Executive: SpaceX Astronaut Mission Looking ‘Increasingly Difficult’ in 2019

 As Elon Musk’s SpaceX closes in on the possible cause of a fiery explosion in April that destroyed one of its astronaut capsules, a company executive said on Monday its plan to launch humans into space this year looked “increasingly difficult.”One of the space company’s Crew Dragon capsules exploded on a test stand at a Florida Air Force station moments before firing eight emergency abort thrusters designed to propel an on-board crew to safety in the event of a failure.FILE PHOTO: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 mission, is shown during launch preparation at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.Crew Dragon was slated earlier this year to carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station in a first manned test mission in July, although that date slipped until November following the explosion and some other hitches in the vehicle’s design.Monday’s comments were a fresh sign that the schedule could slip into 2020.”I’m pretty optimistic at this point in time because we have a good path forward,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of Build & Flight Reliability told reporters on a conference call as the company provided fresh details from the investigation.”But like I said, still not quite done. My emphasis is really on making sure this is safe … By the end of this year, I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s getting increasingly difficult.”SpaceX said its accident investigation was pointing to a leaky valve as the likely cause of the April explosion.NASA is paying SpaceX $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion to build rocket and capsule launch systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil for the first time since America’s Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011.Koenigsmann, who sits on an investigative board convened by SpaceX just after the April explosion, said the probe is nearing completion and that the space company will need to make some changes to Crew Dragon’s design before it can be trusted to send humans to space.SpaceX said evidence shows that a leaking check valve allowed nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) to enter high-pressure helium tubes during the April test. “The failure of the titanium component in a high-pressure NTO environment was sufficient to cause ignition of the check valve and led to an explosion,” SpaceX said on its website.Steps were being taken to reduce such risks within the launch escape system, the company said. This includes replacing check valves, which typically allow liquid to flow in only one direction, with so-called burst disks that seal completely until opened by high pressure, it said.


Scientists Close In on Blood Test for Alzheimer’s

Scientists are closing in on a long-sought goal — a blood test to screen people for possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. 
 
On Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, half a dozen research groups gave new results on various experimental tests, including one that seems 88% accurate at indicating Alzheimer’s risk.Doctors are hoping for something to use during routine exams, where most dementia symptoms are evaluated, to gauge who needs more extensive testing. Current tools such as brain scans and spinal fluid tests are too expensive or impractical for regular check-ups.”We need something quicker and dirtier. It doesn’t have to be perfect” to be useful for screening, said Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer.Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, called the new results “very promising” and said blood tests soon will be used to choose and monitor people for federally funded studies, though it will take a little longer to establish their value in routine medical care. 
 
“In the past year we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration in progress” on these tests, he said. “This has happened at a pace that is far faster than any of us would have expected.”It can’t come too soon for patients like Tom Doyle, a 66-year-old former university professor from Chicago who has had two spinal fluid tests since developing memory problems four years ago. First he was told he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, then that he did. He ultimately was diagnosed with different problems — Lewy body dementia with Parkinson’s.”They probably could have diagnosed me years ago accurately if they had had a blood test,” said Doyle, who represents patients on the Alzheimer’s Association’s board.88% accuracy overallAbout 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form. There is no cure; current medicines just temporarily ease symptoms. Dozens of hoped-for treatments have failed. Doctors think studies may have enrolled people after too much brain damage had occurred and included too many people with problems other than Alzheimer’s.A blood test — rather than subjective estimates of thinking skills — could get the right people into studies sooner. 
 
One of the experimental blood tests measures abnormal versions of the protein that forms the plaques in the brain that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Last year, Japanese researchers published a study of it and on Monday they gave results from validation testing on 201 people with Alzheimer’s, other types of dementia, mild impairment or no symptoms. 
 
The blood test results closely matched those from the top tests used now — three types of brain scans and a mental assessment exam, said Dr. Akinori Nakamura of the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology in Obu, Japan. The test correctly identified 92% of people who had Alzheimer’s and correctly ruled out 85% who did not have it, for an overall accuracy of 88%.Shimadzu Corp. has rights to the test and is working to commercialize it, Nakamura said. 
 Ruling out disordersAnother experimental test looks at neurofilament light, a protein that’s a marker of nerve damage. Abdul Hye of King’s College London gave results of a study comparing blood levels of it in 2,300 people with various neurological conditions — Alzheimer’s, other dementias, Parkinson’s, depression, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease — plus healthy folks for comparison.Levels were significantly higher in eight conditions, and only 2% of healthy folks were above a threshold they set for raising concern. The test doesn’t reveal which disorder someone has, but it may help rule one out when symptoms may be psychological or due to other problems.Later at the conference, Dr. Randall Bateman of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will give new results on a blood test he helped develop that the university has patented and licensed to C2N Diagnostics, a company he co-founded. Like the Japanese test, it measures the abnormal Alzheimer protein, and the new results will show how well the test reflects what brain scans show on nearly 500 people. 
 
