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From The Editors Technology

Farm Robots are Replacing Human Agricultural Workers Faster than we Thought

Having overwhelmed the urban way of life, technology is now spreading its tentacles across rural America, what with robotics taking over the agricultural sector in a big way.

More and more autonomous machines are performing a host of labor-intensive jobs such as planting, plowing, weeding, pruning and harvesting, to name a few.

The speed with which agricultural mechanization is happening is, in part, due to the Trump administration’s stringent immigration policies – one of the contributors to the acute shortage in the supply of farm workers.

But again, blaming Trump for all of America’s woes would be a tad unfair, in that farm labor shortage was a reality even before he took over the Oval Office, though there is no denying the fact that his policies may have somewhat compounded the problem.

A 2017 survey of agricultural labor availability, conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation, found that farmers across the Golden State were facing difficulty getting enough workers to fulfill a variety of their agricultural requirements, including “planting, cultivating and harvesting food and other crops.”

About 55 percent of the surveyed growers reported experienced worker shortages, while 69 percent of those who depended on seasonal workers reported “shortages of varying degrees,” especially where the work required the “most intensive hand labor, such as harvesting tree fruits and grapes.”

“The findings are consistent with results from a similar 2012 survey conducted by CFBF, in which over half of all respondents reported shortages,” the survey report said.

The shortage could also not be blamed on any lack of alacrity on the part of farmers in terms of recruiting efforts and offering higher wages and other incentives; the reality is that there just weren’t enough potential employees available to hire.

“The survey respondents included farm employers growing a diverse range of crops and commodities across the state, including both labor-intensive crops and those that do not require significant employee involvement,” said the report.

“A large majority of the respondents grow tree fruit, winegrapes or nuts; respondents also included growers of table grapes, vegetables, rice, wheat, corn, hay and nursery crops, as well as dairy and livestock producers.”

It, therefore, makes sense for growers to turn to mechanized and robotic alternatives to address the worsening labor situation, and they are not complaining as they discover that the transition can drive better yields and reduce their input costs.

An increasing number of large farming companies are, in fact, championing the automation cause by investing in technology firms and by testing these next-gen farm robotics made possible by advancements in processor technology.

“We’re seeing more and more of a move towards just technology in general, whether it’s robotics or mechanization,” Ryan Jacobsen – a wine grape grower and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau – told CNBC last year.

“We’ve seen some incredible improvements there, and for us to remain competitive in California just because of so many areas of cost and the lack of needed individuals to help us bring in the harvest we’re going to have to rely upon this technology,” Jacobsen added.

Fendt, a German manufacturer of agricultural equipment, has been developing high-precision small Xaver robots that are designed to operate in swarms 24/7.

These field robots of the near future are light-weight, mobile and cloud-controlled, with fewer sensors, robust control units and a clear hardware structure, making them “extremely reliable and productive.”

The Fendt website says that “the use of a large number of small, identical robots operating in a swarm enables smooth running of the job, even in the event of the failure of a single unit.”

“Their light weight results in a high level of safety and negligible soil compaction,” claims the website.

Then there are harvest robots that use electronic sensors and techniques based on technologies used in advanced driver-assist systems and semi-autonomous cars.

“What I tell people is, we’re like self-driving cars,” Gary Wishnatzki – a Florida strawberry farmer and co-founder of Harvest Croo Robotics – told CNBC.

“We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be better than the humans — and believe me humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it,” he added.

To give you an idea of how efficient these agricultural robots can be, a single strawberry-harvesting robot can autonomously do the work of 30 farm employees, autonomously picking clean a 25-acre strawberry field in a matter of three days.

While the burgeoning agricultural mechanization industry and the advent of farming robotics are expected to drastically cut down the need for human intervention, there will always be a place for skilled workers.

“I don’t think automation or robotics will ever replace the farm worker,” Tom Nassif – CEO Western Growers, the trade association for agricultural producers in the West and Southwest – told CNBC.

“It will certainly cut down on the number of people we need to plant, thin and harvest our crops,” he added.

Precision farming, an offspring of the agriculture-technology marriage, is expected to become a $240 billion market by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs.

Lawrence De Maria, an analyst at William Blair, compares the surge in precision farming using advanced robotics to the Green Revolution, in so far as driving agricultural productivity is concerned.

“I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity,” De Maria told Investor’s Business Daily.

He added: “The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers.

“It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity.”

Europe is not far behind when it comes to innovative agricultural technologies, what with Spanish company Agrobot working on a strawberry harvester, with as many as twelve robotic arms that can pick fruits more deftly than human hands can ever manage, and what’s more is that the machines are capable of unmanned navigation, as well.

England-based Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own version of a robotic fruit- harvester capable of not only autonomously locating and harvesting fruits that are ripe and ready for the picking but also grading their quality.

So, for better or for worse, an agricultural revolution is imminent; in fact, it’s happening as you read this!

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From The Editors Technology

New Hypersonic Aircraft Will Cut Down NY-London Flight Time to Just 90 Minutes

Earlier this week, Atlanta-based aerospace startup Hermeus announced its plans to develop a hypersonic aircraft capable of transporting passengers from New York to London in just ninety minutes at speeds of up to 3,800 miles per hour (6115.5 kilometers per hour).

