Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives
By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer
Monday, November 26
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A NASA spacecraft’s six-month journey to Mars neared its dramatic grand finale Monday in what scientists and engineers hoped would be a soft precision landing on flat red plains.
The InSight lander aimed for an afternoon touchdown, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion international effort.
InSight’s perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere, after a trip of 300 million miles (482 million kilometers), had stomachs churning and nerves stretched to the max. Although an old pro at this, NASA last attempted a landing at Mars six years ago.
The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars’ mysterious insides — must go from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs.
“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” noted InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. “It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.”
Earth’s success rate at Mars is 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries dating all the way back to 1960.
But the U.S. has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades. With only one failed touchdown, it’s an enviable record. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.
InSight could hand NASA its eighth win.
It’s shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 meters) down to measure the planet’s internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbor, nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away.
No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
By examining the deepest, darkest interior of Mars — still preserved from its earliest days — scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how our solar system’s rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lakebeds are now dry, and the planet cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that’s positively baked.
The planetary know-how gained from InSight’s two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets “and how they fit into the story that we’re trying to figure out for how planets form,” he said.
Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability. That will be left for future rovers. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks for eventual return that could hold evidence of ancient life.
Because it’s been so long since NASA’s last Martian landfall — the Curiosity rover in 2012 — Mars mania is gripping not only the space and science communities, but everyday folks.
Viewing parties are planned coast to coast at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where InSight’s seismometer was designed and built. The giant NASDAQ screen in New York’s Times Square will start broadcasting NASA Television an hour before InSight’s scheduled 3 p.m. EST touchdown; so will the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.
But the real action, at least on Earth, will unfold at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to InSight’s flight control team. NASA is providing a special 360-degree online broadcast from inside the control center.
Confirmation of touchdown could take minutes — or hours. At the minimum, there’s an eight-minute communication lag between Mars and Earth.
A pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since liftoff in May will try to relay its radio signals to Earth, with a potential lag time of under nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear from NASA’s Mars orbiters.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said Sunday he’s trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming.
“Just to warn anybody who’s sitting near me … I’m going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful,” he said.
For AP’s complete coverage of the Mars landing: https://apnews.com/MarsLanding
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Ohio Against the Universe
Planet co-discovered by Ohio State astronomers reaches the finals in ExoCup 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Forget clashes between the Buckeyes and That Team Up North. For space nerds, the real battle this week is Ohio against the universe.
While the rest of Buckeye Nation was busy crossing out the letter “M,” a planet discovered by a team co-led by Ohio State University astronomers spent this week crushing other planets in an international, intergalactic competition known as the ExoCup. The ExoCup, hosted by a trio of scientists who host a podcast devoted to exoplanets, is a friendly March Madness-style competition that lands the winner the right to claim “best planet outside our solar system.”
“I did not think we were going to make it out of the first round,” said Scott Gaudi, professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University and a leader of the study that identified the planet. “It’s been fun.”
The planet Gaudi and his team discovered is a gas giant nearly twice the size of Jupiter that is almost as hot as our own sun. Planet KELT-9b orbits a star more than 600 light years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, sometimes also called The Swan, which is visible during summer and fall in the northern sky.
To reach the finals, KELT-9b beat Kepler-1625b, a planet roughly the size of Jupiter that just last month was found to possibly, perhaps, be orbited b a Neptune-sized moon. To win the ExoCup crown, KELT-9b will have to beat out either 51 Pegasi b or PDS 70b. PDS 70 b is a very young planet that researchers witnessed being “born” earlier this year. 51 Pegasi b is the first exoplanet ever discovered.
KELT-9b’s daytime temperature is a balmy 4,600 Kelvin (about 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit) and only 1,700 degrees cooler than our solar system’s sun. It is so hot that astronomers believe there are no solids on KELT-9b – only gases such as hydrogen and helium. In addition to hydrogen and helium, KELT-9b’s atmosphere likely contains gaseous titanium and iron.
“It is literally hotter than most stars,” Gaudi said.
And, because it is latched to its star – a star christened KELT-9, a star twice as large and nearly twice as hot as our own – with an orbital period of only about 1.5 days, KELT-9b is under constant threat of evaporation.
Gaudi and his co-authors, who include astronomers from Vanderbilt and Lehigh Universities, first reported the new planet in a June 2017 issue of the journal Nature and at a presentation at the American Astronomical Society’s spring meeting.
