An Oil spill in Mauritius

Do you know where the island nation of Mauritius is?

It is 1,200 miles (2,000 km) off Africa’s east coast in the Indian Ocean. It is known for its beautiful beaches, reefs and lagoons. Mauritius depends on its seas for food and for tourism, boasting some of the finest coral reefs in the world.

Why are we discussing Mauritius? 

On July 25, a Japanese ship ran aground on a reef near Pointe d’Esny, Mauritius. Although the crew of the ship was rescued, rough waters prevented teams from freeing the trapped ship. Cracks appeared on the ship over the next few days, and it has now leaked approximately 1,000 litres of oil into the island nation’s surrounding waters.

Why is this terrible news for Mauritius? 

The area under threat is home to several internationally protected sanctuaries. These sanctuaries host mangrove forests, coral reefs and sea grass meadows. They are home to turtles, 72 species of fish, and an exceptional coral diversity of 38 species from 15 families. 

Spills like this are very detrimental to the turquoise waters and the life that lives in and around them. The chemicals that make up oil are toxic to plants and animals, including mangrove forests and the corals that build reefs. The black and sticky oils  persist longer and can harm life in the sea and on the coasts.

This photo taken and provided by Eric Villars shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (Eric Villars via AP)

What are the locals doing to stop the oil from leaking?

Thousands of volunteers in Mauritius are working to keep leaking oil from spreading towards the island. Some volunteers are using make-shift absorbent barriers of straw stuffed into fabric sacks called booms to help stop the oil from spreading. Other volunteers are working to clean the polluted water and beaches. Wildlife conservationists are also moving some animals, such as baby tortoises and rare plants out of harm’s way. 

Mauritius’ leaders say they’ve never faced a problem  like this and weren’t prepared for such a disaster. We hope they can save their beautiful beaches, reefs and unique plant and animal life.

 


What is Ceres, and does it really hold signs of water?

Ceres is a dwarf planet and is the largest known object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

What are dwarf planets? They are similar to the solar system’s eight planets but are smaller. Like planets, they are large, roundish objects that orbit the Sun but that are not moons. The first three objects classified as dwarf planets in 2006, were Pluto, Eric and Ceres.

Why are we interested in Ceres? Until now, the freezing cold dwarf planet Ceres was thought to be a barren space rock but this has changed. A NASA mission called Dawn studied Ceres intensely between March 2015 to November 2018. The data captured by the mission now provides a new understanding of Ceres.

They mission  many sodium chloride crystals on the surface. Scientists inferred that these salt crystals likely came from liquid below the surface that had oozed out and evaporated, leaving behind a salty crust.

How did that liquid got there? Scientists have been able to confirm that the liquid comes from an underground waterbody of salty water sitting 25 miles below the surface. The waterbody below the dwarf planet’s surface likely froze over time, but some residue may still lie beneath a large crater on Ceres. Experts feel the residue still has a bit of water because of the presence of salts. The salt has helped conserve the liquid as a brine, despite cold temperatures.

Why does this matter? This new finding bumps  Ceres to ‘ocean world’ status. Water is considered a key ingredient for life. Scientists want to understand whether Ceres every hosted microbial life.  Which other objects in the Solar System have ocean world status? They include Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Neptune’s moon Triton and the dwarf planet Pluto.

It is possible that Ceres can be used as a possible outpost for life during missions exploring beyond the asteroid belt.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured pictures in the visible and infra-red wavelengths, which were combined to create this false-colour view of an area in the Occator Crater on Ceres. Picture: JPL/NASA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured pictures in the visible and infra-red wavelengths, which were combined to create this false-colour view of an area in the Occator Crater on Ceres. Picture: JPL/NASA


Should schools open now or remained closed for a while longer? New Zealand’s experience with the coronavirus has some lessons for us.

Schools around some countries in the world have been open for a while and some are opening in the next month or two. Colleges in America and the UK have been coming up with ways to teach students in some combination of online and offline learning. Some people have been going to work, to offices with 10% occupancy in the space at one time. Here in India, the central government is recommending the opening of schools on September 1, 2020, or is thinking about it anyway. The trick will be in keeping people safe and not giving the virus a chance to gain more of a foothold than it already has.

Through all this, New Zealand seems to have had the best luck with controlling the spread of the virus. Until August 11, 2020, it reported that it had had no new cases of COVID-19 transmitted through the community for 100 days! All new cases were those in people returning from outside the country. And those coming into the country are kept in a government quarantine facility for two weeks. In addition, they have reported only 22 deaths due to coronavirus through this pandemic, from a population of 22 million.