​“We’ve set out on a journey to revolutionize the global transportation infrastructure, bringing it from the equivalent of dialup into the broadband era, by radically increasing the speed of travel over long distances,” Hermeus co-founder and CEO AJ Piplica said in a press release.

The release announced the Seed round, which, in addition to being led by Khosla Ventures, had participation from other private investors, as well.

The May 13 release also announced the advisory board, which includes the likes of former Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson, former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works general manager Rob Weiss, and former FAA associate administrator George Nield, among others.

“Collectively, these advisors help define the Hermeus strategy with respect to safety, markets, technology, and development in order to accelerate innovation in aviation and connect the globe,” said the press release.

As fancy as the idea of a Mach 5-capable commercial aircraft boasting a 4,600-mile range may appear to be, Hermeus says it will be based on current technology and materials; nothing radically out of the ordinary.

“The product’s design enables it to operate with minimal changes to current aviation infrastructure,” says the company website.

Hermeus CEO Skyler Shuford echoed this when he told Ars Technica that the company was not “getting into anything too miraculous,” adding: “We want to do engineering, not science.”

Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla said that not only can the Hermeus aircraft revolutionize commercial aviation with drastically-reduced flight times but it can also have “great societal and economic impact.”

Ars Technica reports that titanium is one of the primary materials that Hermeus plans to use on the super-plane, while the “propulsion system will be powered by a turbine-based, combined-cycle engine.”

Shuford also told the website that it would take around five years to develop a demonstrator vehicle capable of Mach 5 speeds and another three to five years to produce one for commercial operations.

Hermeus, by the way, is not the first company to go the hypersonic way, what with Boeing HorizonX, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems coming together last year to invest $37.3 million in Oxfordshire, England-based aerospace company Reaction Engines, which is working on its own version of a hypersonic propulsion system.

Also, Spokane, Washington-based startup HyperSciences has used SeedInvest, an online platform for equity-based crowdfunding, to raise $9.2 million on a ram accelerator system that can be used to launch a projectile at 6,700 mph, about nine times the speed of sound.

Last year, NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to the startup to develop a “robust, cost effective, automated hypersonic launch system and encapsulated projectile bus  capable of delivering small payloads to altitudes as high as 100Km.”

About Hermeus

Hermeus was founded as recently as last year by AJ Piplica (CEO), Glenn Case (Chief Technical Officer), Mike Smayda (Chief Product Officer) and Skyler Shuford (Chief Product Officer), all of whom have previously worked for Atlanta-based Generation Orbit, where they helped develop the Air Force’s X-60A hypersonic rocket plane.

Smayda and Shuford also have the distinction of having worked at SpaceX – Elon Musk’s Hathorne, California-based spaceflight company.

The company recently opened offices at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia, just north-east of state capital Atlanta.

Hermeus describes itself as a “startup developing a Mach 5 aircraft with the goal of massively reduced flight times and increased safety for long haul, business class air travel.”

The company’s Board of Advisors includes:

o Rob Meyerson – Former President, Blue Origin

o Rob Weiss – Former EVP/GM Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

o Keith Masback – Former CEO, US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation; Director, Source Operations, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Director, ISR Integration, US Army.

o Katerina Barilov – Founder, Sparkplug capital+ and Managing Director, Shearwater Aero Capital

o Dr. George Nield – Former Associate Administrator, FAA

o Mitch Free – Founder and CEO, ZYCI and Former Director of Technical Operations, Northwest Airlines

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From The Editors Science

NASA Mobilizes Eleven US Companies to Develop Lunar Lander Prototypes

In a bid to expedite its ambitious Artemis moon program, NASA has shortlisted eleven US companies, including the likes of Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada, to research, design and develop lunar lander prototypes capable of landing humans on the lunar surface, the agency announced in a May 17 press release.

As part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA is awarding a combined amount of more than $45 million to these companies.

However, since NextSTEP is a public/private partnership program, the companies will have to shell out twenty percent of the overall project cost from their own coffers, which would not only reduce the taxpayer’s burden but also attract private investment in the potentially lucrative lunar business.

“To accelerate our return to the Moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business,” Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said in the press release.

“We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations,” he added.

“Our team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process,” he also said.

Since time is of the essence to NASA, it is putting into effect what it calls “undefinitized contract actions,” which essentially means the awardees will be paid in advance to start part of the work even before a final contract is agreed upon and signed.

“We’re taking major steps to begin development as quickly as possible, including invoking a NextSTEP option that allows our partners to begin work while we’re still negotiating,” Greg Chavers – human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – said in the release.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” he added.

While NASA has not provided any design specifications to the awardees, it does plan to issue a “formal solicitation” this summer, laying down its requirements for the lunar lander.

It will then be up to the awardees to “propose innovative concepts, hardware development and integration.”

“This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system,” Chavers said.

“NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

Since the lunar lander will be based on three main elements – transfer, descent and refueling – each partner has been assigned specific areas to work on.

Here’s a list of the eleven awardees and their areas of responsibility

  1. Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California: One transfer vehicle study
  2. Blue Origin – Kent, Washington: One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
  3. Boeing – Houston: One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  4. Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama: One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
  5. Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
  6. Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California: One descent element prototype
  7. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  8. OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey: Two refueling element prototypes
  9. Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin: One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
  10. SpaceX – Hawthorne, California: One descent element study
  11. SSL – Palo Alto, California: One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype

Earlier this week, in a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The short clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video came on the heels of Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named.