“It’s a planet by any of the typical definitions based on mass, but its atmosphere is almost certainly unlike any other planet we’ve ever seen just because of the temperature of its day side,” Gaudi said at the time.
“May the hottest planet win – and that planet is without a doubt #KELT9b,” quipped Gaudi.
You can vote for your favorite exoplanet via Twitter @exocast or by searching #exocup. Final voting is Nov. 21-23.
Vaping no boost to quit rates in smokers, study suggests
‘Dual users’ no more likely to kick habit
COLUMBUS, Ohio – People who vape and smoke cigarettes are no more likely to drop the nicotine habit than those who just smoke, a new study suggests.
Researchers at The Ohio State University studied 617 tobacco users and found no differences in quit rates for “dual users” of both traditional and electronic cigarettes.
This research adds important information to the conversation as public health and medical professionals grapple with the role vaping might play in reducing cigarette smoking, said study senior author Mary Ellen Wewers, a professor emeritus of health behavior and health promotion, and a member of Ohio State’s Center of Excellence in Tobacco Regulatory Science.
Participants in the study were part of a larger group of about 1,200 rural and urban Ohioans whose habits are being followed by researchers. All of them are considered heavy tobacco users – those who smoke every day or at least some days every week.
The study appears in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.
The researchers sat down with participants every six months for 18 months to ask them about tobacco use, interest in quitting and quit attempts they’d made. They also documented what type of tobacco products the participants used.
At the first check-in, six months into the study, the dual users were more likely to have stopped using tobacco, but that difference disappeared by the 1-year and 18-month interviews. By the end of the study, most dual users were back to smoking cigarettes exclusively.
“The initial difference we saw might be due to a higher interest in quitting among the dual users, but that higher quit rate vanished with time,” said lead author Laura Sweet, a graduate student in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.
“Tobacco is such a huge killer, and if these products help people quit, that could be really significant for public health. But in this study it looks like they don’t, and we need to know that as well,” Sweet said.
Though electronic products still deliver nicotine and much remains unknown about their long-term health effects, there’s general agreement that they are less harmful than cigarettes in adults.
“The hope would be that adult cigarette smokers are trying e-cigarettes because they want to stop cigarettes and are looking for alternatives to help them,” Wewers said, adding that she and others who work on tobacco prevention are concerned that younger people who vape will start there and transition to cigarettes down the road.
The researchers can’t be sure what factors contributed to their findings, but the results prompted Sweet to wonder if many adults who smoke and vape are doing so because vaping is more accepted in certain environments, rather than because vaping might help them drop nicotine altogether, she said.
Wewers, a member of the Cancer Control Research Program at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, said she wasn’t surprised to see a higher likelihood of quitting cigarettes at six months in the dual users, because that group expressed greater interest in quitting overall.
“It makes sense that during the first few months they may do better at quitting, but given that cigarette smoking is such a cyclical thing – people quit and resume all the time – it’s not surprising that they went back to smoking after a year,” she said.
Because this study didn’t assess light smokers or those who consider themselves “social” smokers, it’s hard to say what role vaping might play in quitting, Wewers said.
But for health care providers trying how best to help heavy smokers quit, this study could help inform those doctor-patient conversations, she said.
“Providers get questions about trying e-cigarettes all the time from people who want to quit. Our paper would suggest that it’s not a promising approach – the majority don’t quit, and most of them go back to combustible products exclusively,” Wewers said.
“This reinforces the recommendation that there are good, approved medications and nicotine-replacement products out there now and that those should be the first-line approach to helping smokers quit.”
The study findings are limited in that the researchers relied on self-reported information from the smokers and did not conduct tests to confirm whether someone had quit. But the study is stronger than some other similar work, because it used a randomly selected sample of smokers in both an urban Ohio county and in six Appalachian counties in the state, Wewers said.
Next, Wewers said she’s interested in exploring the role of flavored products for those who vape, and wants to know more about what motivates smokers to pick up e-cigarettes.
“Is it because e-cigarettes haven’t been banned to the same extent as cigarettes? Is it that there’s so much advertising? We’d really like some answers to these questions.”
Theodore Brasky, Sarah Cooper, Nathan Doogan, Alice Hinton, Elizabeth Klein, Haikady Nagaraja, Amanda Quisenberry and Wenna Xi – all of Ohio State – also worked on the study.
The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration supported the research.
Parks help cities – but only if people use them
November 20, 2018
Author: Thaisa Way, Professor, Landscape Architecture, History, and Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington
Disclosure statement: Thaisa Way does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Washington provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
In cities, access to parks is strongly linked with better health for both people and neighborhoods.
