Losing Arecibo’s giant dish leaves humans more vulnerable to space rocks, scientists say

Ignorance may feel like bliss, but preparedness offers better odds of surviving what is to come. And when it comes to planetary defense, ignorance just became a bit more inevitable.

Planetary defense is the art of identifying and mitigating threats to Earth from asteroid impacts. And among its tools is planetary radar, an unusual capability that can give scientists a much better look at a nearby object. Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was one of only a couple such systems on the planet, and that instrument’s long tenure is over now after two failed cables made the telescope so unstable that there was no way to even evaluate its status without risking workers’ lives, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the site. Instead, it will be decommissioned.

And when it comes to planetary defense, there’s nothing like it.

“There’s been statements in the media that, ‘Oh we have other systems that can kind of replace what Arecibo is doing,’ and I don’t think that’s true,” Anne Virkki, who leads the planetary radar team at Arecibo Observatory, told Space.com. “It’s not obsolete and it’s not easily replaceable by other existing facilities and instruments.”

Related: Losing Arecibo Observatory would create a hole that can’t be filled, scientists say

Planetary defense begins with spotting as many near-Earth asteroids as possible — nearly 25,000 to date, according to NASA — and estimating their sizes and their orbits around the sun. Arecibo never played a role in discovering asteroids; that task is much more easily completed by a host of telescopes that see large swaths of the sky in visible and infrared light and are able to catch the sudden appearance of a bright, fast-moving dot between the stars, telescopes like the PanSTARRS observatory in Hawaii. With those first observations, the smallest asteroids and those that stay far from Earth can be safely labeled and more or less forgotten.

But larger asteroids with orbits that might bring them too close for comfort get additional study, and often, that work has been Arecibo Observatory’s. The facility sported a powerful radar transmitter that could bounce a beam of light off an object in Earth’s neighborhood. Then, the observatory’s massive radio dish could catch the echo of that signal, letting scientists decipher precise details about an asteroid’s location, size, shape and surface.

The same telescopes that identify asteroids in the first place can also give scientists the data they need to track a space rock’s orbit, but when planetary radar can spot the object, it completes the same work more quickly.

Sometimes that speed will matter, said Bruce Betts, chief scientist at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space-exploration advocacy group that includes planetary defense among its key issues. “You want to define an orbit as quickly as you can to figure out whether the asteroid is going to hit Earth,” Betts told Space.com.

That’s because with enough warning, humans could theoretically do something to prevent the collision — likely by nudging

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Scientists Recommend Listing Platypuses As ‘Vulnerable’


  • Researchers found a decline in platypus population and habitats
  • The declines may continue in the future because of persistent threats to the species
  • They recommend officially listing platypuses as “vulnerable” to protect them

Scientists have recommended listing platypuses as a “threatened species” after learning that their population and habitats are shrinking.

Platypuses, iconic for their duck-like bill and strange cuteness, are facing an increasing number of threats, such as extreme droughts, climate change, and land clearing.

The species was included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as “lower risk/least concern” in 1996. By 2016, however, platypuses were considered “near threatened,” a new report on the conservation status of platypuses notes.

Under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, platypuses are listed as endangered in South Australia.

To determine the state of platypuses, a team of scientists collected all the available data from multiple sources and assessed the species’ risk of extinction.

Unfortunately, the researchers found declines in both the places where platypuses live and in the number of platypus sitings. Specifically, the researchers found that the areas where platypuses can be found shrunk by 22% in the last 30 years. According to the statement from the Australian Conservation Foundation, that’s about 200,000 square kilometers or about the size of Tasmania.

As for the declines in platypus occurrence, the “worst” data came from  New South Wales and Queensland, where platypus occurrence declined by 32% and 27%, respectively. In the state of Victoria, where the overall decline was about 7%, the researchers still detected 54%-65% declines in some catchments, according to the report, released by the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Platypus Pictured: Representative image of a swimming platypus. Photo: Pixabay

“Based on our assessment, there is evidence of past and projected declines in platypus populations which support the listing of the platypus as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List and the EPBC Act 1999,” the researchers wrote. 

Simply put, evidence shows that platypus populations have already declined in the past few years and will likely continue to do so since threats to the species have not ceased. The researchers propose listing platypuses under the “vulnerable” category, both in the IUCN Red List and the EPBC Act.

According to the IUCN, a species is considered to be threatened if they are listed as “critically endangered,” “endangered” or “vulnerable.” This means that the species with these designations are already threatened with global extinction.

As the UNSW news release explained, having platypuses listed as a threatened species means that monitoring them would be a priority. There would also be regulations on developments that could potentially threaten the species.

“We have a national and international responsibility to look after this unique animal and the signs are not good,” a lead author of the study, Prof. Richard Kingsford, said in the UNSW report. “Platypus are [sic] declining and we need to do something about threats to the species before it is too late.”

