India’s first attempt to land on the moon appe…

India’s first attempt to land on the moon appears to have failed:

The sun is setting on India’s first attempted lunar landing. As night fell over the lunar south pole on September 20, scientists’ hopes that the solar-powered Vikram lander would contact Earth before the end of one lunar day have been dashed.

Officials at the Indian space agency ISRO reportedly believe that the Vikram lander died on impact with the lunar surface on September 6. The probe lost contact shortly before it was meant to touch down near the moon’s south pole (SN: 9/6/19), according to the Times of India.

Still, there was hope that Vikram or its onboard rover would perk up and reestablish contact. ISRO spent two weeks — the equivalent of one lunar day — trying to communicate with Vikram. The lander and its rover, Pragyan, were designed to last one lunar day before the lack of sunlight and cold temperatures shut them down.

ISRO said that its Chandrayaan 2 orbiter took pictures on September 10 showing the lander lying flat or tilted on its side. Those images, however, were not publicly released.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter also flew over the landing site on September 17. But “lunar local time was near dusk; large shadows covered much of the area,” the space agency said in an e-mail. “The exact location of the lander was not known, so the lander may not be in the camera field of view.” NASA said that it would search again on October 14, when the sun is higher in the lunar sky.

After the sun completely sets on Vikram’s landing site, temperatures there will drop to about –180° Celsius for another two weeks. The solar-powered lander’s electronics are not expected to survive the frigid night.

ISRO has yet to put out an official statement. But the Times of India reported on September 20 that the team analyzing the mission’s failure believes that it was caused by an error in the spacecraft’s automatic landing program. The newspaper quoted an unnamed scientist as saying that the lander may have started spinning on its way to the lunar surface so that thrusters meant to slow the descent instead accelerated it.

Could humans build a tall tower or giant rope …

Could humans build a tall tower or giant rope to space?:

Astronaut Roy McBride peers out over the Earth at the start of the new sci-fi flick Ad Astra. It’s not an unusual view for him. He does mechanical work atop an international space antenna. This spindly structure stretches up toward the stars. But this day, McBride’s sweet view is interrupted by an explosion that hurtles him off the antenna. He plummets from the blackness of space toward Earth until his parachute opens, slowing his descent.

In the movie, the space antenna looks like pipes stacked upon pipes that reach into space. But could anyone build something that tall? And can people actually climb up from Earth into space?

A tall order

There’s no set line between Earth and space. Where space begins depends on whom you ask. But most scientists agree that space starts somewhere between 80 and 100 kilometers (50 and 62 miles) above Earth’s surface.

Building a skinny tower that tall isn’t possible. Anyone who’s stacked up a tower of Legos knows that at some point the structure won’t be sturdy enough to hold its own weight. It eventually tilts to the side, before crashing and scattering its bricks. A better strategy is to build something like a pyramid that narrows as it grows in height.

The idea of using long ribbons in space has been around for a while. In 1992, this tethered satellite system was sent out from the space shuttle Atlantis. The shuttle successfully dragged the system around, but it didn’t reach its full potential. The cable was supposed to be 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), but it hit a snag when deploying and only 256 meters (840 feet) were released.
CREDIT: TSS-1/STS-46 Crew/NASA

But even if we could build a tower that tall, there’d be problems, says Markus Landgraf. He’s a physicist at the European Space Agency. He’s based in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. A tower that could reach space would be too heavy for the Earth to support, he says. Earth’s crust isn’t very deep. It averages only around 30 kilometers (17 miles). And the mantle below is a bit squishy. The tower’s mass would push too hard on the Earth’s surface. “It would basically create a ditch,” Landgraf says. And, he adds, “It would keep doing so over thousands of years. It would go deeper and deeper. It would not be pretty.”

So physicists have concocted another solution — one that turns the tower approach on its head. Some scientists have proposed hanging a ribbon in Earth’s orbit and dangling its end down to the surface. Then people could climb up into space instead of blasting off in rockets.

Students help name 5 of Jupiter’s newly discov…

Students help name 5 of Jupiter’s newly discovered moons:

Meet the newly discovered moons of Jupiter. After a public contest, five of them finally have official astronomical names. The International Astronomical Union announced the names on August 26.

Scott Sheppard is a planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. He reported the discovery of these five moons in July 2018 along with seven others. He and his colleagues spotted the Jovian satellites while searching for Planet Nine. Planet Nine is a suspected planet that may be orbiting beyond Neptune. To date, no one has seen it.

