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Earth

Coastal Megacity Karachi Is Running Out of Water (earther.com) 286

The Pakistani megacity of Karachi, home to more than 20 million people, is among the most water-stressed cities in the world, only able to meet half of its daily water demand. From a report: Karachi requires 1,100 million of gallons per day (mgd), but only receives 550 mgd, according to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). Karachi's water is sourced from the Indus River via Keenjhar Lake, which sits more than 90 miles away from the city. The water shortage in Karachi is linked to myriad factors including climate change, mismanagement of water resources, and corruption. Most of all, however, a rising population increasing at a rate of 4.5 percent a year creates a strain on the finite water supply. Pakistan ranks in the top ten of countries worst affected by climate change, and water shortages are likely to deepen in both intensity and frequency in the coming decade.
Earth

People Living in the Hottest Places on the Planet Are the Least Likely To Have Air Conditioners (qz.com) 235

Zoe Schlanger, writing for Quartz: In 2016, roughly 10% of the planet's energy use went towards air conditioning. Figures vary wildly from country to country, though, and some of the hottest regions on Earth use the least A/C -- for now. A new report from the International Energy Agency says that's about to change. By 2050, the intergovernmental agency predicts, global energy use from A/Cs will triple, reaching a level equivalent to China's total electricity demand today. The African continent is home to some of the hottest places on Earth, but fewer than 5% of people in most African nations own an air conditioner, and energy used for cooling comes to just 35 kWh per person living in the continent, according to the IEA. In India, where large parts of the country are hot all year round, people use an average of 70 kWh for cooling. Compared to nations where having an A/C is the norm, that's almost nothing at all.
Google

Are Google's Cat-Loving Employees Killing Burrowing Owls? (seattletimes.com) 181

An anonymous reader writes: Google's employees started a group called GCat Rescue that traps feral cats and puts them up for adoption. (Though "less-friendly adult cats are neutered and released... The cats that are released are implanted with tracking chips, and an ear is notched so they can be identified.") A public records request discovered that city employees kept catching the Google-chipped cats in a nearby wildlife and recreation area that was home to the very last 50 burrowing owls in Silicon Valley — which California has officially designated a species of "special concern". Someone had apparently even installed a cat-feeding station next to a designated owl-nesting area.

The local Audubon Society has been asking Google to review their cat-feeding stations since 2012, but environmental groups told the Times Google was "consistenty unhelpful" on the cat issue. "They told us it was something their employees were doing and they couldn't interfere," said a board member with a group trying to protect the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. "One of the cats was trapped, turned over to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, released to Google, trapped again in the park and released again to Google," the Times reports, adding that "In August, it was found dead in the park."

"Like so many stories these days about Big Tech, this is a tale about how attempts to do good often produce unexpected consequences, and how even smart people (especially, perhaps, smart people) can be reluctant to rethink their convictions."

The Times reports that a "final victory is at hand" for the cats, since last year was the first time in 20 years that no owl fledglings were observed in the park -- though "as recently as 2011, there were 10." But the number of cat sightings was 318.
Robotics

AI-Enhanced Weed-Killing Robots Frighten Pesticide Industry (reuters.com) 176

Rick Schumann writes: A Swiss company called ecoRobotix is betting the agricultural industry will be willing to welcome their solar-powered weed-killing autonomous robot, in an effort to reduce the use of herbicides by up to a factor of 20 and perhaps even eliminate the need for herbicide-resistant GMO crops entirely.

The 'see-and-spray' robot goes from plant to plant, visually differentiating the actual crops and weeds, and squirting the weeds selectively and precisely with weed killer, as opposed to the current technique of using large quantities of weed killer like Monsantos' Roundup to spray entire crops.

Weeds are already becoming resistant to such glyphosate-based herbicides after "more than 20 years of near-ubiquitous use," reports Reuters. (The head of one pesticide company's science division concedes that "That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product.") But AI-based precision spraying "could mean established herbicides whose effect has worn off on some weeds could be used successfully in more potent, targeted doses."

Meanwhile, another Silicon Valley startup has built a machine using on-board cameras to distinguish weeds from crops -- and was recently acquired by the John Deere tractor company. Reuters calls these companies the "new breed of AI weeders that investors say could disrupt the $100 billion pesticides and seeds industry."