How did they achieve this feat? They have been testing a lot and isolating those who test positive. They are also a nation that doesn’t share land borders with anyone else and have been successful in stopping people from entering their country since March. Furthermore, they have a much smaller population per unit of area than we do in India – they have an average of 18 people per square kilometer, whereas here in India, we have 455 people per square kilometer! That means that when people fall sick, people in India have a greater likelihood of passing it on to others, sometimes even before they might know they are sick!

This changed today, August 12, 2020, when they reported the first four cases in more than 100 days in the community, for which the origin is unknown. This highlights the fact that this virus is wily and will find a way to live and propagate itself, and that we must continue to take care.

What do you think about schools opening in India? While there are some who have the luxury of learning online, there are many kids who do not have the devices or the wi-fi to be able to access this. The UN released a report recently that said that the education of 1 billion kids around the world is being compromised due to the schools being shut and limited access to learning materials!

This pandemic is affecting people around the world in many ways, and because they have less access, some say that it is disproportionately affecting the poor. It is a difficult decision that authorities face now – open schools and risk the health of children, teachers and school staff? Or keep them closed for a while longer and risk more children losing out on their learning experience? What do you think?


Written by: Sunaina Murthy


All eyes on Mars

Three rival missions have left Earth to explore Mars. The US, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent spacecrafts on a new hunt to discover whether life ever existed on Mars.

Why Mars? There is evidence of water in the past, suggesting it could have once supported life.

Why are they leaving at the same time? According to NASA, on October 6, Mars will be within 62 million kilometres of Earth. This is the closest Mars will get to Earth this year. A Mars Close Approach happens about every 26 months. These missions are taking advantage of this proximity so that they will travel 483 million km to Mars in 7 months rather than the usual 9 months.

The first mission to begin its way to Mars was the Hope probe of the UAE.

The Hope orbiter will reach Mars in early 2021, to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, weather and climate from above. To read more about this click here.

The next mission was the Chinese Mission. What do we know about it?

Tianwen-1 mission is also already on its way to Mars. Like the other missions it will take 7 months to get there. It is special because this is the first time a single mission to another planet has carried all three – an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. When the spacecraft gets to the red planet, it will begin to orbit Mars. A few months after that, it will lower a lander down to the martian surface. The wheeled rover will be inside that!

The rover will survey the surface of Mars, including whether there is any water in the soil. It is equipped with a high-resolution camera and a spectrometer to allow scientists to study what the surface rocks are made of.

Tianwen-1 plans to map the Red Planet and learn more about its weather. And it hopes to find any proof that life ever existed on Mars — or if it still does.

China has tried to get to Mars once before in 2011. However, that spacecraft (Yinghuo-1) failed to get there.  If this mission is successful, it would be a major milestone for China. China will become just the third nation, after Russia and the US, to land on Mars.

What do we know about the new US mission to Mars?

The US has sent 4 successful missions with rovers to Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover is still moving across the Martian surface.

Then what is NASA’s Perseverance mission focussed on?

It will try and answer the big question – Was there ever life on the red planet? The spacecraft will take upto 7 months to reach Mars. Once it gets there the spacecraft will descend through temperatures upto 2100C. When it nears the surface it will use the sky-crane method to lower the rover onto the surface. A parachute will dramatically slow the spacecraft, then retro rockets will fire.

It plans to land inside the 45 km wide Mars’ Jezero crater in mid-February 2021. This special spot was chosen as scientists believe it was filled with water more than 3 billion years ago. Water is an important ingredient for life to be present. So scientists believe if there was life, this would be a good spot to look for remnants or evidence of this.

The rover is a robot about the size of a car. It has 6 wheels and a 7-ft long robotic arm. It will search for signs of ancient life in the rocks. It will also try and make oxygen on Mars. This is will be important if we plan to send astronauts in the future. It is also carrying a mini helicopter. They want to see if it will be able to take off in Mars’s think atmosphere.

NASA has an ambitious plan. Between 2021 and 2026, the rover will gather and store samples on Mars.  In 2026, a second mission will fire the samples into orbit around Mars. In 2031 a spacecraft will catch the orbiting samples and carry them back to earth!

Well we can’t wait to hear back from these missions. Stay tuned for more posts!

 


Virgin Galactic’s is creating a new jet that can you get you from London to New York in 2 hours!


Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic is creating a super fast aircraft that will fly at about 3,701 kph. That’s three times the speed of sound! It will reduce the travel time from New York City to London, England, from eight hours to two hours! Isn’t that exciting.

Virgin Galactic shared the initial design plans for the new jet. The aircraft will fit nine to 19 passengers. It will use state of the art sustainable fuel. Like on any other commercial aircraft there will be business class and first-class seats and will also take off and land like them. The key proposition of company is focused on making high-speed travel safe for people. The team will work on challenges such as managing heat and noise from the supersoniccraft.

Have there been super fast planes in the past?

