The impetus was COVID-19, but I think this will be the future well beyond the pandemic,” said district education councillor Torsten Kuehne.

“It does happen from time to time, for various reasons, that a child cannot go to class in person. Then, the avatar can give that child a chance to remain part of the school community,” Kuehne said.

He added that he had already brought up the project in political discussions at a state level.

“I like it either way because I like the avatar,” said student Noah Kuessner when asked if he is looking forward to seeing Joshua again.

“And I would like it better if Joshi could really come to school,” said another classmate, Beritan Aslanglu.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Virgin Orbit Successfully Launches 7 Satellites Into Orbit

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By Associated Press | Updated: 14 January 2022

A Virgin Orbit rocket released from a jet flying off the California coast carried seven small satellites into space on Thursday as the company kicked off a year in which it plans to ramp up the pace of launches, including two originating from Britain.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 took off from Mojave Air & Space Port in the Southern California desert, flew out over the Pacific Ocean and dropped the LauncherOne rocket from its left wing.

The 70-foot-long (21.3-meter) booster ignited at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and hurtled skyward. The company later confirmed that all of the satellites were successfully deployed into the proper orbit.

“Another fantastic day for the Virgin Orbit team, and a big step forward for our customers,” the company tweeted.

The payload included satellites for the US Defense Department, the Polish company SatRevolution and the international company Spire Global.

It was Virgin Orbit’s third launch carrying satellites for customers. Two previous launches carried multiple satellites into orbit in January and June 2021. The company’s first launch, a demonstration flight, failed in May 2020.

Virgin Orbit, founded in 2017 by British billionaire Richard Branson, went public last month. The company is targeting the market for launching small satellites. It touts the mobility of its air-launch system compared to the limitations of fixed launch sites.

“The tremendous thing about using a 747 is we can put them into any orbit from anywhere in the world,” Branson said from the British Virgin Islands during the company’s launch webcast.

“There’s only I think a couple of handfuls of countries in the world that have the capability of sending satellites to space from their own countries and now 480 countries can use Virgin Orbit,” he said. “You just need to ring us up.”

The company plans six launches this year, including two for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force that will originate from Cornwall in southwestern England. RAF test pilot Mathew “Stanny” Stannard flew the 747 from the main pilot seat on Thursday.

“This is going to be just a banner year for us,” Chief Operating Officer Tony Gingiss said in a preflight briefing this week.

Gingiss said there has been continuous improvement flight-over-flight.

“I think we’re seeing not only the kind of rigor we expect but just really getting highly confident in our processes,” he said.

Thursday’s mission was dubbed “Above the Clouds,” a title taken from a track on hip hop duo Gang Starr’s album “Moment of Truth,” which was released by Virgin Records in 1998.

Branson noted during his interview that his family got COVID-19 over Christmas.

“Fortunately we were vaccinated and boosted and therefore none of us got it badly,” he said.

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