It was definitely not a random choice, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission, or should we say the Artemis mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2028.

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From The Editors Politics

Alabama Senate Passes Controversial Near-Total Ban on Abortion

An overwhelming male Republican majority in the Alabama Senate has voted in favor of a near-blanket ban on abortion, making it a felony to terminate a pregnancy at any stage.

While doctors and providers found guilty of carrying out the procedure will face jail time of 10 to 99 years, patients will be exempt from any civil or criminal proceedings against them.

The bill only allows an exception in cases where the health of the unborn child’s mother is at serious risk or if the fetus is found to have a “lethal anomaly.”

However, the fear of criminal prosecution is likely to discourage doctors from performing abortions under any circumstances, regardless of the exemption.

“If the anti-abortion politicians leading our state of Alabama make the grave mistake of passing a bill that would criminalize those who provide abortion care, it would have a disastrous effect on the health and well-being of Alabamians,” Dr. Yashica Robinson, an obstetrician at the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives and a member of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“Physicians will be unwilling to help patients in need, even when continuing pregnancy is detrimental to a patient’s health, or potentially fatal, out of fear of being scrutinized by the criminal justice system,” she added.

A Democrat-recommended amendment that would have allowed an exemption in rape- and incest-related pregnancies, was also rejected by the lawmakers on an 11-21 vote.

An emotional Bobby Singleton, the Democrat who introduced the bill, said that he would go home and tell his daughter that “the state of Alabama doesn’t care about you, baby.”

“You just said to my daughter, ‘You don’t matter. You don’t matter in the state of Alabama’,” he said.

The controversial ban, passed by a 25-6 majority on Tuesday night (May 14), was signed into law by Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey the following day.

“Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act, a bill that was approved by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Legislature,” Ivey said in a statement.

“To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

Since the new law does not become enforceable until six months after the signing, the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama (ACLU) have every intention of contesting it in court.

Worried that law has already taken effect, people have been calling up the Alabama Women’s Center – one of only three clinics in the state offering abortion services – wanting to know if the clinic was open and if they were still providing care, reports Vox.

In fact, the day the bill was passed, “one young lady was telling us about a dream that she had that she was going to wake up and get here to the clinic and we were going to tell her that we couldn’t take care of her,” Dr. Robinson told the news website.

ACLU spokesperson Rebecca Seung-Bickley has said that the union is working on drafting litigation that would seek a temporary federal injunction on the ruling to keep it from being implemented.

Citing a 2014 litigation that ACLU had filed against an Alabama law banning a common abortion procedure and won, Seung-Bickley said: “This will never go into effect, as long as ACLU is in litigation.”

Her confidence stems from the fact that even though the state had appealed against U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s ruling, the case is still waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court, five years on.

“It’s so extreme that it is unlikely to be picked by the Supreme Court,” said the ACLU spokesperson.

Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel of state policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights said:

“There is nearly 50 years of precedent that says this law is unconstitutional. Regardless of what district judge hears this case, there is no argument that Alabama can make that this law is constitutional.”

Ever since Trump took over the Whitehouse in 2017, six states, including Kentucky, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota, and Mississippi, have passed legislation prohibiting abortion in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually happens about six weeks into a pregnancy.

However, CNN reports that its legal analyst Joan Biskupic says that none of the recent bans have seen the light of day, in so far as implementation is concerned.

“Pre-viability bans (bans on abortions prior to 24 weeks) like the Alabama ban … have never been enforced,” Smith told CNN.

“Some of them have been enacted by a state but none of them have been enforced,” she said, adding: “That’s because of the litigation that has stopped them from going into effect.”

Reactions against the ban came thick and fast on Twitter. Here are some of them.

https://twitter.com/NationalRogue/status/1128518707603484672
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From The Editors Science

NASA‘s New Hype Video “We are Going” is Meant to Pique Public Interest in its Moon2024 Mission

In a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA on Tuesday (May 15) released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The 3 min 49-second clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video comes close behind Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named; how can we forget!

The choice of name was certainly not arbitrary, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2018.

“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” Trump bragged in a Monday tweet, adding: “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”

In Dec 2017, Trump signed a momentous order, the “Space Policy Directive – 1,” authorizing NASA to send American astronauts to the moon again.

“The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” he said, adding: “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for the long-term exploration and use.”

He also said:

“This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday to many worlds beyond.

“This directive will ensure America’s space program once again leads and inspires all of humanity.”

The presidential decree didn’t come as a surprise, as both the President and Pence had been talking about sending American astronauts back on a moon mission since their campaign days in 2016.

At a campaign event near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Trump had spoken about paving the way for NASA to “refocus on space exploration” rather than being restricted to serve “ primarily as a logistical agency for low Earth-orbit activities.”

Then, during the first NSC meeting in October 2017, US Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration was committed to the moon mission and beyond.

It must be said that the directive was well-timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17, the last of NASA’s six manned missions to the moon.

Similar promises were made by three former presidents but political and financial challenges associated with deep space exploration had derailed their plans.

The Trump government’s space plans is not just restricted to sending manned missions to the moon and beyond; it is also serious about launching a space warfare service branch – the United States Space Force (USSF) – which will become the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces, if only the president could get Congress to see through his eyes.