The original submission asks: Should we welcome our weed-killing robotic overlords?
Earth

Birds Had To Relearn Flight After Meteor Wiped Out Dinosaurs, Fossil Records Suggest (theguardian.com) 60

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Birds had to rediscover flight after the meteor strike that killed off the dinosaurs, scientists say. The cataclysm 66 million years ago not only wiped out Tyrannosaurus rex and ground-dwelling dinosaur species, but also flying birds, a detailed survey of the fossil record suggests. As forests burned around the world, the only birds to survive were flightless emu-like species that lived on the ground. The six to nine-mile-wide meteor struck the Earth off the coast of Mexico, releasing a million times more energy than the largest atomic bomb. Hot debris raining from the sky is thought to have triggered global wildfires immediately after the impact. It took hundreds or even thousands of years for the world's forests of palms and pines to recover. Fossil records from New Zealand, Japan, Europe and North America, all show evidence of mass deforestation. They also reveal that birds surviving the end of the Cretaceous period had long sturdy legs made for living on the ground. They resembled emus and kiwis, said the researchers whose findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.
Earth

As The Planet Warms, We'll Be Having Rice With A Side Of CO2 (npr.org) 275

Grains are the bedrock of civilization. They led humans from hunting and gathering to city-building. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the fruits of three grasses provide the world with 60 percent of its total food: corn, wheat and rice. Aside from energy-rich carbohydrates, grains feed us protein, zinc, iron and essential B vitamins. But rice as we know it is at risk. An anonymous reader shares a report: As humans expel billions of metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere and raze vast swaths of forests, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our air hurries ever higher. That has the potential to severely diminish the nutritional value of rice, according to a new study published this week in Science Advances. For people who depend heavily on rice as a staple in their diets, such a nutritional loss would be devastating, says Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington and an author on the study.
Communications

Newest NOAA Weather Satellite Suffers Critical Malfunction (arstechnica.com) 53

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released some bad news yesterday: the GOES-17 weather satellite that launched almost two months ago has a cooling problem that could endanger the majority of the satellite's value. GOES-17 is the second of a new generation of weather satellite to join NOAA's orbital fleet. Its predecessor is covering the U.S. East Coast, with GOES-17 meant to become "GOES-West." While providing higher-resolution images of atmospheric conditions, it also tracks fires, lightning strikes, and solar behavior. It's important that NOAA stays ahead of the loss of dying satellites by launching new satellites that ensure no gap in global coverage ever occurs.

Several weeks ago, it became clear that the most important instrument -- the Advanced Baseline Imager -- had a cooling problem. This instrument images the Earth at a number of different wavelengths, including the visible portion of the spectrum as well as infrared wavelengths that help detect clouds and water vapor content. The infrared wavelengths are currently offline. The satellite has to be actively cooled for these precision instruments to function, and the infrared wavelengths only work if the sensor stays below 60K -- that's about a cool -350F. The cooling system is only reaching that temperature 12 hours a day. The satellite can still produce visible spectrum images, as well as the solar and lightning monitoring, but it's not a glorious next-gen weather satellite without that infrared data.

Earth

Missing Climate Goals Could Cost the World $20 Trillion (technologyreview.com) 219

An anonymous reader shares a report: There are trillions of reasons for the world to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5C, the aspirational target laid out in the Paris climate agreement, according to a new study. If nations took the necessary actions to meet that goal, rather than the increasingly discussed 2C objective, there's a 60 percent chance it would save the world more than $20 trillion, according to new work published this week in Nature by scientists at Stanford. That figure is far higher than what most experts think it will cost to cut emissions enough to achieve the 1.5C target. Indeed, one study put the price tag in the hundreds of billions of dollars. If temperatures rise by 3C, it will knock out an additional 5 percent of GDP. That's the entire planet's GDP.
Worms

Giant Predatory Worms Are Invading France (qz.com) 250

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Quartz: In a Peer J study published on May 22, "Giant worms chez moi!" zoologist Jean-Lou Justine of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, entomologist colleagues, and Pierre Gros, outline a discovery that "highlights an unexpected blind spot of scientists and authorities facing an invasion by conspicuous large invasive animals." About 100 citizen scientists ultimately contributed to the assessment of this alien invasion, identifying five giant predatory worm species in France that grow up to 10 inches long. The study relied on contributors' worm sightings, reported "mainly by email, sometimes by telephone." Researchers requested photographs and details about locality. In 2013, the Washington Post reports, "a group of terrorized kindergartners claimed they saw a mass of writhing snakes in their play field." These were giant flatworms! The study concludes that the alien creatures appear to reproduce asexually. They prey on other, smaller earthworms, stunning them with toxins. "The planarian also produces secretions from its headplate and body that adhere it to the prey, despite often sudden violent movements of the latter during this stage of capture," researcher note. In other words, the hammerheads produce a substance that allows them to stick to victims while killing them. The study points out that invasive alien flatworms have been spotted in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Australia. But the five species of hammerhead flatworms invading France are giants, growing up to 27 centimeters.
NASA

