Japan has launched a cargo ship which will use a half mile- (700m)-long tether to remove some of the vast amount of debris from Earth’s orbit.
The tether, made of aluminium strands and steel wire, is designed to slow the debris, pulling it out of orbit.
The innovative device was made with the help of a fishing net company.
There is estimated to be more than 100 million pieces of space junk in orbit, including discarded equipment from old satellites, tools and bits of rocket.
Many of these objects are moving at high velocity around the Earth at speeds of up to 28,000km/h (17,500mph) and could cause catastrophic accidents and damage to the world’s orbital telecommunications network.
The junk has accumulated in the more than 50 years of human space exploration since the Soviet-launched Sputnik satellite in 1957.
Collisions between satellites and the testing of anti-satellite weapons have made the problem worse.
The automated cargo ship – called Stork or Kounotori in Japanese – which is carrying the junk collector is bound for the International Space Station and blasted off from Tanegashima Space Center in the North Pacific.
Researchers say the lubricated, electro-dynamic tether will generate enough energy to change an object’s orbit, pushing it towards the atmosphere where it will burn up.
A 106-year-old Japanese fishing net maker, Nitto Seimo Co, collaborated with Japan’s space agency to develop the mesh material, Bloomberg reported last month.
The experiment is part of an international initiative designed to make space safer for astronauts by getting rid of space junk.
It is hoped that it will also provide better protection for space stations and weather and communications satellites worth billions of dollars.
The junk collector is the latest in a series of ideas put forward to tackle the problem, including harpooning, sweeping, lassoing and dragging debris into the atmosphere for burning.
Experts say there are big financial benefits in reducing the risk for the multi-billion dollar space industry, but they caution that the Japanese scheme will only work for bigger pieces of junk.
A spokesman for the mayor said he has no legal powers to ban cars in London and is calling on the government “to face its responsibility and implement a national diesel scrappage scheme now”.
“The mayor has more than doubled air quality funding and is doing everything in his power to tackle London’s toxic air and rid the city of the most polluting vehicles, but he cannot do this alone” the spokesman added.
According to the campaign, nearly 40% of all nitrogen oxides emissions and PM10 pollution, which is linked to decreased lung function, within London comes from diesel vehicles.
A spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said the industry is investing “billions” to reduce emissions and the latest diesel cars are the “cleanest in history”.
Figures released by SMMT claim emissions of nitrogen oxides have reduced by 84% since 2000 “thanks to exhaust after-treatments” while new “high tech” filters capture 99% of all soot particles from diesel engines.
The spokesman said: “Diesel makes a vital contribution to our everyday lives fuelling some 99% of the UK’s commercial vehicles, which transport essential goods and our emergency services.”
‘Serious about pollution’
Professor Jonathan Grigg from Doctors Against Diesel told the BBC: “Deaths from paediatric asthma are disproportionately much higher in London than the rest of Europe.
“Air pollution levels in London exceed legal limits and affect people’s health at every stage of life.
“If we want to be serious about air pollution we need to be serious about diesel.”
But Edmund King, president of the AA, called the proposal “fairly impractical”.
He said: “We all want to clean up air quality but you’ve got to give time, you’ve got to give incentives.
“Yes get rid of the worst offenders but I think a blanket ban would just backfire.”
The world’s largest cold energy storage plant is being commissioned at a site near Manchester.
The cryogenic energy facility stores power from renewables or off-peak generation by chilling air into liquid form.
When the liquid air warms up it expands and can drive a turbine to make electricity.
The 5MW plant near Manchester can power up to 5,000 homes for around three hours.
The company behind the scheme, Highview Power Storage, believes that the technology has great potential to be scaled up for long-term use with green energy sources.
Peaks and troughs
Electricity demand varies, influenced by factors like time of day and season. The National Grid is prepared for surges in demand, with power stations on stand-by ready to crank up the power.
However, dealing with these peaks and troughs will become increasingly difficult as coal-fired power stations close down and more intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar comes online. In 2015 renewables provided almost a quarter of UK electricity.
The intermittent nature of green sources has seen researchers focus on trying to improve energy storage.