“Separate but equal” is the phrase Trump used to compare Space Force with the Air Force, speaking about it in a June 2018 NSC (National Space Council) meeting.

Pence, on his part, described Space Force as “an idea whose time has come” in a Pentagon address in August last year.

“The next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America,” he said, going on to add that the ball was now in the Congress court for establishing and funding the mammoth project.

“Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation,” he also said.

Trump has already set the ball rolling by signing a directive –Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4) – in March this year, ordering the Department of Defense (DoD) to draft legislation for Congress to make Space Force a reality.

“America must be fully equipped to defend our vital interests. Our adversaries are training forces and developing technology to undermine our security in space, and they’re working very hard at that,” the president told reporters at the White House.

As for the funding, the government is requesting $14.1billion in its 2020 budget proposal for investing in space operations, a key part of which is the first allocation of $72 million to establish a Space Force headquarters.

As brilliant as the idea of having a dedicated military branch to secure the infinite deeps of space may seem to a lot of people, it is definitely not without its fair share of detractors.

Critics and naysayers, including National security specialists and US Armed Forces officials, have openly voiced their concerns against the creation of such an entity.

Their argument is based on the premise that creating a separate force for space-related activities of the US Armed Forces would encroach on the domain of the US Air Force Space Command, which currently manages that particular area of the nation’s security concerns.

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From The Editors Science

NASA Says the Moon is Shrivelling Up like a Raisin, Causing Moonquakes in the Process

Scientists have known for the last decade, or so, that the moon has shrunk by at least 150 feet (50 meters) over the last several hundred million years as its interior kept losing heat.

Giving the analogy of a shrinking and wrinkling grape as it transforms into a raisin, NASA says that the moon also shrank and wrinkled up as it cooled down.

However, owing to the fact that the lunar crust is brittle, unlike the supple exterior of a grape, it broke up, creating “thrust faults” where sections of the crust got pushed up over adjacent parts.

A team of researchers analyzing new images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has found evidence that suggests the moon is continuing to shrink even today, causing thrust faults which, in turn, produce moonquakes as they slip.

“Our analysis gives the first evidence that these faults are still active and likely producing moonquakes today as the Moon continues to gradually cool and shrink,” said Thomas Watters, a senior scientist at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and the lead author of the research, published Monday (May 14) in Nature Geoscience.

“Some of these quakes can be fairly strong, around five on the Richter scale,” Watters added.

The new research was based on seismic data from the 1960s and 70s, recorded by four out of five seismometers left on the lunar surface by astronauts during Apollo missions  11, 12, 14, 15, and 16.

Barring the Apollo 11 seismometer, which lasted a mere three weeks, the remaining four registered a total of 28 shallow moonquakes, ranging from two to five on the Richter scale, between 1969 and 1977.

Using an algorithm, Watters and his team were able to get a better estimate of the location and epicenter of the quakes.

The new location-estimates revealed that 8 of the 28 quakes were not more than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the thrust faults seen in lunar images, which led them to “tentatively” conclude that the quakes were caused by fault slips.

The researchers also noticed that six of the eight quakes occurred when the moon was at or approaching its apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, where tidal stress from Earth’s gravity is at peak levels, making the thrust faults more prone to “slip-events.”

To give more veracity to their conclusion, the researchers ran 10,000 simulations to determine whether so many quakes near the faults at the time of maximum stress could be a coincidence, only to discover that it was less than a four percent probability.

The possibility of meteoroid impacts causing the quakes was also ruled out because their seismic signature is different from that of quakes caused by slipping faults.

“We think it’s very likely that these eight quakes were produced by faults slipping as stress built up when the lunar crust was compressed by global contraction and tidal forces, indicating that the Apollo seismometers recorded the shrinking Moon and the Moon is still tectonically active,” said Watters.

Further evidence of the faults being active comes from high-definition images from the camera onboard the LRO, which has photographed more than 3,500 fault scarps – step-like cliffs on the lunar surface that are generally tens of meters high and can extend for several kilometers.

A number of these images show boulders and landslides at the bottom of the fault scarp slopes or nearby areas, which are relatively brighter than the rest of the surroundings, indicating freshly exposed patches that have not been darkened by solar and space radiation.

Now, that could most likely be the result of moonquakes sending debris down the slopes of the fault scarps.

Further confirmation that these are recent lunar events comes from some of the other LROC images that show tracks made by boulders rolling down a scarp slope during a moonquake caused by slipping faults.

Had the tracks not been recent enough, they would have been obliterated pretty quickly, geologically speaking, by constant micrometeoroid bombardment that the lunar surface is exposed to.

Faults in the Schrödinger basin of the moon show boulder tracks that scientists say are the result of recent boulder falls caused by seismic activity.

Here’s what LRO project scientist John Keller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, had to say about the latest findings.

“It’s really remarkable to see how data from nearly 50 years ago and from the LRO mission has been combined to advance our understanding of the Moon while suggesting where future missions intent on studying the Moon’s interior processes should go.”

With a decade’s worth of LRO images at their disposal, Watters and his team are of the opinion that comparing images of specific fault areas from different times may provide more proof of recent moonquakes.

Study co-author Renee Weber, a planetary seismologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says that more seismometers should be put on the moon for a better insight into lunar events.