The team solicited candidate names for the moons on Twitter. There were some rules. Most notably, each of Jupiter’s 79 known moons must be named for descendants or consorts of the god Jupiter (from Roman mythology), or Zeus (in Greek myths). But that didn’t stop people from suggesting the names of beloved pets. And, somewhat inevitably, someone suggested Moony McMoonface.

Here are the winners:

Pandia: She’s the goddess of the full moon. Pandia is the daughter of Zeus and the moon goddess Selene. One group that entered this name in the contest was the astronomy club of the Lanivet Community Primary School in Bodmin, England. The school’s mascot is a panda.

Ersa: Sister of Pandia, Ersa is the goddess of dew. Several people suggested this name. They included 4-year-old moon expert Walter. He got the judges’ attention with a song listing the largest moons of the solar system in order of their size.

Eirene: The goddess of peace, Eirene is the daughter of Zeus and Themis, a Greek Titaness who personifies divine order, justice and law. Among the tweets that suggested this name was one submitted on behalf of a mythology-loving 10-year-old.

Philophrosyne: Philophrosyne is the spirit of welcome and kindness. She’s a granddaughter of Zeus. Among the submitters of this name was an 11th-grade history class.

Eupheme: Sister of Philophrosyne, Eupheme is the spirit of praise and good omens.

Routine hits in a single football season may h…

Routine hits in a single football season may harm players’ brains:

A season of head hits left its mark on the brains of college football players. Those hits didn’t even need to cause concussions, a new study finds. Just routine head bumps throughout the football season were enough to show up as a “signature” of abnormal changes in the players’ brain stems.

Explainer: What is a concussion?

Adnan Hirad at the University of Rochester in New York led the new study. It looked for signs of brain changes due to head impacts. Hirad’s team recruited college players to participate in the study during the 2011, 2012 and 2013 football seasons. Each player wore an accelerometer in his helmet. That device captured the intensity and direction of hits at all practices and games during a single season. The players also underwent pre- and post-season brain scans.

A key job of healthy brain tissue is to relay signals from one neuron (nerve cell) to the next. To measure this how well that signaling was, the researchers focused on something called fractional anisotropy (An-eye-so-TROH-pee). It allowed researchers to estimate how well parts of the brain’s white matter carried those neural messages.

Thirty-eight players took part in the study. Together they sustained 19,128 hits to the head. By the end of one season of play, the players’ fractional anisotropy scores had dropped, on average, in their right midbrains. This is a part of the brain stem.

Explainer: How to read brain activity

How big the drop was tended to be linked more tightly to the number of hits that rotated a player’s head rather than to the number of direct head-on hits. Those rotational forces might be especially damaging to brain tissue.

Hirad’s team shared its findings August 7 in Science Advances.

It’s unclear if the brain-stem changes affect mental performance. Similarly, it’s unknown if the changes will be permanent. But the study suggests that even smaller knocks to the head can cause trouble.

Phones in the classroom hurt everyone’s grades

Phones in the classroom hurt everyone’s grades:

Are you ever tempted to check your phone in class? It seems harmless enough to take a quick peek. But a new study finds that college students don’t retain information as well when devices are allowed in class. That was true even among students who did not use the devices themselves.

And college students are likely not to be the only ones affected, say Arnold Glass and Mengxue Kang. Both of the study’s authors are psychologists who work at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J. Glass says he’s sure he would find the same results if he had studied middle- or high-school students. Why? The effects he and Kang saw are likely due to basic human tendencies — ones that don’t change with age.

These researchers had noticed their students were using laptops and phones during class. And they suspected there could be a problem with that. The human brain simply isn’t wired to do several things at once.

People like to think they can multitask. But the brain actually can focus attention on just one thing at a time. When people switch between tasks, their brains can’t keep up with everything. So there will be a delay as their attention moves from one task to another. Someone who is listening to one person talk, for instance, can’t also listen to another. They can’t even listen and read at the same time.

So what happens when students try to listen to a lecture while they check their email? Or participate in a classroom discussion while liking a friend’s photos? Glass and Kang thought this kind of multitasking might make it harder for students to learn. Their new data now confirm that it does.

Will this be on the test?