SpaceX Flies Satellites For Iridium, NASA In 10th Launch of 2018 (bloomberg.com) 28

SpaceX launched a total of seven satellites for Iridium and NASA, reusing part of a previously flown rocket for its 10th mission of 2018. "Five Iridium NEXT satellites were launched as part of the company's campaign to replace the world's largest commercial satellite network," reports Bloomberg. "SpaceX's mission also includes launching twin satellites for the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO)," which will "measure the distribution of the Earth's mass" and "monitor changes in ice sheets, glaciers and sea level." From the report: The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast about 12:47 p.m. local time. The GRACE-FO satellites deployed roughly 11 minutes after launch, while the Iridium satellites are due to be released roughly an hour after the launch. SpaceX won't attempt to recover the first stage of the rocket, which flew in January during the Zuma mission, according to a SpaceX press kit. CBS News has some additional details about the GRACE-FO satellites. They were reportedly "designed to fly in tandem 137 miles apart in a 305-mile orbit around Earth's poles," reports CBS News. "Using a microwave tracking system, the distance between the two 1,300-pound satellites can be measured to within the diameter of a red blood cell. By precisely measuring the distance between the satellites, scientists can determine how much mass is below the flight path and then calculate the contribution of water, creating global maps every 30 days."

UPDATE: SpaceX has confirmed that all five Iridium satellites have been successfully deployed.
Earth

Asteroid From Another Star System Found Orbiting Wrong Way Near Jupiter (theguardian.com) 84

Astronomers have spotted an asteroid orbiting our sun in the opposite (retrograde) direction to the planets. The 2-mile-wide asteroid, known as 2015 BZ509, is the first "interstellar immigrant" from beyond our solar system to remain, according to the study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Guardian reports: Further work on the asteroid revealed it takes the same length of time to orbit the sun as the planet Jupiter at a similar average distance, although in the opposite direction and with a different shaped path, suggesting the two have gravitational interactions. But unpicking quite where the asteroid came from was challenging. Asteroids that orbit the sun on paths that take them between the giant planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -- are known as centaurs, and it is thought that many might come from distant bands of material within the solar system such as the scattered disk or the Oort cloud. Several, like BZ509, are known to have retrograde paths, although how they ended up on such orbits is unclear.

But there was a clue there was something unusual about BZ509: while previous studies suggested retrograde centaurs stay gravitationally "tied" to planets for 10,000 years at most, recent work had suggested this asteroid's orbit had been linked to Jupiter for far longer, probably as a result of the planet's mass and the way both take the same time to orbit the sun. The discovery provides vital clues as to the asteroid's origins. [Dr Fathi Namouni from the Observatory de la Cote d'Azur said] that the model suggests the most likely explanation is that the asteroid was captured by Jupiter as it hurtled through the solar system from interstellar space. "It means it is an alien to the solar system," he said.

Space

German Test Reveals That Magnetic Fields Are Pushing the EM Drive (arstechnica.com) 309

"Researchers in Germany have performed an independent, controlled test of the infamous EM Drive with an unprecedented level of precision," writes PvtVoid. "The result? The thrust is coming from interactions with the Earth's magnetic field." From the report: Instead of getting ahold of someone else's EM drive, or Mach-effect device, the researchers created their own, along with the driving electronics. The researchers used precision machining and polishing to obtain a microwave cavity that was much better than those previously published. If anything was going to work, this would be the one. The researchers built up a very nice driving circuit that was capable of supplying 50W of power to the cavity. However, the amplifier mountings still needed to be worked on. So, to keep thermal management problems under control, they limited themselves to a couple of Watts in the current tests. The researchers also inserted an enormous attenuator. This meant that they could, without physically changing the setup, switch on all the electronics and have the amplifiers working at full noise, and all the power would either go to the EM drive or be absorbed in the attenuator. That gives them much more freedom to determine if the thrust was coming from the drive or not.