“Establishing a new network of seismometers on the lunar surface should be a priority for human exploration of the Moon, both to learn more about the Moon’s interior and to determine how much of a hazard moonquakes present,” he said.

The Team

Thomas R. Watters (lead author) – Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA

Renee C. Weber (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Geoffrey C. Collins (co-author) – Physics and Astronomy Department, Wheaton College, Norton, MA, USA

Ian J. Howley (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Nicholas C. Schmerr (co-author) – the University of Maryland, Department of Geology, College Park, MD, USA

Catherine L. Johnson (co-author) – Dept. of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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From The Editors Technology

Japan Begins Testing the ALFA-X – Its Next-Gen Bullet Train Capable of Doing 400 KMPH

A collaborative endeavor between Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi, the ALFA-X went into testing on Friday (May 10), a phase that is expected to last at least three years.

Although capable of reaching a maximum speed of 400 kilometers per hour (about 249 miles per hour), it will carry passengers at around 360 kmph (224 mph) when it becomes operational sometime in 2030.

Even at the reduced speed, the ALFA-X will be one of the fastest bullet trains in the world, if not the fastest.

The test runs of the 10-car train with a 72-foot-long nose will be conducted twice a week after midnight between the cities of Sendai and Aomori, about 280 kilometers (174 miles) apart as the crow flies.

According to DesignBooms, a shorter 52-foot-nose version will also be tested to determine which of the two offers the best aerodynamic experience in terms of wind resistance and noise.

Some of the main features of the ALFA-X include vibration sensors, temperature sensors, and, of course, the dramatically elongated futuristic-looking nose for minimizing wind pressure and noise, especially when passing through tunnels.

For braking, the train has been equipped with roof-mounted air brakes and magnetic plates on its underside.

But, before commuters get to experience the blistering speed of ALFA-X, they will have already been introduced to another bullet train, the Shinkansen N700S.

The train is undergoing tests now and is expected to go operational in 2020 on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka; the timing intended to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

However, its maximum speed of 300 kmph (186 mph) will be well short of the speeds the ALFA-X is designed to achieve.

The N700S will comprise 16 cars, two of which will be driving cars – one on each end – while the remaining 14 will be dedicated to a maximum of 1,323 passengers.

Again, the all-important nose has been given due attention, with a ‘dual supreme wing type’ design to improve airflow and reduce noise, particularly the sonic boom-type effect experienced when passing through tunnels.

However fast it goes during the tests, the ALFA-X will never be able to match the speed of Japan Railway’s maglev (magnetic levitation) train which was able to reach 603 kmph (around 375 mph) on a test track in 2015.

Here’s a look at some of the world’s fastest trains currently in service.

The Shanghai Maglev – 431 kmph (267 mph)

Based on magnetic levitation (maglev) technology, the Shanghai Maglev debuted way back in 2004.

The superfast train operates between Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport and the Longyang metro station on the outskirts of Shanghai, completing the 30-km (19-mile) run in just over seven minutes.

Fuxing Hao CR400AF/BF – 400 kmph (249 mph)

China’s Fuxing Hao CR400AF and CR400BF, nicknamed “Dolphin Blue” and “Golden Phoenix,” respectively, are the fastest non-maglev trains currently in operation.

While “Fuxing Hao” means “rejuvenation” in Chinese, the letters CR before the 400AF/BF stands for Chinese Railway.

Operating between Beijing South and Shanghai Hongqiao Station, the two trains carry up to 556 passengers each in just under five hours, which is half the time it takes on the conventional track between the two points.

Shinkansen H5 and E5 Series – 360 kmph (224 mph)

It has been 55 years since Japan launched the Hikari high-speed train service between Tokyo and Osaka, cutting down the travel time between the country’s two largest cities by a good three hours; it brought down the nearly seven-hour trip to just four hours.

Owned by Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido), the high-speed H5 series has been operating on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen services since its debut in March 2016.

The E5 series is operated by East Japan Railway Company (JR East) on Tohoku Shinkansen services since March 2011 and on Hokkaido Shinkansen services since March 2016. (Wikipedia).

The Italo and Frecciarossa – 354 kmph (220 mph)

The high-speed Italo and Frecciarossa, or “red arrow,” owned by NTV and Trenitalia, respectively, are among the fastest in Europe, capable of transporting passengers between Milan and Rome, or between Milan and Florence, in less than three hours.

Haramain Western Railway – 350 kmph (217 mph)

Saudi Arabia’s high-speed rail service between the cities of Mecca and Medina was officially inaugurated in Sep 2018.

The 453-kilometer (281 mi) distance between the two holiest cities in the country is covered in a mere two and a half hours at 300 km/h (190 mph), although the electric trains operating on the route are capable of higher speeds.

Deutsche Bahn ICE – 330 kmph (205 mph)

The Siemens-designed high-speed train Valero, used by DeutscheBahn ICE (Inter-City Express), makes for a spectacular sight as it speeds through Germany’s scenic countryside.

With DeutscheBahn’s long-term plans to operate these trains between Frankfurt and London, the Velaro has been designed to fit through the Channel Tunnel.

Korail KTX – 330 kmph (205 mph)

Having debuted in 2004, South Korea’s high-speed rail network may not be the newest but surely finds a place among the fastest.

