Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn. (File/Shutterstock)
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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.

I choose you! Pokemon turns 25

Updated 26 February 2021

I choose you! Pokemon turns 25

  • The augmented-reality game raked in $1 billion in just the first 10 months of last year — its most lucrative yet
  • Pokemon is inspired by the childhood tradition of collecting bugs

TOKYO: Twenty-five years after Pokemon first began delighting children and adults alike, the phenomenon is still capturing hearts, with smartphone craze Pokemon Go enjoying record success in virus-hit 2020.
The augmented-reality game raked in $1 billion in just the first 10 months of last year — its most lucrative yet — according to market tracker Sensor Tower, and experts see no sign that interest is flagging as the world’s highest-grossing media franchise evolves.
“The characters themselves are so appealing, and the mechanics of the actual video and card games are so well executed that it has this very timeless quality,” said Brian Ashcraft, an author who writes about Japanese pop culture.
Dan Ryan, a 29-year-old who works in London’s finance sector, has been a fan nearly his whole life and is not shy about his hobby, even with colleagues.
“They know I disappear every Thursday to go and play Pokemon cards, they see me come in with my Pikachu jacket, and they see my Pokemon mugs,” he told AFP.
He admits he spends “too much money” on rare Pokemon cards, whose prices have boomed as virus lockdowns push people toward indoor pursuits, with some in mint condition going for over $500,000 in recent weeks.
Pokemon is inspired by the childhood tradition of collecting bugs — popular during Japan’s hot and humid summer holidays — and part of its enduring appeal is its simple goal: to catch them all.
Hundreds of round-eyed “pocket monsters” inspired by everything from mice to dragons can be caught and trained to full strength in battles.
The winning concept has sold countless toys, film tickets and more than 30 billion Pokemon cards since the first black-and-white Game Boy titles were released in Japan in 1996.
Atsuko Nishida, who designed the electric mouse Pikachu, once said she modelled it on a round Japanese sweet called a daifuku.
Her fellow designers, who had asked Nishida to draw a cute monster, liked the creature and urged her to make it even more adorable.
“I thought it would be nice to have it store electricity in its cheek pouches. At the time I was really into squirrels, (which) store food in their cheeks,” she told a Japanese newspaper.
The character’s signature pronouncement “pika-pika” — meaning shiny and sparkly in Japanese — only added to the bright yellow creature’s powers of attraction.
For ZoeTwoDots, a Pokemon Go vlogger and livestreamer with nearly 200,000 YouTube subscribers, a childhood obsession has become her full-time job.
The 27-year-old Australian finds other fans mostly supportive, “which I think is incredibly rare, especially because gaming has that toxic stereotype.”
Her favorite Pokemon? “Togepi. It’s just a happy little egg. It’s quite literally, nothing can bother this.”
The game’s nature imagery, varied characters and focus on building a collection are central to its success, said Jason Bainbridge, executive dean of the University of Canberra’s arts and design faculty, who has written extensively about Pokemon.
But there have also been controversies along the way.
An anime episode in the 90s caused several seizures among Japanese children — which some deemed a case of mass hysteria.
And magician Uri Geller recently dropped a 20-year legal battle against Nintendo, which partly owns Pokemon. He had accused it of using his likeness to create Kadabra, a psychic Pokemon holding a spoon.
While real-life 25th-anniversary celebrations are off the cards due to the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual concert featuring US rapper Post Malone — described as a lifelong Pokemon fan — is planned.
And Bainbridge says Pokemon could be around for another 25 years if it keeps adapting.
“Pokemon Go really revived the franchise, at a point when we all knew what Pokemon was, but all of a sudden... we all wanted to do it again,” he said of the game released in 2016.
The game allows players to roam the outside world throwing Pokeballs to capture monsters that pop up on their phone screens.
It has caused real-life mishaps from car crashes to clifftop falls, but it’s still easy to find players on Tokyo’s streets waiting for “wild” Pokemon to appear.
“It feels like you are catching the Pokemon, for real,” said Tsuyoshi Aihori, 22, who was on the hunt in Tokyo’s Akihabara gaming district on a weekday afternoon.
He plays around five hours a week and at a recent promotional event, “I played from dawn to dusk and caught 400 or 500 Pokemon,” he told AFP.
“I ran out of Pokeballs.”