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How the coronavirus has changed education for some of Dallas’ most vulnerable students

It’s after midnight when Gabriella Munoz, 18, comes home, legs weary from waiting tables for eight hours. She sits down at her computer and mulls the economics chapters to read and math problems to finish before returning to another day at North Garland High.

This is Munoz’s new routine since the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted her life and left her older sister, who made nearly half of the family’s income, out of a job.

After struggling to keep up with remote learning this spring she was excited to engage with her teachers in a classroom during the first eight weeks of the fall semester. But Munoz, who lives in Rowlett, quickly found her new and unpredictable work hours made it hard to stick to the school schedule.

Based on her experience last year, she’s worried.

“School was very rough for me and I barely passed because I didn’t feel like there was a point,” Munoz said. “The only thing I wanted to do was to go to work and make money because I can look at the money, I can use the money.”

Now, Munoz fears her chances for going to college are in jeopardy as harder courses demand more time and focus that already disadvantaged students like her no longer have.

She is among a more vulnerable group who are considering putting off college because of disruptions caused by COVID, prompting experts to warn that the pandemic may be increasing an achievement gap based on socioeconomic class.

“This whole situation has shed light on the inequity that has existed for a long time,” said Michael Arreola, principal at North Garland High School.

The obstacles for low-income students — no access to tutors, no space to study and new demands to work or take care of siblings — affected many students at the school last year, he said.

In Texas, about 70% public schoolchildren come from families that are struggling financially. Across the Garland Independent School District’s seven high schools, the rate is almost that high — 65%.

District officials noticed last spring that many students didn’t finish their work because of limited access to computers. So Garland ISD handed out more than 10,000 wifi hotspots along with Chromebooks and iPads, which boosted student participation, said Diana Montgomery, Garland ISD’s student success coordinator.

For schools with large numbers of low-income students, that extra technological support could mean the difference between temporary academic losses and those that last long into the future.

“It creates a deeper sense of urgency,” North Garland High School Assistant principal Mark Booker said. “If we are not careful, if we don’t approach our work this fall with fidelity and make sure that we are pushing and fighting for all kids, then we are losing a whole generation of them.”

The problem with online courses

A number of studies show that online courses are less effective than traditional in-person ones.

For instance, researchers at Stanford University found that students who took an in-person class earned roughly a B-,

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CPS confirms plan to phase students back into buildings next quarter, starting with ‘most vulnerable’ children; union vows to fight reopening

Chicago Public Schools announced Friday that all students will continue with remote learning when the second quarter starts in November but that some of the district’s “most vulnerable” children will begin returning to schools before the end of the calendar year.

a close up of a sign: CPS says pre-kindergartners and some special education students will be the first to return to school but they haven't said when.

© Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
CPS says pre-kindergartners and some special education students will be the first to return to school but they haven’t said when.

A CPS news release did not specify when the first students — those in pre-kindergarten and some in special education — will begin phasing back in to in-person learning, saying administrators will make that decision in consultation with public health official “closer to the start of the second quarter” on Nov. 9.

But officials said the goal is to “add additional grades as early as January. Later this year, the district will be engaging parents in other grades to assess their interest in returning to classrooms.”

The Chicago Teachers Union immediately vowed to fight the plan, with CTU attorney Thad Goodchild calling it “Ill-timed, reckless and illegal” and vowing that the union will use “all available resources” to roll it back.

The union, which went on strike a year ago, did not specify its next move. But leaders and members said Mayor Lori Lightfoot is shirking her responsibility to protect Chicago citizens and pointed to metrics showing the pandemic is worsening and aren’t within the parameters officials outlined over the summer. They say CPS hasn’t done enough to make buildings safe or been transparent about COVID-19 cases tied to schools.

“We need more engagement, we need more collaboration, we need more transparency and we need more clarity in respect to how we can open safely,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said.

“We also know mayor and CPS has yet to invest the dollars necessary to open safety,” she added, citing a “conservative estimate” of $1 billion.

“We cannot experiment or take lightly the responsibility we need to see from mayor,” Davis Gates said. ” … I resent that we are always made the be the heavy in this.”

But CPS officials cited equity as one of the main factors in the decision, saying the COVID-19 pandemic “has greatly increased inequities in the district.”

The district pointed to new data it said shows that pre-kindergarten, special education and Black and Latino students “are attending school at significantly reduced rates relative to prior years and other students this school year.”

CPS also pointed to a what it called the ‘largest enrollment decline in more than two decades driven by fewer new students enrolling in the earliest grades, including a 44 percent decline in Black students enrolled in pre-K compared to last school year.”

CPS said it decided to use a phased-in approach, starting with preschoolers and students in “intensive and moderate” special education programs, because those “require a significantly modified curriculum with support in a separate classroom from general education peers for the majority of the day.”

Those are the students

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