The latest route connecting Incheon International Airport in the west to the eastern coastal town of Gangneung, with a stopover in Seoul, opened in 2018 – just in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Thalys – 300 kmph (186 mph)

One of Europe’s more important train services, the Thalys operates multiple services daily, connecting Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and Cologne.

The Brussels-to-Paris service remains the most profitable, accounting for half the entire revenue, despite the extension of the German route to as far as Dortmund in 2015.

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From The Editors Technology

Oculus Quest: The All-In-One VR Headset is Now Available for Order; Ships May 21

Facebook-owned Oculus launched its first ever standalone headset, the Oculus Go, in May last year.

Based on a mobile operating system, pretty much like the Gear VR, and with only three degrees of freedom, the $199 Oculus Go was pretty much limited in scope.

But now, Oculus is ready to ship out its most powerful all-in-one autonomous VR headset, yet – the Oculus Quest, previously referred to as Project Santa Cruz.

Oculus Quest is fundamentally a Rift-compatible headset that doesn’t need to be connected to a PC to be able to play compatible games.

Like the Oculus Rift, the Oculus Quest has two motion touch controllers, capable of being tracked in space, with six degrees of freedom (DoF), all of which translates to a more immersive virtual reality experience.

Since the Quest is a standalone device there are no wires or external sensors to contend with, which means you can play games without the worry of being weighed down by all the extraneous hardware.

And, as mentioned earlier, you don’t really need a PC to run this VR contraption – thanks to the four motion control sensors, as well as a new inside-out tracking technology called Insight.

Insight uses the four ultra-wide-angle sensors on the front of the headset together with computer vision algorithms to help track your position in real-time.

If you are wondering about safety issues like bumping into a wall while you’ve got the headset on, you need not worry because Oculus’ Guardian system allows you to set up virtual boundaries to let you know when you’re nearing the limit you’ve marked for yourself.

“The Oculus Guardian System is designed to display in-application wall and floor markers when users get near boundaries they defined,” says Oculus.

“When the user gets too close to the edge of a boundary, translucent boundary markers are displayed in a layer that is superimposed over the game or experience.”.

First announced back in 2016 under the codename Project Santa Cruz, as mentioned earlier, Quest will ship on May 21 with at least fifty titles, including hits like Robo Recall, Beat Saber, Moss, Superhot VR, and Creed: Rise to Glory, Journey of the Gods, Space Pirate Trainer, Sports Scramble, and even the new Star Wars game Vader Immortal.

During his keynote at the Oculus Connect 5 last year, Mark Zuckerberg said that the Quest platform was going to include three key features to provide that fully-immersive virtual reality experience that gamers are always looking for in a VR headset.

“First, it needs to be standalone that way there are no wires that are going to break your feeling of presence and you’re going to be able to take it with you,” said the Facebook CEO.

“Second, it’s got to support hands because that’s how we’re going to interact with people and objects in virtual reality,” he explained.

“And third, it has to offer six degrees of freedoms so you can move through a virtual space just like you would a physical one,” he added.

Using the local Wi-Fi network, the Oculus Quest can “cast” what’s happening on the VR screen to a TV monitor or a smartphone running the Oculus app; some games will even allow the smartphone user to play along.

Like the Oculus Go, the Quest affords 1600 x 1440 pixels of resolution per eye, with the headset’s graphics driven by a reasonably powerful Snapdragon 835 processor.

However, without the powerful GPU support of a PC, you can expect the graphics to be somewhat below par.

It’s all very good to have an all-in-one standalone but if you have to charge the headset every now and again, then the whole purpose is killed, regardless of how immersive an experience it promises.

But no worries there as the Oculus Quest boasts a lithium-ion battery with 2-3 hours playtime, depending on the title you’re playing.

Key Features, Specifications, Availability, and Price

o    OLED display panel
o 1600 x 1440 pixels of resolution per eye
o Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor
o 4GB RAM
o Lithium-ion battery with 2-3 hours playtime
o Does not need to be tethered to a PC | completely wireless
o Improved touch controls
o 6 degrees of freedom head and hand tracking
o Ships with 50+ titles
o Available in two variants: 64 GB of storage ($399) or 128 GB of storage ($499)
o Available for pre-order on the Oculus Store https://www.oculus.com/cart/
o You can also pre-order in the US on Amazon, Best Buy, NewEgg, Microsoft, Micro Center, and Walmart
Categories
From The Editors Science

Blue Origin Unveils Full-Scale Mock-Up of Lunar Lander ‘Blue Moon’

In an invitation-only event at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC., members of the press and space industry representatives witnessed the unveiling of a life-size mock-up of ‘Blue Moon’ – spaceflight company Blue Origin’s lunar lander.

The company’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says Blue Moon is capable of carrying 3.6 metric tons of large payloads, including rovers, satellites, and scientific equipment to the lunar surface.

Also, a subsequent “stretch tank” version with a 6.5-ton payload capacity will be able to put astronauts back on the moon by as early as 2024.

“This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the Moon,” Bezos said after the historic reveal, adding: “If that does not inspire you, you are at the wrong event.”

Bezos also revealed a new BE-7 engine that will power both versions of the lander with a thrust of 10,000 lb using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, instead of a storable hypergolic propellant.

“It’s very high performance,” says Bezos. “Ultimately, we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon.”