Glass and Kang worked with two groups of Rutgers students. Both groups were taking the same psychology course, just at different times. Both groups had the same teacher and covered the same material. The only difference between them was the time of day that they met (one right after the other).

The researchers then added one more difference between the two groups. One class was allowed to use digital devices on odd days but not on even days. The other class had the same rules, but on opposite days. This let the researchers compare how students with and without devices absorbed each day’s lessons.

On non-device days, an observer made sure students didn’t touch their phones or computers during class. At the end of the class period, students could use their devices to complete a quiz about what had been discussed that day in class.

At the end of the semester, Glass and Kang examined the results. They compared students’ quiz results on device days and non-device days. They also looked at results from three unit exams and the final exam at the end of the semester.

For in-class quizzes, there researchers found no difference between the scores of students with and without devices. But their exams told a different story.

Students did five percent better on sections of the test that covered material from non-device days. The difference was even bigger for the class’ final exam. Here, students did 13 percent better on test sections that covered non-device days. That’s the difference between an A and a B, or a B and a C.

Glass and Kang then looked at whether it was only the students using their phones or laptops who took a hit on their grades. Did students who chose not to use devices, even when they could have, perform better on the tests than their device-using classmates? Surprisingly, no. All students got worse grades for material taught when devices were permitted — even those who did not use their phones or computers.

More than half of all students used electronic devices when they were allowed, Glass reports. “So everyone who didn’t use a device was probably sitting next to someone who was.” He speculates that this made it harder to retain information in two ways. Students asked fewer questions, leading to less conversation between the class and the instructor. Those conversations are important because students tend to remember them, Glass notes. “And instructors, of course, respond with what they think is important — what will be on the test.”

Using a cell phone is also distracting to people nearby, Glass points out. Even if a person doesn’t want to look at the screen, they just can’t seem to help it. He asks, “Have you ever been in a movie theater where a stranger sitting near you was using a cell phone?” If your attention was pulled away from the movie, he says, you probably had a hard time remembering the plot afterward. The same holds true in the classroom.

Glass and Kang described their findings online July 26, 2018 in Educational Psychology.

Distracting temptations

Larry Rosen is a psychologist at California State University Dominguez Hills, in Carson. He would like to see Kang and Glass dig deeper into why tech use in class affects performance. Rosen has done some research into this subject himself. Those studies show that students have a “fear of missing out” that drives their desire to check their phones — even at inconvenient times. Such as in class. And that has a negative impact on their ability to learn, he says.  

The constant distraction of electronic devices may make students struggle more with complex materials, adds Jean Twenge. She’s a psychologist at San Diego State University in California. Her new research finds that teens spend more than six hours a day on electronic devices. These kids rarely read books or magazines. This makes them unprepared for college-level work, she suspects.

None of this means we should eliminate technology,” Twenge says. Technology can help students learn. For example, ebooks can be easier to buy and keep with you than traditional textbooks. And students with disabilities may require certain technologies to function in the classroom. “It’s just that electronic devices have so many more temptations,” she says, which “can be distracting.”

We’ve lost 3 billion birds since 1970 in North…

We’ve lost 3 billion birds since 1970 in North America:

Nearly 3 billion fewer birds exist in North America today than in 1970.

While scientists have known for decades that certain kinds of birds have struggled as humans (and bird-gobbling cats) encroach on their habitats, a new comprehensive tally shows the staggering extent of the loss. Nearly 1 in 3 birds — or 29 percent — has vanished in the last half century, researchers report September 19 in Science.

“Three billion is a punch in the gut,” says Peter Marra, a conservation biologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The loss is widespread, he says, affecting rare and common birds alike. “Our study is a wake-up call. We’re experiencing an ecological crisis.”

Looking at the loss of individual birds sets this study apart, says Hillary Young, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who was not involved in the study. “So much of the focus in conservation is on the loss of species,” but individual birds play an important role in ecosystems, pollinating plants, dispersing seeds and controlling pests.

“Often it’s the common, abundant birds that keep these ecosystems ticking,” Young says. Some biologists argue that, as rarer birds disappear, more common ones will swoop in and fill their niches. These common birds might be more adaptable, and able to persist as habitat shrinks, keeping the overall numbers of birds stable and basic ecosystem services intact.

But without a broad beakcount over many decades, “we just didn’t know for sure,” says Kenneth Rosenberg, an ornithologist at Cornell University.