Children suffer higher rates of obesity when they grow up in urban areas without a park in easy reach. Because low-income neighborhoods have fewer green spaces, poorer children are most likely to face other health problems, too, including asthma due to poor air quality.
But access to green space is not the only ingredient in creating healthy communities, my research on urban landscapes shows. Parks are good for people only if people use them.
And that’s a question of design.
What is a park?
The first truly public park – a green space paid for by public funds, on publicly owned land and intended to serve the public – was Birkenhead Park, near Liverpool, England. Designed by Joseph Paxton to improve the health of the poor, it opened in 1847 to a crowd of 10,000.
When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted visited Birkenhead in 1850, he was inspired to bring the idea home to “democratic America.”
In 1857, he and architect Calvert Vaux won the competition to create Central Park in New York City. Their now iconic design – 750 acres of grassy lawns, trees and winding paths – came to define what Americans and Europeans alike have come to expect from a great urban park.
Olmsted would eventually design over 100 big, green parks, from Montreal and Buffalo to Louisville and beyond.
As cities commissioned ever more parks, an entire profession grew up around them.
Landscape architects built parks in big cities worldwide, each modified slightly to reflect local culture.
Americans, in particular, embraced sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s belief that green space would “restore the bodies, minds, and spirits of urban dwellers weakened by the city’s punishing environment.”
Parks are not neutral
Public parks can work their magic only if they give what people they need. That differs from population to population.
Scholars, historians, feminists and African-American leaders have observed that people perceive and use green spaces differently depending on their community’s historical experience and cultural standards.
Freeway Park, opened in 1974 in Seattle, is a densely wooded urban landscape nestled between two highways. The park is seen by many as intimate and lush. But some women feel unsafe walking alone there because, they say, they can’t see who is approaching or coming up behind them.
Meanwhile, African-Americans in the South may feel unwelcome in parks named after Confederate generals and featuring large Confederate statues. Generally speaking, black people are underrepresented as visitors to the U.S. National Park system, a statistic experts attribute to the historic legacy of segregation in public spaces.
Similar segregated use shows up with New York’s Highline park. The park, first opened in 2009, runs through the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, which is home to several public housing projects.
Nearly one-third of the area’s residents are people of color. Highline visitors, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly white.
In community forums, locals say they don’t perceive the park – a repurposed elevated railway – as having been built for them. If they don’t see people who look like them using it, they may stay away.
In other words, the mere existence of a park does not ensure that a community benefits from it.
Designed for easy access
This fact has given rise to new kinds of parks – ones uniquely designed for local communities.
In 1967, the firm of Zion Breen Richardson Associates created the “pocket park” concept with Paley Park in New York City. Small and privately owned but opened to the public during the work day, this park occupies just one-tenth of an acre and is surrounded on three sides by tall buildings.
Many downtown districts are now speckled with these tiny, often hidden, parks. There’s nothing grand about them, but for workers needing a break, they offer much-needed respite.
More recently, when designers began work on San Francisco’s shorefront India Basin Park, the landscape architects on the team realized that access points had to be a design priority. Certain nearby residents – namely, those living in the predominantly black Hunters Point neighborhood – would struggle to use the park, despite its proximity. A shoreline road built decades ago had cut their upland community off from the water’s edge.
Rehabilitated walkways from Hunter’s Point to the waterfront, then, will inform the design of the park, which will be developed over the next 15 years. The planned paths, stairways and crosswalks should offer their own type of “green” landscape, one that meets the needs of the current residents and is historically appropriate in hilly San Francisco.
Latino residents in southside Wenatchee, Washington, have also been teaming with designers to develop a new design that might attract more neighbors to their underused local park, the Kiwanis Methow Park.
Drawing on Mexican influence, the transformed park will feature a “kiosko” pavilion that hosts mariachi music, dances and culturally significant celebrations.
Dozens of “padrinos,” or godparents, have signed up to maintain the park, whose new design was spearheaded by the Trust for Public Land and the landscape architecture firm Site Workshop.
Context-specific design crosses international borders in other ways.
In a shantytown outside Lima, Peru, residents teamed up with the University of Washington to build a school garden that is also open to the public.
During school hours, the outdoor classroom teaches local students about local plants, including some that are edible. Other times, it doubles as a quiet place of respite for community members in this sprawling, dense and noisy neighborhood.
Frederick Law Olmsted and W.E.B. Du Bois were right: Cities need parks. But designers have come a long way over the last century in learning that green spaces can only help cities when residents embrace them.