The advantage of using liquid hydrogen is manifold; not only can its boiloff be used as a coolant for the liquid oxygen, but it can also be fed into a fuel cell system where it can generate enough electricity to power the lander during the two-week long lunar nights.

“We chose hydrogen fuel cells for this vehicle rather than solar cells because we want to be able to survive the lunar night,” he said.

Blue Moon’s fuel-loaded lift-off weight of 33,000 lb will reduce to about 7,000 lb at the time of lunar touchdown.

Bezos has always had a fascination with space and the limitless possibilities it holds, with an early interest in the idea of “space hotels, amusement parks, colonies and small cities for 2-3 million people orbiting Earth.”

It was this obsession with space travel and exploration that led Bezos to found Blue Origin, back in 2000.

So, the Amazon billionaire didn’t really surprise anybody when speaking at the International Space Development Conference, in May last year, he said that his company Blue Origin was open to working with NASA, SpaceX or the European Space Agency (ESA) to realize his vision of colonizing space.

And, what better place to start than the moon, not only because of its proximity to Earth but also because of the presence of large deposits of water ice near its poles, not to mention the fact that the lunar surface gets plenty of sunlight.

Addressing a group of students at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Bezos stressed upon the importance of moving equipment and supplies and assembling them on the surface of the moon with the help of advanced robotics and machine learning, before humans can actually populate the place.

“I think we should build a permanent human settlement on one of the poles of the moon, and it’s time to go back to the moon but this time to stay,” he said.

“And, there you’d want to preposition a whole bunch of equipment and supplies before the humans show up; and some of those things need to be assembled on the surface of the moon and that’s the kind of thing that could also be done by advanced robotics with machine learning systems on board,” Bezos added

There are other players, both private and government, who would likely be interested in partnering with Blue Origin, including SpaceX, although Elon Musk is more fixated on the red planet than the moon.

The European Space Agency’s ‘Moon Village’ vision is particularly appealing to Bezos, who says that the idea of building individual lunar outposts by different companies in close proximity to each other would lead to inter-lunar cooperation among different outposts, helping each other out in times of need.

“The Moon Village concept has a nice property in that everybody basically just says, look, everybody builds their own lunar outpost, but let’s do it close to each other,” Bezos said.

“That way, if you need a cup of sugar, you can go over to the European Union lunar outpost and say, ‘I got my powdered eggs, what have you got?’” he quipped.

“Obviously, I’m being silly with the eggs, but there will be real things, like, ‘Do you have some oxygen?’” he added.

Bezos is also convinced that there’s no better place than the moon for Earth’s heavy industry because in times to come, Earth will not remain the best place for it.

“The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not-too-distant future — I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years — it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space because we’ll have so much energy,” he said.

The ever-increasing population and the resultant demand on the dwindling resources on Earth, plus the fact that there will be no dearth of solar-powered energy in space outposts, do give credence to Bezos lunar logic.

“We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos said. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he said, adding: “We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay will stay.”

While the moon is where Bezos plans to start his space colonization from, for reasons already mentioned, his long-term vision encompasses solar-powered colonies in the solar-system with millions of people living and working in them. He even sees hollow asteroids as potential space outposts.

Bezos said that although he is committed to building the rockets and landers, he would be happy if other companies took over the responsibility of building rovers, habitable accommodation and all the other stuff necessary to colonize the moon on such a large scale.

“One of two things will happen,” he said. “Either other people will take over the vision, or I’ll run out of money.”

Considering he’s the richest man on Earth, it’s unlikely he’ll ever run out of money; on the contrary, he could end up becoming the richest man in space, as well.

Categories
From The Editors Science

Cambridge Scientists to Adopt Radical Methods to Avert Imminent Climate Catastrophe

As a climate catastrophe looms larger than ever before, scientists at the Cambridge University are working on setting up a research center to find radical ways of fixing the planet’s rapidly deteriorating environment, before it spells our doom.

Desperate times call for desperate measures!

As clichéd and dramatic as it may sound, it’s probably what the Cambridge scientists had in mind when they took the much-needed initiative, which is being coordinated by Prof Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

“What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” Sir David told the BBC News, adding: “There is no major center in the world that would be focused on this one big issue.”

Part of Cambridge university’s Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, the Center for Climate Repair is being headed by climate scientist and mathematician Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Research at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Fellow at the British Arctic Survey.

“This really is one of the most important challenges of our time, and we know we need to be responding to it with all our efforts,” Shuckburgh told BBC News.

Concerns that the ongoing efforts alone will not make much of a difference in the fight against climate change has led to this new line of thinking, which is expected to stem the rot by drastically reducing CO2 emissions.

Some of the ideas that the researchers are looking forward to exploring include refreezing the polar regions, recycling carbon dioxide, and greening the oceans – collectively known as geoengineering.

Pole Refreezing

Conceptually, the approach is as simple as brightening/whitening the clouds above the polar regions to increase their ability to reflect heat back into space; it’s the implementation that may prove to be tricky.

The idea being proposed is to deploy unmanned ships with tall masts and pump seawater up the masts through special nozzles, thereby producing tiny salt particles that can then be sprayed into the clouds, making them more reflective.

Recycling Carbon Dioxide

If CO2 emissions from various sources could be harnessed and converted into synthetic fuel, a good portion of the world’s emission problems would be solved, but again, it’s the method that needs to be perfected.