Touchdown: NASA’s Perseverance rover ready to search for life on Mars

Updated 19 February 2021

Touchdown: NASA’s Perseverance rover ready to search for life on Mars

  • Shortly after landing, the rover sent back its first black-and-white images
  • The rover is only the fifth ever to set its wheels down on Mars

WASHINGTON: After seven months in space, NASA’s Perseverance rover overcame a tense landing phase with a series of perfectly executed maneuvers to gently float down to the Martian soil Thursday and embark on its mission to search for signs of past life.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said operations lead Swati Mohan at 3:55 p.m. Eastern Time (2055 GMT), as mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers.
The autonomously guided procedure was in fact completed more than 11 minutes earlier, the length of time it took for radio signals to return to Earth.
Shortly after landing, the rover sent back its first black-and-white images, revealing a rocky field at the landing site in the Jezero Crater, just north of the Red Planet’s equator.
More images, video of the descent and perhaps the first sounds of Mars ever recorded by microphones are expected in the coming hours as the rover relays data to overhead satellites.
US President Joe Biden hailed the “historic” event.
“Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility,” he tweeted.
Perseverance’s prime mission will last just over two years but it is likely to remain operational well beyond that, with its predecessor Curiosity still functioning eight years after landing on the planet, said NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk.
“It’ll be on Mars for its entire life,” he said, adding “these robots tend to be really reliable.”
Over the coming years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.
About the size of an SUV, the craft weighs a ton, is equipped with a seven foot- (two meter-) long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones and a suite of cutting-edge instruments to assist in its scientific goals.
Before it could set out on its lofty quest, it first had to overcome the dreaded “seven minutes of terror” — the risky entry, descent and landing phase that has scuppered nearly half of all missions to Mars.
The spacecraft carrying Perseverance careened into the Martian atmosphere at 20,000 kilometers per hour, protected by its heat shield, then deployed a supersonic parachute the size of a Little League field, before firing up an eight-engined jetpack.
Finally, it lowered the rover carefully to the ground on a set of cables.
Allen Chen, lead engineer for the landing stage, said a new guidance system called “Terrain Relative Navigation,” which uses a special camera to identify surface features and compare them to an onboard map, was key to landing in a rugged region of scientific interest.
“We are in a nice flat spot, the vehicle is only tilted by about 1.2 degrees,” he said. “We did successfully find that parking lot, and have a safe rover on the ground.”
Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago the crater was home to a river that flowed into a deep lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta.
Perseverance ended up landing about two kilometers (a mile) southeast of the delta, NASA scientist Ken Farley said, in a geologically significant area.
Mars was warmer and wetter in its distant past, and while previous exploration has determined the planet was habitable, Perseverance is tasked with determining whether it was actually inhabited.
It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.
Despite the rover’s state-of-the-art technology, bringing samples back to Earth remains crucial because of anticipated ambiguities in the specimens it documents.
For example, fossils that arose from ancient microbes may look suspiciously similar to patterns caused by precipitation.
Before getting to the main mission, NASA wants to run several eye-catching experiments.
Tucked under Perseverance’s belly is a small helicopter drone that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet in a few weeks’ time.
Dubbed Ingenuity, it will have to achieve lift in an atmosphere that’s one percent the density of Earth’s, a demonstration of concept that could revolutionize the way humans explore other planets.
Another experiment involves an instrument that can convert oxygen from Mars’s primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, much like a plant.
The idea is that humans eventually won’t need to carry their own oxygen on hypothetical future trips, which is crucial for rocket fuel as well as for breathing.
The rover is only the fifth ever to set its wheels down on Mars. The feat was first accomplished in 1997, and all of them have been American.
The US is also preparing for an eventual human mission to the planet, though planning remains very preliminary.
“Maybe by mid-to-end of the 2030s we can start pushing out of the Earth-Moon system and land astronauts on Mars,” said Jurczyk.