Pumped hydropower can provide large amounts of energy for long durations, and lithium-ion batteries can respond to demand in milliseconds making them ideal for portable electronic devices and electric vehicles.
But hydropower depends on specific geographies as water has to be pumped uphill, and batteries currently cannot be scaled in a cost effective way to store energy for a town or city.
“Our technology is a bit like a locatable version of a pumped hydro system. Anywhere that needs large scale long-duration storage, that might be to help integrate an offshore wind farm, a system like ours can help achieve that,” Gareth Brett from Highview Power explained, during a visit to the Manchester cryogenic site.
“5MW is a bit small for this technology; anything from 10MW and up is the sort of scale we’re talking about.
“We’ve already designed a plant that can do 200MW /1200MWh, that’s enough to keep a city going for 6 hours.”
Cryogenic storage works by using renewable or off-peak electricity to cool air down to -190 degrees C, which turns it into a liquid.
It’s then stored in an insulated tank, similar to a large thermos flask. To release the stored energy, the liquid air is exposed to ambient conditions causing it to expand back into a gas. The volume increase is huge, about 700 times, which is used to drive a turbine to generate electricity.
Highview Power’s demonstrator plant is next to Pilsworth landfill gas generation site. The large insulated tanks sit across the road from a collection of gas engines. These engines burn methane gas produced from decomposing rubbish to generate electricity. The waste heat from this process is captured and used to increase the efficiency of the cryogenic process.
Dr Sheridan Few, Research Associate at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, described a phenomenon unique to this technology.
“There’s the storage of the energy, and the generating of the energy. You can make use of waste cold and waste heat… because you’re putting both electrical and thermal energy in, the amount of electrical energy you get out, can in some cases end up being more than the electrical energy you put in.”
Alongside the provision of energy storage, this technology can tackle the issues of waste heat which is a by-product of many industrial process. Waste cold, as an example, can be found at liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.
While cryogenic storage may be one of the solutions to help the future supply of electricity, there are also new approaches to controlling demand.
“One of the most current issues is understanding the demand side,” Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, told the BBC.
“We tend to just produce electricity to meet the demand. Once we understand demand, we will have more confidence in deploying technologies.”
Demand side response, the concept of adjusting usage in response to the available supply of electricity, could work easily alongside other innovations like cryogenic energy storage.
“This is the first time we’ve found dinosaur material preserved in amber,” co-author Ryan McKellar, of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada, told the BBC News website.
The study’s first author, Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, discovered the remarkable fossil at an amber market in Myitkina, Myanmar.
The 99-million-year-old amber had already been polished for jewellery and the seller had thought it was plant material. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be the tail of a feathered dinosaur about the size of a sparrow.
Lida Xing was able to establish where it had come from by tracking down the amber miner who had originally dug out the specimen.
Dr McKellar said examination of the tail’s anatomy showed it definitely belonged to a feathered dinosaur and not an ancient bird.
“We can be sure of the source because the vertebrae are not fused into a rod or pygostyle as in modern birds and their closest relatives,” he explained.
“Instead, the tail is long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side.”
Dr McKellar said there are signs the dinosaur still contained fluids when it was incorporated into the tree resin that eventually formed the amber. This indicates that it could even have become trapped in the sticky substance while it was still alive.
Co-author Prof Mike Benton, from the University of Bristol, added: “It’s amazing to see all the details of a dinosaur tail – the bones, flesh, skin, and feathers – and to imagine how this little fellow got his tail caught in the resin, and then presumably died because he could not wrestle free.”
Examination of the chemistry of the tail where it was exposed at the surface of the amber even shows up traces of ferrous iron, a relic of the blood that was once in the sample.
The findings also shed light on how feathers were arranged on these dinosaurs, because 3D features are often lost due to the compression that occurs when corpses become fossils in sedimentary rocks.
The feathers lack the well-developed central shaft – a rachis – known from modern birds. Their structure suggests that the two finest tiers of branching in modern feathers, known as barbs and barbules, arose before the rachis formed.
Kachin State, in north-eastern Myanmar, where the specimen was found, has been producing amber for 2,000 years. But because of the large quantity of insects preserved in the deposits, over the last 20 years it has become a focus for scientists who study ancient arthropods.
