Science and Technology

Despite how easy it is to prevent, China continues to allow launch debris to rain down on rural towns and threaten people’s safety.

MIT Technology Review
Date: Nov 27, 2019
By: Neel V. Patel

Last Saturday, China launched a pair of satellites into orbit from its Xichang Satellite Launch Center. On social media, however, the main event was what happened on Earth: a booster from the launch smashed right into a building in the country’s rural south-central region. No one was injured, but videos and photos of the incident showed wreckage left in the booster’s wake, with toxic rocket fuel evaporating.

It’s the latest incident in China’s long history with falling rocket parts causing destruction below. The most infamous crash occurred in 1996, when the first Long March 3B launch saw the rocket veer off course and crash into a village, killing an unknown number of people (possibly hundreds, by some Western estimates).

“Any time you have stuff going up, there’s a possibility it’s going to come down where you don’t plan for it,” says Victoria Samson at the Secure World Foundation. “So there’s a reason why you don’t fire over populated land.” That’s why most countries launch over water.

So why doesn’t China? “This entire issue is down to geography,” says Thomas Roberts, a former aerospace security fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All three of China’s main spaceports are located in the mainland, including the Xichang site. They all save money by flying missions east (which requires less fuel to get into space), but that route takes them over vulnerable populations.

China issues evacuation notices to communities downrange, but even if people aren’t harmed or killed by the physical impact of a crash or by direct exposure to rocket fuel (which can lead to severe organ failure or cancer), the wreckage could pollute nearby rivers and streams used for irrigation and drinking water. Launches from the Soviet Union’s old Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, built in 1955, have caused more than 2,500 tons of debris to rain down on the surrounding region, leading to health problems for thousands.

So the issue isn’t new, but the space industry is expanding rapidly. “The more launches you have, the more chances you have for something to go wrong,” says Samson.

Luckily, the solutions aren’t complicated—they just require political will. China can launch over the water if it wants, through its spaceport on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. Operational since 2014, it’s been seldom used because of launch failures and a less developed infrastructure. But these issues are fixable with enough investment.    [FULL  STORY]

Fox News
Date: December 6, 2018
By: Jamie Seidel

File photo – the Moon photographed in shadow. (NASA Goddard)

China is about to be the first nation to land on the dark side of the Moon. But Beijing is being unusually secretive about the event — not even confirming its suspected launch date this weekend.

China’s National Space Administration is believed to be targeting the robotic lander at the Von Karaman crater, near the Moon’s south pole. It’s judged to be the oldest impact crater in the entire Solar System, making it an ideal collecting ground for water ice and a rare hydrogen isotope carried on the Solar wind.

Both have the potential to power future interplanetary missions.

The lander, dubbed Chang’e-4 (Moon Goddess 4), will touch down inside the crater to survey its contents. It will also reportedly experiment on low-gravity plant growth.

For the mission to be possible, a communications satellite was launched earlier this year — in May — to relay its signals back to Earth. Part of Chang’e-4’s mission is to use the masking effect of the Moon’s bulk to block out radio ‘noise’ and listen for interstellar signals. It will test the clarity of telescope optics when out of the reach of the Earth’s ionosphere.    [FULL  STORY]

Live Science
Date:  November 26, 2018
By: Yasemin Saplakoglu, Staff Writer

Credit: Science Photo Library – KTSDESIGN/Getty Images

A scientist in China may have used a powerful gene-editing tool to snip out unwanted genes from human embryos, creating the first genetically modified humans and bringing a dystopian future feared by many one step closer.

The scientist, He Jiankui, claimed in a video he posted online yesterday (Nov. 25) that he had used CRISPR-Cas9 — a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized the field of genetics in the past decade — to delete a gene in human embryos in order to make the babies resistant to HIV. He said in the video that those embryos have developed into two healthy babies: a set of twins named Lulu and Nana. The twins “came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the video. [Genetics by the Numbers: 10 Tantalizing Tales]

The scientist’s claim has not been verified — indeed, the hospital named in He’s ethical-approval documents has denied any involvement in the procedure, CNN reported — but the scientific community has still responded to the claim with outrage and concern, according to news reports. Indeed, even setting aside the very real ethical concerns of using this technology to manipulate human genes, many scientists believe that such alterations could have far-reaching and unforeseen health problems.

It’s true that the modification He made to the embryos “will prevent HIV infection,” said Mazhar Adli, a geneticist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. The problem, however, is that the deleted gene, called CCR5, “has many more functions than just aiding HIV infection,” Adli told Live Science — including helping white blood cells function properly.

The gene may also play a role in helping prevent West Nile virus infection, so snipping it out of the genome likely makes a person more susceptible to the disease, said Feng Zhang, of the Broad Institute, in a statementissued in response to the news. Zhang was one of the scientists that pioneered the use of CRISPR gene-editing technology.    [FULL  STORY]