Sunday , August 14 2022
News at a glance: Tracking gravitational waves, a Moon rover, and the ‘best fossil hunter’

News at a glance: Tracking gravitational waves, a Moon rover, and the ‘best fossil hunter’

ASTRONOMY

Speedy scopes to spy gravitational wave sources

Researchers last week reached the midpoint in building a pair of observatories designed to pinpoint the location of cataclysmic events sensed by gravitational wave detectors so that other astronomers can quickly zoom in on the aftermath. The Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) uses two sets of 16 small telescopes, one in the Canary Islands—now operational—and one in Australia, whose construction has just started. They will swing into action automatically when gravitational wave detectors, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and Virgo in Italy, register a space-time ripple caused by events such as a merger of two black holes. Such detectors don’t give precise locations, so GOTO’s scopes will sweep the region of space for rapidly brightening objects that could be the source of the wave; operators will then send alerts, giving more sensitive optical telescopes a location to aim at. A neutron star merger, spotted gravitationally in 2017, produced visible signals, but telescopes took 11 hours to find them after the event became known, and missed the explosion’s early phases. The £4.4 million GOTO telescopes hope to do better and flag candidates in half an hour. Project leaders aim to be ready by March 2023, when upgrades to LIGO and Virgo are finished and they begin their next observing runs.

INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Monkeypox emergency declared

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week declared the global monkeypox outbreak, which has sickened more than 15,000 in at least 70 countries, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), even though a sharply divided advisory committee had not recommended doing so. In June, WHO’s Emergency Committee for monkeypox first advised against giving the epidemic PHEIC status—which grants WHO extra powers and helps focus political attention on an outbreak—a decision that was widely criticized. At its second meeting on 21 July, the panel could not reach a consensus, with nine members opposing a PHEIC declaration and six supporting it. (The meeting was followed by tense exchanges between participants via email and text messages, Science has learned.) Opponents noted that monkeypox is not yet circulating in the general population; it has been observed mostly in men who have sex with men. But others argued for action now because there is a danger the virus could become established long-term in the wider population. On 23 July, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the outbreak met criteria in the International Health Regulations and, in an unprecedented move, declared a PHEIC anyway.

LUNAR SCIENCE

NASA delays Moon rover launch

The first NASA robotic rover to visit the Moon will be delayed by a year, launching in November 2024, the agency announced last week. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, known as VIPER, will land at the Moon’s south pole, hunting for water ice. The delay, which will nudge the $754 million mission closer to the planned launch by China of a similar device, will allow further testing of the lunar lander, developed by Astrobotic Technology, that will carry the rover in the lander’s first lunar touchdown.

quotation mark

[He] was undoubtedly the best fossil hunter the world has ever had.

  • The National Museums of Kenya
  • in The Star, on the death of Kamoya Kimeu, 81, a Kenyan who found many important hominin fossils including “Turkana Boy,” an almost complete Homo erectus skeleton, in 1984.

BREXIT

‘Plan B’ for U.K. science funding

The U.K. government last week outlined a domestic program to replace funding that U.K.-based researchers would have had access to from the European Union’s flagship research scheme. The EU has avoided finalizing a deal to allow U.K. participation in the 7-year, €95 billion Horizon Europe program because of ongoing disputes over trade in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom’s “Plan B” would kick in if the Horizon deal completely falls through. U.K. researchers could continue to participate in Horizon-funded international collaborations that include at least three partners in EU member states or other Horizon-associated countries. EU rules would require these U.K. researchers to bring their own funding to the table, and Plan B would put no immediate limits on funding such consortium participation.

CONSERVATION

Trump policy on species reversed

Completing a review President Joe Biden promised on his first day in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week finished rolling back changes made to the Endangered Species Act by former President Donald Trump’s administration. One of Trump’s changes weakened a provision that governs when property owners may damage critical habitat needed by endangered species to survive. The Trump rule would have required FWS to allow landowners to do such damage—by filling wetlands, for example—if they showed credible evidence that continuing to protect the critical habitat would cause economic harm. On 21 July, the Biden administration reinstated a previous rule that allowed FWS to use its discretion on whether to grant such requests. In June, the agency undid a separate Trump-era decision that raised the bar for designating land as critical habitat.

PALEONTOLOGY

Oldest known relative of living animals revealed

artist reconstruction of Auroralumina attenboroughii

BRITISH GEOLOGICAL SURVEY/© UK RESEARCH AND INNOVATION

A fossil of an organism between 556 million and 562 million years old bears features resembling those of modern jellyfish and coral, and appears to be the oldest example of an evolutionary group still living today. Paleobiologist Philip Wilby and colleagues at the British Geological Survey discovered the new fossil in the Charnwood Forest, a hotbed of pre-Cambrian paleontology in central England. The organism predates the Cambrian explosion of about 539 million years ago, which scientists historically accepted as the origin of modern animals. The specimen, Auroralumina attenboroughii (artist’s reconstruction, above), belongs to a group called cnidarians, which includes today’s jellyfish and corals, the research team concludes this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The symmetry of its body is like that of modern jellyfish. The team selected its name in part to honor naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, who spent his childhood near Charnwood and has brought attention to its fossils.

LEADERSHIP

Surgeon to head cancer institute

President Joe Biden is expected to pick cancer surgeon Monica Bertagnolli as the next director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the world’s largest funder of cancer research. Bertagnolli, a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, and Harvard Medical School, specializes in gastrointestinal cancers and is well known for her expertise in clinical trials. Her lab research on tumor immunology and the role of a gene called APC in colorectal cancer led to a landmark trial she headed showing an anti-inflammatory drug can help prevent this cancer. Bertagnolli, 63, will be the first woman to lead NCI.

LEADERSHIP

A head for U.K. ‘high-risk’ funder

Ilan Gur, an entrepreneur and materials scientist, will lead the United Kingdom’s new agency to fund outside-the-box research leading to commercial spinoffs. The government this year created the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), modeled on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its sponsorship of “high-risk, high-reward” science. In February, ARIA selected DARPA’s deputy director, Peter Highnam, as its head, but he withdrew before starting the job. Gur worked as a program officer at ARPA-E, the U.S. Department of Energy’s version of DARPA. He also founded the U.S. nonprofit Activate, which has supported the creation of more than 100 science-based startups, according to a government statement. To encourage innovative grantmaking, ARIA’s £800 million, 4-year budget will be separate from that of the country’s main research funder, UK Research and Innovation; the sum amounts to only 1% of total R&D spending. Unlike DARPA and ARPA-E, ARIA so far lacks a specific research focus, which some observers have predicted will undermine its effectiveness.

Check Also

Unlock your airbending skills to make crystal-clear ice cubes

Unlock your airbending skills to make crystal-clear ice cubes

The sound of crackling ice is synonymous with cool refreshment. On a literal level, it’s …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.