“Everyone’s finding the same thing … the results are remarkably similar across countries, across techniques,” said Bateman, whose work is supported by the U.S. government and the Alzheimer’s Association. He estimates a screening test could be as close as three years away. 
 
What good will that do without a cure?An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last year found that most Americans would want to know if they carried a gene tied to a disease even if it was incurable. 
 
“What people want most of all is a diagnosis” if they’re having symptoms, said Jonathan Schott of University College London. “What we don’t like is not knowing what’s going on.” 


WHO: Spread of Ebola to DRC’s Goma Could be ‘Game-Changer’

The head of the World Health Organization warns the spread of Ebola to a large city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could have dire consequences.  The WHO chief spoke Monday at a high-level meeting that examined current efforts to contain the growing Ebola epidemic in Congo. 
The Ebola outbreak in Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu and Ituri provinces is the second largest after the historic 2014 epidemic that killed 11,300 people in West Africa.  As the first anniversary of the DRC epidemic draws near, the WHO reports nearly 2,500 people have been infected with the virus and 1,665 people have died.  World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (R) listens to a delegate at the end of a meeting organised the United Nations on the Ebola disease in DRC, on July 15, 2019, in Geneva.WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the effort to stop the spread of the disease has received another blow with the news that the first case of Ebola had been detected in the eastern Congolese city of Goma.  He says WHO was informed Sunday that a pastor who had traveled from Butembo was infected with the deadly virus.“The identification of the case in Goma could potentially be a game changer in this epidemic,” he said. “Goma is a city of two million people, near the border with Rwanda, and is a gateway to the region and the world.  We are confident in the measures we have put in place and hope that we will see no further transmission of Ebola in Goma.”  FILE – Mwamini Kahindo, an Ebola survivor working as a caregiver to babies who are confirmed Ebola cases, holds an infant outside the red zone at the Ebola treatment center in Butembo, DRC, March 25, 2019.But Tedros agrees he cannot be sure of that.  And, so, he says he will reconvene a WHO Emergency Committee as soon as possible to determine whether Ebola in the DRC poses a global health threat.  The co-chair of this high-level conference, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, considers a lack of funding and eastern Congo’s dangerous security environment to be the two biggest threats to the anti-Ebola campaign.Recently, two Ebola responders were murdered in their home in the Congolese city of Beni.On the financial front, he notes less than half of the money needed to run the Ebola containment operation has been received, leaving a funding gap of $50 million.  Lowcock warns it will not be possible to get to zero cases unless there’s a big upturn in the response.“If we do not get an increase in the funding available, treatment centers are going to close,” he said. “There will be fewer teams to conduct training or to give life-saving vaccinations.  There will be fewer mobile teams available to immediately investigate, isolate, treat and trace each new case no matter where the disease pops up.”Participants at the meeting agree on the urgent need to stop the Ebola virus now.  They say Goma is a warning that will test the health community’s response, preparedness and ultimate ability to prevent further cases of Ebola in that big urban center.     


UN: Global Hunger Stable, But Obesity on Rise

The United Nations says more than 820 million people around the world are hungry, while at same time, obesity is hitting record levels.A FILE – Jose Graziano da Silva, director-general of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).The report notes the highest hunger rates are in Africa and growing steadily in almost all parts of the subcontinent, where climate and conflict, economic slowdowns and downturns have driven more than 256 million people into a state of food insecurity.In Asia, more than 500 million people, primarily in the southern part of the continent, are suffering from malnutrition. This sort of hunger has lasting impacts on its victims, especially children, who suffer from stunting and wasting.”So the question is what are we going to do about it?” asked World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley. “Because if these were your little girls and your little boys, I guarantee you, you’d be doing everything you could to do something about it.”Beasley said the problem of world hunger is solvable, but is not achievable without ending war and conflicts, which consume a huge portion of the global economy that could be used for development.David Beasley, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) executive director, speaks during a press conference in Seoul, May 15, 2018, after his visit to North Korea.Obesity a global epidemicFor the first time, the U.N. agencies were able to gather data on world obesity rates, which are skyrocketing.”We have about 830 million obese people in the world,” said the FAO’s Graziano da Silva. “That’s happening in most continents except Africa and Asia.”He said trends indicate that the numbers of overweight and obese people in Africa and Asia would soon exceed those who are hungry.  Graziano da Silva said obesity rates are rising by 6.3% and 7.5% per year respectively in Africa and Asia, while the global average is 4.8%.”It’s really a global epidemic issue the way obesity is rising and how fast it is rising,” Graziano da Silva added.The cost of obesity is very high, some $2 trillion a year in related illnesses and other side effects.Graziano da Silva urged better labeling of foods, reducing the levels of salt, fats and sugars in processed foods and restricting advertising for some products geared toward children. He noted healthy and fresh foods also need to be promoted and access to them needs to be increased for some populations.