Even with a power of just a couple of Watts, the EM-drive generates thrust in the expected direction (e.g., the torsion bar twists in the right direction). If you reverse the direction of the thruster, the balance swings back the other way: the thrust is reversed. Unfortunately, the EM drive also generates the thrust when the thruster is directed so that it cannot produce a torque on the balance (e.g., the null test also produces thrust). And likewise, that "thrust" reverses when you reverse the direction of the thruster. The best part is that the results are the same when the attenuator is put into the circuit. In this case, there is basically no radiation in the microwave cavity, yet the WTF-thruster thrusts on. So, where does the force come from? The Earth's magnetic field, most likely. The cables that carry the current to the microwave amplifier run along the arm of the torsion bar. Although the cable is shielded, it is not perfect (because the researchers did not have enough mu metal). The current in the cable experiences a force due to the Earth's magnetic field that is precisely perpendicular to the torsion bar. And, depending on the orientation of the thruster, the direction of the current will reverse and the force will reverse.
The researchers' conclude by saying: "At least, SpaceDrive [the name of the test setup] is an excellent educational project by developing highly demanding test setups, evaluating theoretical models and possible experimental errors. It's a great learning experience with the possibility to find something that can drive space exploration into its next generation."
Space

A New World's Extraordinary Orbit Points to Planet Nine (wired.com) 82

In early 2016, two planetary scientists declared that a ghost planet is hiding in the depths of the solar system, well beyond the orbit of Pluto. Their claim, which they made based on the curious orbits of distant icy worlds, quickly sparked a race to find this so-called Planet Nine -- a planet that is estimated to be about 10 times the mass of Earth. From a report: Now, astronomers are reporting that they have spotted another distant world -- perhaps as large as a dwarf planet -- whose orbit is so odd that it is likely to have been shepherded by Planet Nine. The object confirms a specific prediction made by Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, the astronomers at the California Institute of Technology who first argued for Planet Nine's existence. "It's not proof that Planet Nine exists," said David Gerdes, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and a co-author on the new paper. "But I would say the presence of an object like this in our solar system bolsters the case for Planet Nine."

Gerdes and his colleagues spotted the new object in data from the Dark Energy Survey, a project that probes the acceleration in the expansion of the universe by surveying a region well above the plane of the solar system. This makes it an unlikely tool for finding objects inside the solar system, since they mostly orbit within the plane. But that is exactly what makes the new object unique: Its orbit is tilted 54 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system. It's something Gerdes did not expect to see. Batygin and Brown, however, predicted it.
The rocky body is being described as 2015 BP519. Quanta magazine has more details.
Earth

Human Race Just 0.01% of All Life But Has Destroyed 83% of Wild Mammals, Study Finds (theguardian.com) 192

An assessment of all life on Earth has revealed humanity's surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact. From a report: The world's 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form -- 13% of everything -- but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world's biomass.

Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk -- an eighth -- is bacteria buried deep below the surface. "I was shocked to find there wasn't already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass," said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Moon

China Launches Satellite To Explore Dark Side of Moon (reuters.com) 120

China launched a relay satellite early on Monday designed to establish a communication link between earth and a planned lunar probe that will explore the dark side of the moon, the official Xinhua news agency said. From a report: Citing the China National Space Administration, Xinhua said the satellite was launched at 5:28 a.m. (2128 GMT Sunday) on a Long March-4C rocket from the Xichang launch center in the southwest of the country. "The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the moon," Xinhua quoted Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, as saying.
Space

Did Octopuses Come From Outer Space? 256

A scientific paper, originally published in March, from peer-reviewed journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology has found its way in this week's news-cycle. The paper, which is co-written by 33 authors including molecular immunologist Edward Steele and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, suggests that octopuses could be aliens, adding legitimacy to a belief, which otherwise has been debunked several times in the recent years.

An excerpt from the paper, which makes the bold claim: The genetic divergence of Octopus from its ancestral coleoid sub-class is very great ... Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch color and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene. [...] It is plausible then to suggest they [octopuses] seem to be borrowed from a far distant 'future' in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large."Ephrat Livni of Quartz questions the basis of the finding: To make matters even more strange, the paper posits that octopuses could have arrived on Earth in "an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized octopus eggs." And these eggs might have "arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago." The authors admit, though, that "such an extraterrestrial origin...of course, runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm." Indeed, few in the scientific community would agree that octopuses come from outer space. But the paper is not just about the provenance of cephalopods. Its proposal that octopuses could be extraterrestrials is just a small part of a much more extensive discussion of a theory called "panspermia," which has its roots in the ideas of ancient Greece. Newsweek spoke with Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, who told the publication that the paper has raised "an interesting but controversial possibility." However, he added, that it offers no "indisputable proof" that the Cambrian explosion is the result of panspermia.

