Featured

Coronavirus information

New peaks and new strains threaten our region even as vaccines begin to roll out.

The virus is not inevitable. You can help yourself and the people around you. Masks, hand sanitizer, and other PPE like gloves and face shields work. If you can avoid or delay a trip or errand, then do so.

This is a list of official websites with information on COVID-19 coronavirus in the region.

Continue reading “Coronavirus information”

Teamwork will get us to Mars

American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.

The “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars” panel at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting (Speakers/AAAS)

One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.

That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.

As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.

Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.

All this research about people cooped up for long periods of time has also hit pay dirt as the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has set in. If you’re looking for insight into how to ride out quarantine with or away from your team, there’s tons of NASA Technical Reports on these matters accessible online!

Should that be growing there?

Montana Tech’s Robert Pál joined Huixuan Liao of Sun Yat-sen University and Manzoor Shah of the University of Kashmir on 9 February for a panel discussion on alpine botany, during the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Alpine environments are particularly fertile ground for climate change ecology because broad variation in microclimates can be found over a relatively short distance. As temperatures warm, new types of plants may rise above their former range. As moisture patterns change, areas may become better or worse for the growth of certain species. And lurking everywhere is the persistent threat of new and invasive species: non-native plants that spread and grow in manners that negatively impact the local environment, which may be hard to control once they take root.

Due to COVID-19, science conferences have gone fully remote for 2021. (Speakers/AAAS)

The distinction between a fast-spreading non-invasive plant and an invasive species can be hard to pinpoint, but it often depends on whether it monopolizes an area at the expense of the broader ecosystem. Spotting them in the field can require a keen eye; certain invasive grasses can be notoriously hard to identify, even for experts.

When asked about ways invasive plants can be a solution, rather than a pest, Pál cited some concepts in harvesting invasive species as food, or to tap heavy metals out of toxic soils. Liao mentioned that some fast-growing plants can be used to combat coastal erosion.

When it came to encouraging new scientists, Shah said anyone can feel the excitement of a discovery on an ordinary walk, just by looking around their home turf for plants that look new or out of place, and taking samples to send in to the experts. Pál suggests that students looking to get into the field would benefit from learning the kinds of plants that help and harm their local environment, and further study in botany and ecology.

A selection of other work by Dr. Robert Pál can be found at the Montana Tech digital commons. Among others, the USDA and CFIA have further information so anyone can help slow the spread of invasive plants.

US flights to Winnipeg halted; New quarantine rules in Calgary

At 0230Z 03 Feb 2021, SkyWest 4472 landed in Winnipeg, closing the book on international flights to YWG during the pandemic. Later in the day on 03 February, new restrictions by the government of Canada took effect in order to limit the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19.

SKW4472 on 03 Feb 2021. (FlightAware/OSM/Fargo Orbit)

The move echoes Canada’s measures earlier in the pandemic that limited most overseas passengers to landing in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montréal. US flights, though not originally limited in the same way, were still rapidly dropped as US carriers reduced service. With the new measures in force, US flights cannot return to Regina or Saskatoon for the forseeable future.

Alberta’s measures to contain the virus now include up to 24 days of quarantine, with 14 days of quarantine for everyone in the household, following 10 days of home isolation for any confirmed positive case. Measures are even stricter at Calgary Airport, with all arriving passengers getting an additional COVID test, a police escort to a quarantine hotel for at least 3 days of isolation, a $2000 fee, and only then, if released, entering into a 14+ day home quarantine.

BAS: 100 seconds to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists delivered its 2021 Doomsday Clock session on 27 January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was conducted entirely by remote teleconference.

As always, the Doomsday Clock session is a meaningful watch, and the text report is an equally engaging read. In detail, they explain how humankind has scarcely turned the corner on the dire assessment of 100 seconds to midnight, first issued in 2020.

This year’s live session combined expert insight from The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board with plain talk from statecrafters Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Hidehiko Yuzaki, and Jerry Brown.

Governor General Julie Payette, former astronaut, resigns

Governor General Julie Payette, famously in past years a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, resigned today following an investigation into her workplace behaviour at the Office of the Governor General. Also departing is Payette’s secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, who also engaged in mistreatment of employees. The mistreatment included verbal abuse and public shaming for minor issues.

Following publicized problems interacting with staff members, an independent panel investigated for Prime Minister Trudeau. Payette resigned when it became clear the report established that her leadership and behaviour was incompatible with the dignity and storied history of Rideau Hall.

Payette was selected as a CSA astronaut in 1992 and trained at NASA starting in 1996. She flew on two Space Shuttle missions (STS-96 and STS-127) in 1999 and 2009, and was one of the most prominent francophone science and technology leaders in Canada. The PM may have rushed to make such a stellar candidate the viceroy, missing concerning incidents with co-workers during Payette’s stints at the Montréal Science Centre and Canadian Olympic Committee.