UN: 20 Million Children Missing Out on Life-Saving Vaccines

Two leading UN agencies report nearly 20 million children worldwide—more than one in 10—were not vaccinated against killer diseases, such as measles, diphtheria and tetanus in 2018. Global life-saving vaccine coverage remains at 86 percent.  This is high, but the World Health Organization says it is not high enough.  It says 95 percent coverage is needed to protect against outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.  The worldwide measles outbreak is the starkest and most alarming example of what can happen when vaccine coverage across countries and communities falls below 95 percent.  Last year, nearly 350,000 measles cases were reported globally, more than double that of 2017.WHO’s director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, Kate O’Brien warns measles outbreaks are not just persisting, but are increasing.  She agrees some of the problem is due to misinformation and false information regarding the safety of the measles vaccine.  But she says low coverage is mainly linked to sharp inequalities in both low-income and high-income countries.“Even in high-income countries, access to vaccines, inequality and quality of care are often the greatest obstacles for parents to get vaccines for their children.  So, we want to emphasize both of these things that barriers to vaccination are not only about poor countries, they are also about the situation in high-income and middle-income countries,” she said. Nevertheless, O’Brien notes most unvaccinated children live in the poorest countries; especially in fragile or conflict-affected States.  Almost half, she said, are in just 16 countries.  Ten of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.WHO reports Nigeria, India and Pakistan have the lowest vaccination rates. It finds only two regions, the Americas and Western-Pacific had lower vaccination coverage in 2018 than in 2017.   Vaccinations in every other region, it says, have gone up or have plateaued.While Africa remains the region with the lowest vaccine coverage, WHO says it has not gone backwards.  However, due to expected population rise, WHO projects fewer children in Africa are likely to receive life-saving vaccines in the coming decades. 


Two DR Congo Ebola Health Workers Killed 

The health ministry of Democratic Republic of Congo said Monday two community health workers engaged in Ebola prevention have been killed in the eastern North Kivu province. The ministry said the workers had been receiving death threats for months.Ministry officials, meanwhile, have confirmed the first case of Ebola in Goma, a city of more than 2 million people, along the Rwandan border.Authorities said the patient is a pastor who took a bus from Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by Ebola, to Goma. He arrived in Goma on Sunday and was quickly taken to an Ebola treatment center.The health ministry said in a statement: “Given that the patient was quickly identified, as well as all the passengers on the bus from Butembo, the risk of the disease spreading in the city of Goma is low.”The French news agency AFP reports the bus driver and passengers are receiving vaccinations Monday.Ebola has killed more than 1,600 people in DR Congo.Efforts to contain the disease have been hampered by violent attacks on health care workers and treatment centers.Some Congolese people have also contributed to the spread of the disease by refusing to take their loved ones to treatment centers and not adhering to burial guidelines designed to reduce Ebola transmission.
 


Last Lunar Eclipse of Year Falls on Apollo Anniversary

The last lunar eclipse of the year will take place this week, allowing stargazers from large swathes of the globe to catch a glimpse of the celestial phenomena.The partial lunar eclipse will occur during the full moon beginning Tuesday night, and will be visible in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The only region that will miss out on viewing the eclipse entirely is North America.A lunar eclipse occurs when there is an alignment of the moon, the sun and the Earth. It can only happen during a full moon, because that is the only time the moon can be directly opposite of the sun in Earth’s sky.The upcoming alignment will result in a partial lunar eclipse because the moon will be slightly askew from a direct line with Earth’s shadow.This lunar eclipse will come two weeks after a total eclipse of the sun was visible over South America. This follows a typical astronomical pattern of lunar eclipses occurring within two weeks of a solar eclipse.The last lunar eclipse took place in January 2019 and was visible from both Americas as well as parts of Europe and Africa. The next lunar eclipse will not take place until next year, however all four eclipses in 2020 will only be penumbral eclipses, which are much weaker than partial or full eclipses.During penumbral eclipses, the moon passes through the weakest shadow cast by Earth and often does not visibly darken to the naked eye.There won’t be another total lunar eclipse until May 2021.Apollo anniversaryTuesday’s lunar eclipse will be seen by stargazers at different times around the globe. Viewers in South America will be the first to see Earth’s shadow touch the moon’s surface when the moon is rising in the sky around sunset July 16, while watchers in Asia and Australia will see the moon in eclipse as it sets around sunrise July 17.Interestingly, this celestial event falls on the anniversary of another lunar happening: July 16 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 rocket launch, which first landed humans on the moon.
 