Prof Peter Styring of the University of Sheffield – a researcher specializing in novel sorbents and processes for carbon dioxide capture, purification, and utilization – is working with Tata Steel on exactly such a pilot in Port Talbot in South Wales.

If all goes well, it would go a long way in making large-scale CO2 recycling a global reality.

“We have a source of hydrogen, we have a source of carbon dioxide, we have a source of heat and we have a source of renewable electricity from the plant,” Prof Styring told BBC News.

“We’re going to harness all those and we’re going to make synthetic fuels,” he added.

Ocean Greening

Greening the oceans by promoting the growth of vegetation such as algae and plankton on the surface is another approach under consideration.
The idea is to fertilize the oceans with iron salts which are known to stimulate such growth; the more the growth the more the absorption of CO2 from the air by way of photosynthesis.

Earlier attempts at ocean greening have shown that the amount CO2 absorbed is not enough to make the scheme worthy of the resources involved; plus, there’s the likelihood of upsetting the ecological balance.

But, don’t forget these are desperate times, and considering the enormity of the impending threat, all available options need to be revisited.

“Early in my career, people threw their hands up in horror at suggestions of more interventionist solutions to fix coral reefs,” Prof Callum Roberts of York University told BBC News.

“Now they are looking in desperation at an ecosystem that will be gone at the end of the century and now all options are on the table,” he said.

“At the moment, I happen to think that harnessing nature to mitigate climate change is a better way to go. But I do see the legitimacy of exploring [more radical] options as a means of steering us towards a better future,” added the professor.

A recent study, ranking the environmental targets of different countries, holds the climate change policies of dozens of them, including China, Russia, and Canada, responsible for the expected 5C-plus temperature rise by the end of the century.

Published in the journal Nature Communications in November last year, the paper reveals that these countries are not pursuing their climate change pledges to the United Nations sincerely enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe, which as of now is a foregone conclusion.

According to the Paris Agreement of December 2015, adopted within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), hundreds of countries pledged individual NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions, toward a collective environmental goal.

The NDC calls for member countries to ensure that their individual contributions to climate change are ambitious, progressive and Agreement-centric enough to achieve the “aspirational levels” of 1.5 °C – 2 °C by 2100.

However, the authors note that the NDCs are self-serving and not in keeping with the Paris Agreement, as a result of which the aspirational level targets have little chance of being met.

“Current NDCs individually align, at best, with divergent concepts of equity and are collectively inconsistent with the Paris Agreement,” writes study head and lead author Yann Robiou du Pont from the Australian-German Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne, along with co-author and university colleague Malte Meinshausen.

If the existing state of affairs does not change soon enough, we could well be looking at a 2.3 °C increase in global temperatures by 2100,” say the authors.

“Extending such a self-interested bottom-up aggregation of equity might lead to a median 2100-warming of 2.3 °C,” they write.

Robiou du Pont and Meinshausen do, however, believe that “tightening the warming goal of each country’s effort-sharing approach to aspirational levels of 1.1 °C and 1.3 °C could achieve the 1.5 °C and well-below 2 °C-thresholds, respectively.”

Calling the suggested target revision a “new hybrid allocation,” the authors say that it’s a reconciliation between “the bottom-up nature of the Paris Agreement” and its “top-down warming thresholds and provides a temperature metric to assess NDCs.”

The UNFCCC objective of stabilizing GHG (Greenhouse Gas) concentrations, based on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) to push global warming targets, is far from being met as portrayed by the NDCs.

“While the quest for a common understanding of what is a fair effort-sharing continues, rapidly falling technology costs of renewables and increasing mitigation co-benefits shift the attention away from effort-sharing considerations,” note the authors.

“However, current bottom-up NDCs do not add up to a global ambition consistent with the joint temperature goals,” they say, suggesting that “a 5-year stocktake requires all countries to pledge enhanced actions and support.”

Per the current NDCs, India is leading the pack with a warming target of 2.6 °C, which is rather impressive considering it only marginally exceeds the upper target threshold of 2C.

“The greenest countries on this assessment are the least developed,” The Independent quotes Robiou du Pont as having said.

“Given that they pollute so much less, have polluted so much less and have low per capita GDP, they could increase their emissions to some extent, and that would be fair,” Robiou du Pont told the online newspaper.

The industrialized nations, on the other hand, are the poor performers, with China and major energy exporters like Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia among the top offenders with their NDCs leading to a potentially catastrophic 5C-plus warming.

“Many industrialized countries perform poorly. After all, we know that industrialisation brought climate change,” Robiou du Pont told The Independent, adding that it did not mean that these countries could not take corrective measures.

Among the countries pursuing policies that are likely to lead the planet to a 4C temperature jump, are Australia (heavily dependent on coal exports) and the United States, which is looking to balance its industry, energy and agricultural emissions by encouraging more renewables.

Slightly better-off are EU countries, with most of them producing emissions that would raise the planet’s temperatures by 3C.

“It is interesting is to see how far out some countries are, even those that are considered leaders in the climate mitigation narrative,” the Guardian quoted Robiou du Pont as saying.

It is, therefore, heartening to know that initiatives like the Center for Climate Repair are being undertaken and that serious efforts are being made to save the planet from an imminent ecological disaster.