“The larger amber pieces often get broken up in the mining process. By the time we see them they have often been turned into things like jewellery. We never know how much of the specimen has been missed,” said Dr McKellar.
“If you had a complete specimen, for example, you could look at how feathers were arranged across the whole body. Or you could look at other soft tissue features that don’t usually get preserved.”
Other preserved parts of a feathered dinosaur might also reveal whether it was a flying or gliding animal.
“There have been other, anecdotal reports of similar specimens coming from the region. But if they disappear into private collections, then they’re lost to science,” Dr McKellar explained.
Dr Paul Barrett, from London’s Natural History Museum, called the specimen a “beautiful fossil”, describing it as a “really rare occurrence of vertebrate material in amber”.
He told BBC News: “Feathers have been recovered in amber before, so that aspect isn’t new, but what this new specimen shows is the 3D arrangement of feathers in a Mesozoic dinosaur/bird for the first time, as almost all of the other feathered dinosaur fossils and Mesozoic bird skeletons that we have are flattened and 2D only, which has obscured some important features of their anatomy.
“The new amber specimen confirms ideas from developmental biologists about the order in which some of the detailed features of modern feathers, such as barbs and barbules (the little hooks that hold the barbs together so that the feather can form a nice neat vane), would have appeared also.”
The idea that smallpox is a very ancient human disease has been called into question.
Scientists say the deadly pathogen appears to have been around for hundreds rather than thousands of years.
Viral DNA from the mummified remains of a child living during the 17th Century – at the time of an epidemic – casts doubt on historical records.
Smallpox was thought to date back millennia.
However, past descriptions have been based on physical signs, such as a pustular rash, which can be confused with other diseases.
”We managed to sequence the complete genome of the virus that causes smallpox, that’s called variola virus,” Dr Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney told BBC News.
”It’s the oldest human virus ever sequenced.”
The researchers obtained permission to study samples of the pathogen from a child interred in the crypt of a church in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Radiocarbon dating shows the child lived about 1650 AD, at a time when smallpox was common in Europe.
”This mummy allows us to calibrate very nicely the clock of evolution – it’s a fossil, effectively,” said Dr Holmes.
”This fossil tells us that in fact evolutionary history is much more recent than we thought before – it’s actually only hundreds of years rather than thousands of years.”
However, it is not possible to determine where smallpox came from, what the ancestor of the virus was, and exactly when it first appeared in humans, he added.
One of the most devastating diseases known to humankind
The last known case was in Somalia in 1977
Some stocks of the live virus remain at two secure laboratories in the US and Russia
The child lived at a time when smallpox was spreading around the world, driven by global exploration and colonisation.
This was before the development of vaccination, which began after the famous experiments of Edward Jenner in 1796.
”What we can show is that in fact most of the evolution of smallpox that we can measure occurred after 1796,” said Dr Holmes.
”It looks like it is a more recent evolution than we ever thought before.”
The disease was officially eradicated in 1980, following a global immunisation campaign.
Smallpox remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination.
Prof Jonathan Ball of Nottingham University, who was not connected with the study, said it shows ”pretty conclusively” that smallpox viruses present in human outbreaks for which we have samples share a common ancestor that probably dates back to the late 16th to mid-17th centuries.
However, he said, the question remains as to whether outbreaks occurred before that date, caused by strains that were never seen again.
”Only access to, and analysis of, even older samples will answer that; but these are difficult to find and difficult to work with, so perhaps we will never know.”
The research is published in the journal, Current Biology.
Former astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, has died at 95.
The ex-Marine and US Senator had been in hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for more than a week and died surrounded by his children and wife of 73 years.
Glenn is best known for circling the earth in 1962 aboard the Friendship 7 space capsule.
His achievement marked the moment the US caught up with the Soviet Union in manned space exploration.
Glenn is expected to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
Obituary: John Glenn
“Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots. Godspeed, John Glenn!” Ohio Governor John Kasich said in a statement.
After returning to Earth, Glenn was elected in 1974 as a Democrat to the US Senate, where he served for 24 years.
He blazed another trial in 1998 – 36 years after his historic flight – when he became the oldest man to travel to space, at age 77.