Study: Healthy Lifestyle May Offset Genetic Risk for Dementia

A healthy lifestyle can cut your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia even if you have genes that raise your risk for these mind-destroying diseases, a large study has found.People with high genetic risk and poor health habits were about three times more likely to develop dementia versus those with low genetic risk and good habits, researchers reported Sunday. Regardless of how much genetic risk someone had, a good diet, adequate exercise, limiting alcohol and not smoking made dementia less likely.“I consider that good news,” said John Haaga of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, one of the study’s many sponsors. “No one can guarantee you’ll escape this awful disease” but you can tip the odds in your favor with clean living, he said.Results were discussed at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles and published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.50 million people About 50 million people have dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type. Genes and lifestyle contribute to many diseases, but researchers only recently have had the tools and information to do large studies to see how much each factor matters.One such study a few years ago found that healthy living could help overcome genetic risk for heart disease. Now researchers have shown the same to be true for dementia.Dr. Elzbieta Kuzma and colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School in England used the UK Biobank to study nearly 200,000 people 60 or older with no signs or symptoms of dementia at the start. Their genetic risk was classified as high, medium or low based on dozens of mutations known to affect dementia. They also were grouped by lifestyle factors.By the numbersAfter about eight years of study, 1.8% of those with high genetic risk and poor lifestyles had developed dementia versus 0.6% of folks with low genetic risk and healthy habits.Among those with the highest genetic risk, just more than 1% of those with favorable lifestyles developed dementia compared to nearly 2% of those with poor lifestyles.One limitation: Researchers only had information on mutations affecting people of European ancestry, so it’s not known whether the same is true for other racial or ethnic groups.Genes are not destinyThe results should give encouragement to people who fear that gene mutations alone determine their destiny, said Dr. Rudy Tanzi, a genetics expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. Less than 5% of the ones tied to Alzheimer’s are “fully penetrant,” meaning that they guarantee you’ll get the disease, he said.“That means that with 95% of the mutations, your lifestyle will make a difference,” Tanzi said. “Don’t be too worried about your genetics. Spend more time being mindful of living a healthy life.”One previous study in Sweden and Finland rigorously tested the effect of a healthy lifestyle by assigning one group to follow one and included a comparison group that did not. It concluded that healthy habits could help prevent mental decline. The Alzheimer’s Association is sponsoring a similar study underway now in the United States.Healthy living also is the focus of new dementia prevention guidelines that the World Health Organization released in February.
 


Hawaii Telescope Construction Expected to Draw Protesters, Police

Police and protesters are gearing up for a fight in Hawaii as construction is set to begin on a massive telescope on Mauna Kea, the islands’ highest peak, considered sacred by some native Hawaiians.State officials said the road to the top of Mauna Kea mountain on the Big Island will be closed starting Monday as equipment is delivered to the construction site.Scientists chose Mauna Kea in 2009 after a five-year, worldwide search for the ideal site for the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. Construction was supposed to begin in 2014 but was halted by protests.Opponents of the $1.4 billion telescope will desecrate sacred land. According to the University of Hawaii, ancient Hawaiians considered the location kapu, or forbidden. Only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to make the long trek to Mauna Kea’s summit above the clouds.Supporters of telescope say it will not only make important scientific discoveries but bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii.The company behind the telescope is made up of a group of universities in California and Canada, with partners from China, India and Japan.  Astronomers hope the telescope will help them look back 13 billion years to the time just after the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about the universe.It is not clear what the opponents of the project have planned for Monday but Gov. David Ige said unarmed National Guard units will be on hand to help enforce road closures and transport workers and supplies. 


Russia Launches Major New Telescope Into Space

Russia’s space agency says a Russian Proton-M rocket has successfully delivered a cutting-edge space telescope into orbit after days of launch delays.Roscosmos said the telescope, named Spektr-RG, was delivered into a parking orbit before a final burn Saturday that kicked the spacecraft out of Earth’s orbit and on to its final destination: the L2 Lagrange point.
 
Lagrange points are unique positions in the solar system where objects can maintain their position relative to the sun and the planets that orbit it.
 
Located 1.5 million kilometers (0.93 million miles) from Earth, L2 is particularly ideal for telescopes such as Spektr-RG. If all goes well, it will arrive at its designated position in three months.
 
If Spektr-RG reaches L2 successfully, it will be the first Russian spacecraft to operate beyond Earth’s orbit since the Soviet era.