Payette’s storied career may still be an example for aspiring young pilots and engineers to follow, but it is a reminder that the skills to survive on the flight line may not be the same as are needed to lead an office workspace, let alone a multicultural nation. The role of Governor General is an important position that requires a regal composure, deep patience, and tact. Payette, for her part, has taken the effort to leave with dignity.

This is not to say that all astronauts make bad managers, even to Canadian sentiments; Trudeau’s recent cabinet shuffle gave MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau the high-profile role of Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Michigan factory sends out first COVID vaccines

Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan shipped operational doses of a COVID-19 vaccine across the United States on 13 December 2020. UPS and FedEx are carrying the shipments across the United States. Healthcare workers will be among the first to receive the doses.

This follows the FDA’s emergency use approval for the vaccine on the 12th, shortly following Health Canada’s approval on the 9th. The earliest shipments will provide enough doses to vaccinate 124,500 Canadians and 1.5 million Americans. In this phase, health care workers receiving the vaccine will be receiving it nearly immediately. Though procedures will vary, for the moment states and provinces will receive doses, then send out smaller shipments to health facilities. Those facilities have already pre-designated their most at-risk individuals to get the shot as soon as possible, and one additional follow-up dose a few weeks later.

Though the Pfizer vaccine must be shipped and warehoused at -70 C, the temperature of dry ice or specialized medical or scientific ultracold freezers, it has sufficient stability at standard temperatures to still allow for robust distribution options. These issues will not be a problem in the earliest stages of vaccine distribution. As this and other vaccines become more widely available, they will be offered to additional people based on local distribution plans. It will be at this stage that the Pfizer vaccine’s shelf life of a few days at standard -20 C and 4 C refrigeration temperatures is put to a real-world test.

Though work continues on other vaccines, the moment 18-wheelers and airplanes departed West Michigan represents a climactic moment in a banner year for biotechnology, as well as a triumph for science and industry in the Midwest.

Iowa State hosts Women in STEM event series with regional universities

Iowa State is leading a Women in STEM program called “Joining Forces”, alongside North Dakota State, Michigan Tech, and Western Michigan U, funded by the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program.

In addition to mentorship and professional development, there is a 2020 scheduled event series. The first event, on 1 Oct 2020 at 6pm Central Time, is an online groupwatch and discussion on the documentary film Picture a Scientist (film trailer).

To participate, contact the ADVANCE Midwest Partnership at Iowa State University.

NASA leaders hope US Congress will boost NASA budget before March 2021

US space agency director Jim Bridenstein and Human Spaceflight Director Kathy Leuders featured heavily in a 21 September 2020 session that turned mainly around bolstering public interest in NASA’s headline human lunar exploration program, even as they were unable to answer detailed mission design questions that have been delegated to contractors.

The session highlighted a new NASA white paper on the Artemis program intended to be the centrepiece for budget hearings before the US Senate. After hitting a roadbump in the House, NASA still hopes to convince the Senate and congressional leaders that lunar exploration is bipartisan cause that is well worth something close to its final budget, even though a gridlocked US Capitol preoccupied with an imminent election (to say nothing of other recent issues) is the textbook scenario for passage of a continuing resolution, which extends last year’s federal budget until a final deal can be reached.

Details on just what the plan is for the Artemis lunar landing, however, remained scarce. Kathy Leuders, the main NASA officer in charge of getting astronauts to the Moon, deferred questions about certain mission details, such as whether or not Artemis III would rendezvous with the Lunar Gateway. This was characterized as an optional decision within the scope of the HLS final proposals, which NASA has not yet received, though Bridenstein suggests that part of the Lunar Gateway will be in place by that time.

Landing Artemis III on the Moon by 2024 is possible, according to Bridenstein, but it will take more funding than a continuing resolution or the approximately 600 M$ proposed for HLS by the House of Representatives. NASA’s proposed budget would spend 3.2 G$ on HLS, to support all three ongoing efforts from Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX. Leuders said that without a confirmed budget by February or March 2021, NASA won’t be able to keep its end of the deal with HLS contractors, and the Artemis III mission will miss any chance of a 2024 landing date.

Concordia College hosts 2020-2021 quadcopter challenge

Concordia College in Moorhead will lead the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium 2020-2021 Quadcopter Exploration-Flying Challenge. The program will provide vehicles, materials, and training in electronics and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) for participating college and university teams, all in a format that will not require students to travel away from their home campuses.

The 2019-2020 program did not finish quite as planned, though some of its progress can be reviewed at that year’s webpage.

Concordia College is also the home of other innovations, such as a 58-credit focus in astrophysics which consists entirely of meditations in differential equations – a typo that any student of physics might feel is all too true!

A summary of Astrophysics studies at Concordia. (Concordia C)

College and University teams of 4 to 6 members, plus advisor, that wish to participate in the quadcopter challenge may contact Thelma Berquó at Concordia College by 30 September 2020. Bon vents!