The only son of a plumber and schoolteacher, Glenn was born in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio.
His father would recall how the boy used to run around the yard with arms held wide, pretending to fly a plane.
Glenn retained a lifelong love of flight and was piloting his own aircraft as recently as five years ago.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Castor, and they had two children, David and Lyn.
Glenn’s wife still has the $125 diamond engagement ring he bought for her in 1942.
He became a combat pilot, serving in World War II and the Korean War before joining America’s space agency.
Glenn earned six Distinguished Flying Crosses and flew more than 150 missions during the two conflicts.
After setting the transcontinental flight speed record as a test pilot, he joined Mercury 7, America’s first class of astronauts.
On 20 February 1962, he blasted off solo from Cape Canaveral aboard a cramped capsule on an Atlas rocket to a new frontier for Americans.
He spent just under five hours in space, completing three laps of the world.
“Zero G (gravity) and I feel fine,” was Glenn’s remark on weightlessness.
His capsule’s heat shield came loose, leading Mission Control to fear he would be incinerated on re-entry, but the craft held together.
After splashdown in the Atlantic, Glenn was treated to a New York ticker-tape parade.
During his political career he was briefly considered as a running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.
But Glenn’s star dimmed after a meandering keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention that led Mr Carter to call him “the most boring man I ever met”.
He vied himself to be the party’s White House standard-bearer in 1984, but was beaten by Mr Carter’s Vice-President, Walter Mondale.
Glenn’s business career, which included an investment in a chain of Holiday Inns, made him a multi-millionaire.
When he returned to space in 1998, despite the misgivings of his wife, he said in a news conference from orbit: “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.”
In 2011, Glenn received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.
A year later, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mr Obama said in a statement on Thursday that Glenn had “spent his life breaking barriers”.
Red fire ants could wreak more damage in Australia than feral rabbits, cane toads and foxes combined, experts have warned in a new report.
Originally from South America, the red imported fire ant is feared for its burning and potentially lethal sting.
If not eradicated, it is estimated the insect could trigger up to 3,000 anaphylactic reactions in Australia each year.
An independent review called for urgent action before it spread nationwide.
The analysis of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program recommended spending A$380m (£225m; $284m) over 10 years to stop the ant’s rapid march, the ABC reported.
Red ant colonies entered Australia through the Port of Brisbane in 2001. Since then, they have flourished in south-east Queensland and are now estimated to be within 50km (30 miles) of the New South Wales border.
The aggressive insect is known to bite humans and livestock en masse. Its venomous sting can cause blistered spots or even trigger a deadly allergic reaction.
In the United States, more than 80 deaths have been attributed to the species.
Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox said unless Australia ramped up its eradication programme, it could suffer a damage bill worth billions of dollars.
“Fire ants will be a massive hit to our economy, our environment, our healthcare system and our outdoor lifestyle if we do not act now,” he said in a statement.
“Eradication is still possible and in our nation’s interest but the time to act is rapidly diminishing.”
The species could become more damaging than any other feral animal, he said.
State and federal authorities have faced criticism for not doing more to control the outbreak.
A spokesman for federal Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce said $328m had already been spent on eradication efforts. Further investment would be considered at the next ministers’ meeting in May.
“The Agricultural Ministers’ Forum has agreed with the findings of independent review that eradication remains technically feasible, cost-beneficial and in the national interest,” he said in a statement to the BBC.
A dramatic drop in giraffe populations over the past 30 years has seen the world’s tallest land mammal classified as vulnerable to extinction.
Numbers have gone from around 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015 according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The iconic animal has declined because of habitat loss, poaching and civil unrest in many parts of Africa.
Some populations are growing, mainly in southern parts of the continent.
Until now, the conservation status of giraffes was considered of “least concern” by the IUCN.
However in their latest global Red List of threatened species, the ungainly animal is now said to be “vulnerable”, meaning that over three generations, the population has declined by more that 30%.
According to Dr Julian Fennessy, who co-chairs the IUCN giraffe specialist group, the creatures are undergoing a “silent extinction”.
“If you go on a safari, giraffes are everywhere,” he told BBC News.