So Rosenberg, Marra and their colleagues mined 12 databases built from decades of on-the-ground bird observations in the United States and Canada, often made by citizen scientists. Yearly observations built a record of population-level changes in 529 species, representing 76 percent of birds that breed in North America. A statistical analysis of these data let the team estimate population trends since 1970 and compare them with current best estimates of population size.

The numbers paint a grim picture: Most habitats and species have experienced tremendous losses, especially migratory birds. Grassland species fared the worst. Some 700 million individual birds across 31 species, including meadowlarks, have vanished since 1970, a 53 percent drop. American sparrows, little brown birds commonly seen flitting through backyards, saw the largest drop of any group of birds. Nearly a quarter — 750 million — have disappeared over the past five decades. Even invasive species like starlings, which are highly adaptive generalists, experienced massive losses, with their populations declining 63 percent.

Scientists estimate there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than in 1970. Both common and rare birds are disappearing across nearly all habitats.

“What’s scary to me is that the common birds, even invasive ones, aren’t faring any better than the rare birds,” Young says. “These results clearly show they’re just as vulnerable.”

The researchers confirmed this trend with an unusual new way of monitoring birds — weather radar. Radar systems tracking the movement of clouds across the United States also register other large masses moving through the air, including flocks of migrating birds. After distinguishing these flocks from clouds, the researchers estimated the change in total biomass of birds migrating at night and found a 14 percent drop from 2007 to 2017.

While not directly comparable, the two methods reveal a similarly steep decline. “That [both methods] came to the same conclusion suggests these numbers aren’t just being pulled out of a hat,” says Morgan Tingley, an ornithologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “They’re real.”

The study doesn’t address why birds are disappearing, but many face habitat degradation and loss. “As habitats diminish, birds have nowhere to go,” Rosenberg says. Cats may kill more than a billion birds a year (SN: 1/29/13), while nearly a billion more die in collisions with buildings (SN: 1/27/14), previous studies have found.

But the study offers some hope. Populations of waterfowl, like mallard ducks and Canadian geese, have grown 56 percent since 1970. “This increase is no accident,” Rosenberg says. “It’s a direct result of decades of conservation efforts made by hunters and billions of dollars to protect these birds and their habitat.” Rosenberg says he hopes this study will spurn similar concern for all birds.

“This paper doesn’t tell us what the future holds,” Tingley says. “Only what has happened up to this point. It’s up to us to decide what to do next.”

1 in 4 U.S. high school seniors has vaped rece…

1 in 4 U.S. high school seniors has vaped recently — up 4.5 percent from 2018:

The crowd of teens and tweens vaping in their school bathrooms and just about every place else is getting bigger.

One out of every 4 high school seniors in the United States reported recent vaping, according to an annual behavioral survey called Monitoring the Future. Among sophomores, that ratio was 1 in 5, and for 8th-graders it was 1 in 11.

Those results mark a 4.5 percentage point rise in recent vaping within the past 30 days by 12th-graders over the previous year, a 4.1 percentage point rise among 10th-graders and a 2.8 percentage point increase for 8th-graders from 2018, researchers report online September 18 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Unfortunately, I am not at all surprised by these increases in use by adolescents,” says Susanne Tanski, a primary care pediatrician at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, N.H. “Use among teens and young adults is incredibly common, frequent and leading to addiction.”

To quantify how many teens may be addicted, the survey asked for the first time about daily nicotine vaping, defined as having used e-cigarettes on at least 20 of the previous 30 days. Nearly 12 percent of 12th-graders, 7 percent of 10th-graders and 2 percent of 8th-graders reported a daily vaping habit, which suggests nicotine addiction, the study authors say. Nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, which can impact learning, attention and impulse control (SN: 12/19/18).

On the rise:

The popularity of vaping continues to increase, as more 8th-graders, high school sophomores and seniors report using e-cigarettes each year from 2017 to 2019.

Source: R. Miech et al/New England Journal of Medicine 2019
Credit: E. Otwell

“We are seeing young people who are struggling with nicotine addiction that is more intense than we saw with regular cigarettes,” Tanski says.

The growth in teen vaping also comes as health officials cope with an outbreak of severe vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the United States (SN: 9/6/19). Officials don’t yet know what substance or product is fueling the lung injuries.

The nationally representative Monitoring the Future survey, conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan with government funding, asked vaping-related questions of more than 4,500 students across the United States in each of the three grades.

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