Yes, but if Virgin Galactic is successful this will beat a record by another super-fast plane called the Concorde. British Airways and Air France flew the Concorde up until 2003. That craft was able to make same trip from London to New York in just under three hours. 

What do Virgin Galactic do?

They are an aerospace and space travel company. They have been working on space tourism that is a way to provide flights to space for tourists. It was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.

This jet project is a new venture. Virgin Galactic is working with Rolls-Royce on the this high speed aircraft. Rolls-Royce also built the engine that powered the Concorde. 

Virgin Galactic will now move forward to the next steps in the design process. If all goes well, the new supersonic will soon be zooming through the skies. 

 


Marine Explorers are building the largest underwater habitat

Curacao Island
World Atlas

News: Marine explorers are planning to design and build the world’s largest underwater research station. Something like the International Space Station but underwater.

A group called the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center is spearheading this project. The underwater research station will be called Proteus and will be located 60 feet underwater in a marine protected area off the coast of Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean Sea. It will be the largest underwater habitat and will take three years to complete.

What will it look like? The designs shows a two-story structure that rises from the ocean floor on five legs. There station will have labs, bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, a kitchen and a medical centre. It will have a greenhouse for growing food. Proteus will also include a video production facility that is capable of broadcasting from the ocean in 16K resolution! Isn’t that cool! The station will be connected to the surface through an lifeline that transport breathable air and communications. The entire station will powered by renewable energy! 

Credit: Courtesy Proteus/Yves Béhar/Fuseproject

Aquanaut
Check Yeti

Why is this underwater important? Humans weren’t made to live underwater. They use techniques such s scuba diving to explore the ocean. But such efforts are time bound. Living underwater in a pressurised environment, rather than just diving in, will now allow scientists to spend far more time in the water and only decompress at the end of their assignment. Their research can also happen a lot faster if they don’t have to keep going up and down through the ocean.

Is this the first underwater habitat? There have been some short-lived underwater research stations but most have been the size of a mini van and designed for a specific mission. Proteus would be four times larger than any other and will house upto 12 people who will be able to live underwater for weeks and even months at a time. 

Why do humans want to explore the ocean?  A vast majority of the ocean remains unexplored. Humans have only explored about 5 percent and mapped less than 20 percent of them. The Proteus station will be open to researchers from across the world. They will come and have a chance to discover new species of marine life and develop a better understanding of how climate change affects the ocean. Research in the ocean may help with derive new medicines and sustainable sources of food.

Conclusion:  Scientists from all over the world will have a chance to live and work in the submerged structure! If successful, Proteus will bring them closer than ever to the water’s secrets.

Credit: Courtesy Proteus/Yves Béhar/Fuseproject


The ESO shows us the first ever picture of a new planet system somewhat like ours!

This is the very first picture that anyone has been able to take of a planet system somewhat like ours, where two planets (or more than one anyway) are orbiting around a sun. This was taken by the Very large Telescope (VLT) manned by the European Southern Observatory on July 22, 2020,

Why is this important? Our sun is 4.63 billion years old. This new system that has been imaged is 300 million light years away and has a much younger sun, at 17 million years old. So this could give us some clues about the formation of our universe. It can also help us in our quest for finding life or conditions that support life on other planets.

Credit: European Southern Observatory VLT, very large telescope

 


How does a vaccine work, and will we have a vaccine against COVID-19 soon?

There are more than 150 vaccine candidates in various stages of development for the coronavirus we call COVID-19.

The 4 that are furthest along in development are from the following efforts, and they have all released phase I stage clinical trial data within the last week.

Moderna Therapeutics (USA)

Pfizer and BioNTech (USA and Germany)

Oxford University (England) and AstraZeneca (England)

CanSino Biologics (China)

Phase I clinical trials are conducted in healthy volunteers, and test for safety at different doses. They also look for the body’s immune response to receiving the vaccine.

What are vaccines anyway? Vaccines take a part of the virus, and introduce it in a small dose to the human body. Our bodies recognise a foreign substance and launch an immune attack against it, by the generation of B and/or T cells that then neutralise the threat and hopefully remember this foreign substance so that if the actual virus tries to infect that person in the future, the immune system remembers and sends in all the troops to eliminate the threat.

Many of you will have received some vaccines when you were babies, and some boosters or reminders to your immune system when you are older. These are to protect you from things like the whooping cough, tetanus, and chicken pox.

Sounds simple, but vaccine development is a complicated affair. First, you have to design a vaccine with a part of the virus or a killed virus that can’t multiply in the human body, or you may end up infecting a healthy person. This is then tested in animals to see if it can stimulate their immune systems against the virus, and that it is safe. It is then tested in healthy human volunteers for safety and efficacy (how well it protects).