China’s space probe Tianwen-1 enters Mars orbit

Updated 10 February 2021

China’s space probe Tianwen-1 enters Mars orbit

  • The UAE’s orbiter called Amal, Arabic for Hope, began circling the red planet on Tuesday
  • Tianwen-1 is China’s second attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars

BEIJING: A Chinese spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Wednesday on a mission to land a rover and collect data on underground water and possible signs of ancient life, state media said.
“China’s probe Tianwen-1 successfully entered the orbit around Mars on Wednesday after a nearly seven-month voyage from Earth,” the Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report.
The orbiter-rover combo became the second spacecraft in two days to reach the red planet. An orbiter from the United Arab Emirates led the way on Tuesday.
Next week, the US will try to land its Perseverance rover on the Martian surface. Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars – eight times beginning with two Viking missions. A lander and rover are in operation today.
All three Mars missions launched last July to take advantage of the planet’s close alignment with Earth that occurs only every two years.
The Chinese mission is its most ambitious yet. If all goes as planned, the rover would separate from the spacecraft in a few months and attempt to touch down. If all goes as planned, China would become only the second nation to do so successfully.
Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”
Landing a spacecraft on Martian soil is notoriously difficult, and China’s attempt will involve a parachute, back-firing rockets and airbags. Its proposed landing site is inside the massive, rock-strewn, Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.
The solar-powered rover — about the size of a golf cart — is expected to operate for about three months, and the orbiter for two years.
Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times beginning with the two Viking missions. A lander and rover are in operation today.
A US rover called Perseverance is aiming for a Feb. 18 touchdown on Mars to also search for signs of ancient microscopic life and to collect rocks for return to Earth in the next decade.
The UAE’s orbiter called Amal, Arabic for Hope, began circling the red planet on Tuesday to gather detailed data on Mars’ atmosphere.
Six others were already operating around Mars: three US, two European and one Indian.
Many others haven’t made it. Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the Martian landscape along with a failed US lander. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark.
Tianwen-1 is China’s second attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth orbit.
China’s secretive, military-linked space program has progressed considerably since then. In December, its Chang’e 5 mission was the first to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.

UAE’s ‘Hope’ probe to be first in trio of Mars missions

Updated 08 February 2021

UAE’s ‘Hope’ probe to be first in trio of Mars missions

  • After blasting off from Japan last July, the mission now faces its ‘most critical and complex’ maneuver

DUBAI: The first Arab space mission, the UAE’s “Hope” probe, is expected to reach Mars’ orbit on Tuesday, making it the first of three spacecraft to arrive at the Red Planet this month.

The United Arab Emirates, China and the US all launched projects to Mars last July, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.

If succesful, the wealthy Gulf state will become the fifth nation to ever reach Mars — a venture timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE — with the China mission due to become the sixth the following day.

Landmarks across the UAE have been lit up in red at night, government accounts emblazoned with the #ArabstoMars hashtag, and on the big day Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, will be at the center of a celebratory show.

“Hope,” known as “Al-Amal” in Arabic, will orbit the planet for at least one Martian year, or 687 days, while the Tianwen-1 from China and the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover from the US will both land on Mars’ surface.

Only the US, India, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have successfully reached the Red Planet in the past.

After blasting off from Japan last July, the Hope mission now faces its “most critical and complex” maneuver, according to Emirati officials, with a 50-50 chance of successfully entering a Mars orbit.

The spacecraft must slow significantly to be captured by Martian gravity, rotating and firing all six of its Delta-V thrusters for 27 minutes to reduce its cruising speed of 121,000 km per hour to about 18,000 kph.

The process, which will consume half of its fuel, will begin on Tuesday and it will take 11 minutes for a signal on its progress to reach ground control.

Omran Sharaf, the UAE mission’s project manager, said it was a “huge honor” to be the first of this year’s missions to reach Mars.

“It is humbling to be in such auspicious and skilled company as we all embark on our missions,” he said. “It was never a race for us. We approach space as a collaborative and inclusive effort.”


Palestinian student creates robotic hand

Updated 06 February 2021

Palestinian student creates robotic hand

DUBAI: Palestinian student, Jamal Shakhtor, has been hard at work creating a robotic hand in his workshop in Bethlehem on the West Bank.

The 26-year-old student in industrial automation, is not new to creating state-of-the-art disability aids.

He previously presented a breathing vest and a transformable disability chair he made, at the Qatari Stars of Science reality-TV program dedicated to innovation