News at a glance: Hubble interlopers, an ocean-drilling gap, and a near-sighted astronomer


Satellite swarms spoil Hubble’s view

Images from the iconic Hubble Space Telescope are increasingly marred by the tracks of passing satellites in higher orbits, a threat that could balloon as companies vie to build “megaconstellations” for global internet services. The rocket company SpaceX has launched more than 3500 of its Starlink satellites out of a planned 12,000; Amazon and the Chinese government have similar plans. Ground-based observatories are already seeing images spoiled, so researchers wanted to know how badly Hubble was affected. They enlisted members of the public to help identify trails, sometimes multiple ones, in more than 100,000 Hubble photos. The team’s analysis of those data, reported on 2 March in Nature Astronomy, suggests images taken before the start of Starlink had a 3.7% chance of containing a satellite trail. But in 2021—with 1562 Starlink satellites in orbit—that chance rose to 5.9%. The orbiting interlopers could interfere with other telescopes planned for low-Earth orbit, such as the wide-field Chinese Survey Space Telescope, also called Xuntian, which is scheduled for launch in December. Some missions, including NASA’s giant space telescope JWST, are stationed deeper in space, away from the satellite swarms. But that expensive option isn’t suitable for all instruments.


Research ships retire and debut

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced this week that in 2024 it will retire the JOIDES Resolution (JR), the flagship ocean drilling ship of the International Ocean Discovery Program. In operation for nearly 40 years, the JR has recovered seafloor rock cores from around the world, including the remains of the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs. The aging vessel would have been impossible to operate past 2028, when its environmental impact statement expires. NSF said retiring the JR next year would hasten planning for a successor ship, which could be leased or built. But the agency must still contend with a multiyear gap with no lead international drilling ship. Separately, one of the largest private research vessels set out last week on its inaugural expedition, to explore microbes in seafloor hydrothermal vents at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The 110-meter R/V Falkor (too) is debuting as the number of vessels in the U.S. oceanographic fleet has dwindled, intensifying competition for ship time. Twenty scientists aboard Falkor (too) will study vents known as the Lost City for clues to the chemical origins of life. The ship is the product of a multimillion-dollar renovation of a Norwegian industry vessel funded by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Named for a furry, white dragon from the 1980’s movie The NeverEnding Story, the vessel features seven decks, eight laboratories, and 98 berths. Researchers can use it at no cost in exchange for making their results publicly available. It replaces the smaller R/V Falkor, which the institute donated to Italy’s National Research Council last year.


Fava bean genome deciphered

This week’s publication of the fava bean genome could help the crop reach its potential to help feed a growing world population. The species, Vicia faba, is the highest yielding of all grain legumes, and its beans are high in protein. The sequencing project was challenging because of the plant’s large genome: At 13 billion bases, it is four times as long as the human genome. Reporting the sequence this week in Nature, the researchers say they hope it will help breeders enhance the plant’s utility, for example by increasing the size of the bean. V. faba is grown in the fall and spring and so could complement soybeans, grown in the summer, to provide protein for livestock and people. The species is one of the “orphan crops,” which are not traded internationally and so have received less study than others.


Japan’s new rocket fails

Japan’s newest rocket failed on its first launch on 7 March, which could jeopardize the nation’s space science plans. Controllers ordered the H3 rocket to self-destruct 15 minutes into the mission after the second stage failed to ignite, leaving “no prospect of reaching the specified orbit,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said. An Earth-observing satellite intended to help manage disasters was lost. The H3, developed at a cost of $1.5 billion, is scheduled to launch the 2024 Martian Moons eXploration mission, which aims to return samples from Phobos, Mars’s largest moon, as well as the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission, a joint effort with India to send a lander and rover to the Moon’s south pole in 2025. Engineers will work to address the rocket’s problems before then.

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An entire group of animals, insects, are not being given the same level of attention and management.


Origin of life group debuts

Researchers have formed an international, interdisciplinary collaborative to explore how life evolved on Earth and, possibly, other planets. The Origin Federation’s leaders include astrophysicist Didier Queloz of ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2019 for the first discovery of a planet orbiting another, Sun-like star. Announcing the group last week at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science), Queloz emphasized the need for origins research to span disciplines such as astrophysics, biology, and chemistry. In addition to his two institutions, the consortium will include researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago.


Women scientists group axes staff

The 7-year-old nonprofit organization 500 Women Scientists, which works to improve inclusion and diversity in science and medicine, is eliminating its five paid staff positions and scaling back operations after failing to secure stable funding. The organization will return to being run by volunteers who also have full-time academic careers. The group, which detailed the changes in an email to supporters last week, will keep running its online directory of more than 15,000 women and gender-diverse experts in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and medicine. But it will terminate its fellowship program supporting women of color. The group’s inability to maintain even a small staff is ironic given that U.S. funders have pledged billions of dollars to diversity, equity, and inclusion, says Ebony McGee, a professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University. The organization’s leaders “are actually women and women of color, on the ground doing the work and doing it from a lived experience,” she says.


Astronomy pioneer might have been near-sighted

A portrait of astronomer Christiaan Huygens, at a science museum in Leiden, Netherlands, is seen partly through original lenses he designed for his telescopes.RIJKSMUSEUM BOERHAAVE/LEIDEN

Famed 17th century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens may have needed eyeglasses—and, lacking them, baked some fuzziness into the lenses he designed for his pioneering telescopes, a study has suggested. With the instruments, Huygens studied Saturn’s rings and discovered its moon Titan. But the resolution of his telescopes was not as sharp as others made at the time, and their lenses overmagnified by a factor of 3.5, according to the study, published last week in Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. Its author, Alexander Pietrow, of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam, says several factors might explain the discrepancies, including myopia. The extent of the lenses’ fuzziness indicates that if Huygens’s vision was impaired, it was mild enough that he might not have noticed it, Pietrow wrote.