Record-breaking US astronaut set to return to Earth

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In this photo made available by NASA astronaut Jessica Meir on Sept. 29, 2019, Christina H. Koch, left, and Meir greet each other after Meir's arrival on the International Space Station. On Friday, Sept. 4, 2019, NASA announced that the International Space Station’s two women will pair up for a spacewalk on Oct. 21 to plug in new batteries. (NASA via AP)
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This NASA photo released on February 4, 20202 shows NASA astronaut Christina Koch during a spacewalk on January 15, 2020. (NASA)
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Updated 06 February 2020

Record-breaking US astronaut set to return to Earth

  • Koch had already made history by that point after she became one half of the first-ever all-woman spacewalk along with NASA counterpart Jessica Meir in October

ALMATY, Kazakhstan: US astronaut Christina Koch is set to return to Earth Thursday having shattered the spaceflight record for female astronauts by spending almost a year aboard the International Space Station.
Koch of NASA is expected to touch down in the Kazakh steppes with colleagues Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency at 0912 GMT after 328 days in space.
The 41-year-old Michigan-born engineer by training surpassed the previous record set for a single spaceflight by a woman — 289 days, held by NASA veteran Peggy Whitson — on December 28, 2019.
Koch had already made history by that point after she became one half of the first-ever all-woman spacewalk along with NASA counterpart Jessica Meir in October.
Koch told NBC on Tuesday that she would “miss microgravity” as she answered questions from journalists ahead of her three-and-a-half hour journey back to Earth.
“It’s really fun to be in a place where you can just bounce around between the ceiling and the floor whenever you want,” she said, smiling as she twisted her body around the ISS.

Koch called three-time flyer Whitson “a heroine of mine” and a “mentor” in the space program after she surpassed the 59-year-old’s record.
She also spoke of her desire to “inspire the next generation of explorers.”
Koch’s return comes after an advert produced by the skincare brand Olay ran during an intermission in the American football Super Bowl with a call to “make space for women.”
The advert featured NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and saw the company promise to donate up to $500,000 to the nonprofit Women Who Code, which works with young women seeking careers in tech and scientific fields.
This year’s Super Bowl was watched by over 100 million people while advert space costs more than $5 million for a 30-second commercial.
The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova whose spaceflight in 1963 is still the only solo mission carried out by a woman.
But the cosmonauts Russia has sent to the ISS since expeditions began in 2000 have all been men with the exception of Yelena Serova’s launch in 2014.
Both Tereshkova and Serova are now lawmakers in the Russian parliament, where they represent the ruling United Russia party.
Unlike Koch, whose stay aboard the ISS was extended, Parmitano and Skvortsov are rounding off regular six-month missions.
Parmitano handed over command of the ISS to Roscosmos’ Oleg Skripochka on Tuesday.
The 43-year-old Italian posted regular shots of the Earth while aboard, highlighting the plight of the Amazon rainforest and poetically describing the Alps as “like a spinal column, never bending to time.”
Four male cosmonauts have spent a year or longer in space as part of a single mission with Valery Polyakov’s 437 days the overall record.
Scott Kelly holds the record for a NASA astronaut, posting 340 days at the ISS before he returned home in 2016.
 


Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)


“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.