Science & Health

SpaceX Scraps Rocket Launch Seconds Before Planned Liftoff

SpaceX halted the planned launch Saturday of its unmanned Falcon 9 cargo rocket with just 13 seconds left on the countdown clock because of a technical issue.

The company said on Twitter it was “standing down to take a closer look at positioning of the second stage engine nozzle.” The earliest time SpaceX can reschedule the launch is about 9:30 a.m. EST Sunday, the company said.

The weather expected in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday would be favorable for the launch.

A spokesman for SpaceX told AFP that engineers found a small helium leak in the second-stage thrust control of the rocket’s engine. The launch was delayed “out of an abundance of caution,” the spokesman said.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer at SpaceX, called the malfunction “slightly odd” and said the rocket would fly fine if this was the only issue. But SpaceX needs to “make sure that it isn’t symptomatic of a more significant upstream root cause,” he added.

The cargo rocket scheduled to launch Saturday was supposed to take food and other provisions to astronauts on the International Space Station. It is the 10th of 20 cargo missions contracted out to SpaceX by NASA.

If it goes off as planned, it will be SpaceX’s first successful launch in Florida since one of the company’s rockets exploded there in September 2016. On January 18, SpaceX successfully launched one of the Falcon 9 rockets from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.

Science & Health

Soccer Players at Risk of Brain Injury, Study finds

A career of heading a soccer ball may raise the risk of dementia, according to a small new study.

Six longtime soccer players who died with dementia were found to have brain injuries from repetitive trauma.

The injuries are the same kind found in American football players, boxers and soldiers hit by explosions. They include a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is linked to declining mental function and mood disorders.

WATCH: Soccer May Pose Risk of Repetitive Brain Injury

While concussions are relatively rare in soccer — the port the rest of the world knows as football — players regularly hit the ball with their heads. That’s on top of the collisions common in any contact sport.

“The key thing in (soccer) is, players are exposed to lower impact but very high number of blows to the head,” says neurology professor Helen Ling at University College, London, lead author of the new study.


Cheese wires

Injury happens because the human brain has the consistency of a firm pudding, “but your blood vessels are just a little bit tougher,” says Ling’s colleague in London, neuroscience professor John Hardy. “And so, if you do a rapid rotation, they act like little cheese wires and do bits of damage around them.”

But how serious that damage is in soccer players is unclear. Ling says there have only been a few studies, using brain scans or blood tests, and the results have been contradictory.

Examining a patient’s brain under a microscope can provide definitive evidence, but that has to wait until the patient dies.

One of the study authors has been treating retired soccer players with dementia since 1980. Six of them donated their brains for research when they died.

In the new study, in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, all six brains showed signs of damage, and four had CTE.

“We’re becoming increasingly aware that the risk is higher than we thought,” says Thor Stein, a neuropathologist at Boston University and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, who was not involved with this study.

What’s the risk?

But it’s still early, he cautions.

“Soccer is even further behind than American football in terms of trying to figure out what is the risk. We don’t know. We can’t answer that with this kind of study.”

While many American parents are reconsidering letting their children play football, the authors don’t recommend pulling kids off the soccer field.

The health and social benefits of playing sports are well established. And, Hardy adds, these six patients played soccer “probably every day of their lives for 25 to 30 years, probably many hours a day. This is very different from a casual, weekend player or a school player. It’s just a different order of magnitude of contact.”

Ling hopes the study will spark more research, starting with figuring out how common dementia is among football players as they age.

British soccer associations have pledged to back more studies on the subject.

Science & Health

Biologists Find 50,000-Year-Old ‘Super Life’ in Mexico Cave

In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both a fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old.


The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.


“It’s super life,” said Boston, who presented the discovery Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.


If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions on Earth.


Though it was presented at a science conference and was the result of nine years of work, the findings have yet to be published in a scientific journal and haven’t been peer reviewed. Boston planned more genetic tests for the microbes she revived both in the lab and on site. 

40 strains of microbes, viruses 

The life forms — 40 different strains of microbes and some viruses — are so weird that their nearest relatives are 10 percent different genetically. That makes their closest relative about as far away as humans are from mushrooms, Boston said.


The Naica caves — an abandoned lead and zinc mine — are half a mile (800 meters) deep. Before drilling occurred by a mine company, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. Some were as vast as cathedrals, with crystals lining the iron walls. They were also so hot that scientists had to don cheap versions of space suits — to prevent contamination with outside life — and wore ice packs all over their bodies. 


Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a “cool” room that was about 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

No surprise in extreme life 

NASA wouldn’t allow Boston to share her work for outside review before Friday’s announcement, so scientists couldn’t say much. But University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who wasn’t part of the study but was on a panel where Boston presented her work, said it made sense.


“Why are we surprised?” Noonan said. “As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile.”


This isn’t the oldest extreme life. Several years ago, a different group of scientists published studies about microbes that may be half a million years old and still alive. Those were trapped in ice and salt, which isn’t quite the same as rock or crystal, Boston said.


The age of the Naica microbes was determined by outside experts who looked at where the microbes were located in the crystals and how fast those crystals grow. 


It’s not the only weird life Boston is examining. She is also studying microbes commonly found in caves in the United States, Ukraine and elsewhere that eat copper sulfate and seem to be close to indestructible. 


“It’s simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is,” Boston said.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Lightweight Exoskeleton Lets Paraplegic Walk Again

On her website, former acrobat Silke Pan has a quote that says: “You are stronger than you ever expected!” She’s had to be. After working as a professional acrobat for years, she was sidelined in 2007 when a fall left her unable to use her legs. Now she is walking again, thanks to a new modular lightweight exoskeleton. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Economy & business

Trump Celebrates New Boeing Plane; Pledges Focus on Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

President Donald Trump says the U.S. military might buy Boeing fighter planes rather than those of rival Lockheed, which he has called overpriced. As VOA’s Jim Randle reports, the president spoke Friday at a Boeing factory in South Carolina as the company showed off the newest version of its 787 commercial jetliner.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Chinese Industry’s Rapid Robotization

Most experts agree that we are past the dawn of robotic age, and one of the countries strongly pushing to the forefront is China. As the cost of human labor in China is rising, factories are increasingly replacing production line workers with robots. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Science & Health

Arctic, Antarctic Sea Ice Extent Hits Record Low

Sea ice normally melts in the summer in the Arctic and Antarctic, and recovers in both poles in their respective winters. But not this year. The World Meteorological Organization reports that sea ice extent in the Arctic and Antarctic was the lowest for the month of January since satellite records began 38 years ago.

David Carlson, World Climate Research Program director, calls temperatures in the Arctic “extraordinary.”

“It looks like the Northern Hemisphere circulation has changed such that it allows warm air to penetrate deep into the Arctic,” he said. “There have been some quite extraordinary temperatures in the few places where we have good measurements. And one of the consequences of that is that there have been time periods, at least three, we think — one in November, one in December and one now that just finished in January — where we actually lost ice or we failed to gain ice in the winter.” 

Carlson says that should not be happening in winter — the season when the Arctic should be gaining ice, not losing it. He tells VOA the number of years that scientists thought they had until the summer sea ice extent disappeared is shortening.

“What this says is that despite political ups and downs, the change in climate is not going away,” he said. “It is not slowing down. It is increasing. It is relentless and, however many decades we thought we might have of comfort level before we have to react, those numbers are going down very, very fast.” 

WMO reports global heat continues, with January coming in as the third-warmest month on record, after January 2016 and January 2007. Meteorologists say January 2016’s record temperatures were caused by a very powerful El Nino, which warmed the waters of the Pacific Ocean and added extra heating to the planet.