How do you design a good vaccine? You need to choose a part of the virus that you think will not mutate over time. Yes, viruses are wily creatures that try to evade or hide from our immune systems, because they want to live. So they mutate. Some mutate faster and more frequently than others. This is why we don’t have a long lasting vaccine for the common cold!

What do you need to watch out for in the trials and in the years following the trial and vaccination?

You need to be able to show that vaccinating people with this construct is safe and that any side effects they experience are mild in nature.

You need to test them in enough people from different geographies to see how it works in them.

You need to show that it is able to stimulate an immune response.

You need to show that it can prevent the person getting infected by that virus. This is tricky, because you have to vaccinate some people with the real vaccine, and some people with a fake vaccine (no one should know what they have received). You pick people in areas where the virus is present so that their immune systems have a chance at being challenged by the virus. Then you have to see if less people who received the vaccine get sick, vs. those who received the fake vaccine.

You need to see how long that immunity lasts – is it one month, one year, forever or something else?

Got it! So when is it likely that we will get a vaccine that works? Well, there is a lot of pressure around the world to get a vaccine against COVID-19. There are many efforts ongoing, and the front runners are all enrolling thousands of people in big clinical trials and hoping to get something approved late this year, although long-term safety data will not be available for a while.

In the meantime, don’t forget to keep some distance from others, wear your masks when out and about, and keep washing those hands!


Written by: Sunaina Murthy


Greta Thunberg wins the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity

Greta Thunberg is a 17 year old climate change activist who started the Fridays for Future movement a few years ago. She was so deeply affected by a school project on climate change that she has spent the last few years campaigning for change in human behaviour to save our planet. She has been successful in raising awareness and motivating generations and governments to focus on this issue.

She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the past, and was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019. A Portugese institute, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has just awarded her a 1 million Euro prize for her work, in its very first Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity.

What will she do with the prize money? Greta has decided that she will give it all away to groups that are working towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly world.


Written by: Sunaina Murthy


The fate of polar bears lies in our hands. Find out why.

© _ This map shows the 19 subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic.
© _ This map shows the 19 subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic.

What do you know about Polar Bears? They are carnivorous mammals that live along the shores and on sea ice in the Arctic circle. They are found in the northern parts of Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and some northern islands owned by Norway, such as Svalbard. They weigh upto 1600 pounds.

So, what do they eat? They primarily eat seals. During the winters, when sea ice forms on the ocean, polar bears venture out onto the ice to hunt for seals. They rest at seal’s breathing holes waiting for a seal to peak out of the water. They also hunt by swimming beneath the ice!

What is sea ice? Sea ice is frozen seawater that floats on the ocean surface, forming and melting with the polar seasons.

Is it true polar bears go through periods of feast and famine? Polar bears hunt during the winters and build up storage that sees them through the warmer months. Their bodies have a flabby layer of fat, which can be up to 3.4 inches thick. This fat keeps them warm, but also acts as an energy store. They draw on these energy reserves to make it through lean summer months on land. This is why bears are used to fasting for months!

Polar Bear WWF
WWF

Why have polar bears been listed as vulnerable to extinction by conservation authorities? For years, scientists have been worried about polar bear populations. Climate change is making it harder for polar bears to hunt for seals. Warmer temperatures are causing sea ice to break and melt earlier. As the Arctic sea ice shrinks polar bears are unable to hunt for seals. They are forced to roam for long distances or on to shore, where they struggle to find food or feed their cubs. They scavenge for less nutritious food on land such as berries, kelp, whale carcasses, bird eggs, and even reindeer. None of these food items are sustainable substitutes in the long-term as seal fat is really the only food with high enough energy content to keep polar bears going.

How many polar bears exist today? Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 26,000 left, spread out across 19 different subpopulations today.

Why are we discussing them? A recent study actually confirms scientist’s fears. It predicts when, where and how polar bear populations are likely to disappear. The study warns if humans fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most polar bear populations will disappear by 2100.

 What did the study find? This dramatic loss of sea ice is causing bear populations in some parts of the Arctic to go longer and longer without food. Scientists studied how long bears could fast before it affected their cubs and their own survival. They realised that long periods of starvation will affect bear cubs first. Next female bears and cubs are most vulnerable. Malnourished females are unable to produce enough milk to nurse their cubs and this impacts their survival. The next group are adult bears and single females.

The study predicts that the inability to feed cubs will impact polar bear populations as early as 2040, leading to local extinctions.

Af the end the study forecasts that under the current climate scenario, where green house emissions continue to rise, nearly all polar bears in the Arctic may struggle to survive by 2100!

Is there any good news? Yes there is some hope. The study says if humans are able to cut global emissions, there is still a chance that polar bears might survive in some regions beyond the end of this century. So, polar bears are not completely doomed if we change our behaviour!