Further reading: Cosmos magazine has outlined some flaws in the assumptions that the authors made in the paper. It has also looked into the background of some of the authors. The magazine also points out that though the paper has made bold claims, it has yet to find support or corroboration from the scientific community. News outlet Live Science has also questioned the findings.
Transportation

Estonia To Become the World's First Free Public Transport Nation (citylab.com) 143

On July 1st, the country of Estonia will create the largest 24/7 free public transit zone in the world, making it feasibly possible to travel by bus from one end of the 1.3 million-strong Baltic nation to the other without paying a cent. CityLab reports: Estonia is already a world leader in free public transit: In 2013, all public transit in its capital, Tallinn, became free to local residents (but not tourists or other visitors, even those from other parts of the country). The new national free-ride scheme with extend this model even further, making all state-run bus travel in rural municipalities free and extending cost-free transit out from the capital into other regions. The plan will not, however, extend Tallinn's existing free public transit policies to other Estonian cities, and it also won't make riding Tallinn transit free to visitors (at least, not initially). So while most of the country's land area and population -- which is overwhelmingly concentrated around Tallinn -- should get fare-free daily lives, it's not precisely the case that no Estonian will ever buy a bus ticket in their own country again. Further reading: Pop-Up City
Earth

Anti-GMO Activists Slow Scientists Breeding a CO2-Reducing Superplant (thebulletin.org) 211

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls it "a plant that could save civilization, if we let it." Slashdot reader meckdevil writes: A "super chickpea plant" now in development could remove huge amounts of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and fix it in the soil, greatly diminishing the impacts of climate change (not to mention producing large amounts of tasty hummus). But fear of anti-GMO activists has so far deterred her from using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to speed work on the plant.
The effort is led by Joanne Chory, director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences -- who according to the article will make much slower progress without CRISPR. "Even with advanced breeding techniques, Chory estimates that developing a super plant in this fashion would take around 10 years..."

"She estimates that if 5 percent of the world's cropland, approximately the total area of Egypt, were devoted to such super plants, they could capture about 50 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions."
Space

Astronomers Discovered the Fastest-Growing Black Hole Ever Seen (wral.com) 69

Long-time Slashdot reader Yhcrana shares "some good old fashioned astronomy news." Astronomers have discovered "a black hole 20 billion times the mass of the sun eating the equivalent of a star every two days," reports the New York Times. The black hole is growing so rapidly, said Christian Wolf, of the Australian National University, who led the team that found it in the depths of time, "that it is probably 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in." So bright, that it is dazzling our view and we can't see the galaxy itself. He and his colleagues announced the discovery in a paper to be published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia...

The blaze from material swirling around this newly observed drainpipe into eternity -- known officially as SMSS J215728.21-360215.1 -- is as luminous as 700 trillion suns, according to Wolf and his collaborators. If it were at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, it would be 10 times brighter than the moon and bathe the Earth in so many X-rays that life would be impossible. Luckily it's not anywhere nearby. It is in fact 12 billion light years away, which means it took that long for its light to reach us, so we are glimpsing this cataclysm as it appeared at the dawn of time, only 2 billion years after the Big Bang, when stars and galaxies were furiously forming.

Earth

Floating Pacific Island Is In the Works With Its Own Government, Cryptocurrency (cnbc.com) 168

An anonymous reader quotes a report from CNBC: Nathalie Mezza-Garcia is a political scientist turned "seavangelesse" -- her term for an evangelist in favor of living off the grid -- and on the ocean. Mezza-Garcia spoke with CNBC's Matthew Taylor about what she sees as the trouble with governments, and why she believes tech startups should head to Tahiti. This seavangelesse is a researcher for the Blue Frontiers and Seasteading Institute's highly-anticipated Floating Island Project. The project is a pilot program in partnership with the government of French Polynesia, which will see 300 homes built on an island that runs under its own governance, using a cryptocurrency called Varyon.

"Once we can see how this first island works, we will have a proof of concept to plan for islands to house climate refugees," she said. The project is funded through philanthropic donations via the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers, which sells tokens of the cryptocurrency Varyon. The pilot island is expected to be completed by 2022 and cost up to $50 million. As well as offering a home for the displaced, the self-contained islands are designed to function as business centers that are beyond the influence of government regulation.

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