“While there have been great concern about elephants and rhinos, giraffes have gone under the radar but, unfortunately, their numbers have been plummeting, and this is something that we were a little shocked about, that they have declined by so much in so little time.”
The rapid growth of human populations has seen the expansion of farming and other forms of development that has resulted in the fragmentation of the giraffe’s range in many parts of Africa. But civil unrest in parts of the continent has also taken its toll.
“In these war torn areas, in northern Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia in the border area with South Sudan, essentially the giraffes are war fodder, a large animal, extremely curious that can feed a lot of people,” said Dr Fennessy.
Of these, five have had falling populations, one has remained stable while three have grown. Different outcomes seem to be highly dependent on location.
“The species in southern Africa, those numbers are increasing by two to three times over the last three decades,” said Dr Fennessy.
“But when you come up through East Africa, those numbers have plummeted some by up to 95% of the population in the case of the Nubian giraffe, in the last three decades alone.”
While researchers believe that some local populations may not survive, there is optimism that that the long term future of these tall creatures can be secured.
The success in keeping giraffe numbers high in Southern Africa has much to do with the management of game parks for tourists say experts, who believe that the extra attention that the IUCN listing will now attract will benefit the species.
“South Africa is a good example of how you can manage wildlife, there is a lot of moving of animals between different conservation areas, it is a very different scenario than in most of the rest of Africa.” said Chris Ransom from the Zoological Society of London.
“I think giraffes can survive, with the right conservation efforts, and we can ensure that the animals do live in the wild. There are a lot of cases of success in conservation. The giraffes could be one.”
The latest edition of the IUCN Red List now contains over 85,000 species in total with more than 24,000 threatened with extinction. Over 700 newly recognised bird species have been added, with 11% of them on the edge of survival.
One bird, the Antioquia wren has been listed as “endangered” as more than half of its habitat in Colombia could be wiped out by proposed dam.
Invasive species on islands are also seen as a threat for many birds including the Pagan reed-warbler and the Laysan honeycreeper.
The publication also includes the first assessment of crops including wild oats, barley, mango and other wild relative plants.
“Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “This IUCN Red List update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought.”
Poultry keepers have been told to keep their birds inside to protect them from a highly-infectious strain of avian flu in Europe.
Chicken, turkey and duck owners must keep them indoors for 30 days or take steps to separate them from wild birds.
The H5N8 bird flu strain has been found in poultry and wild birds in 14 countries including Germany and France.
The government’s chief vet Prof Nigel Gibbens said the risk to humans was low and no UK cases had been found.
The precautionary measures announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) apply to farmers and anyone in England who keeps any birds, even those with a few chickens in their back garden.
Similar restrictions have been introduced in Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.
Farmers are being asked to look for signs of infection and to take robust disinfectant measures.
Members of the public are also being told to report cases of dead wild waterfowl – such as swans, geese and ducks – or gulls, or five or more dead birds of other species to Defra.
Defra said it had increased its surveillance, and keepers are being urged to make sure feed and water is not accessible to wild birds.
Daniel Brown, a chicken farmer from Cambridge with 40,000 hens in three sheds, said Defra had made the correct decision.
He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We’ll be shutting them in this morning. We’ll be putting in extra toys for the birds – straw bales, empty bottles, cardboard boxes – anything to give them something else to think about.
“They love going outside, and now they can’t for their own safety so we’ll be doing anything we can just to keep the birds happy.”
Prof Gibbens said: “We are closely monitoring the situation across Europe and have scaled up surveillance in response to the heightened risk.
“As a precaution, and to allow time for poultry and captive bird keepers to put in place appropriate biosecurity measures, we have declared a 30-day prevention zone to reduce the risk of infection from wild birds.”
Prof Gibbens said the disease can get into housed birds and urged farmers to increase and maintain their biosecurity.
John Fishwick, of the British Veterinary Association, said the fear was that as migratory birds, particularly water fowl, fly across Europe they have contaminated farms and caused outbreaks in commercial poultry.
Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom urged bird keepers to adopt the measures to protect poultry,
In a written statement, she said: “In response to the risk to poultry and other captive birds, the chief veterinary officer yesterday put in place an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone.
“Defra has also enhanced its surveillance of wild birds, with particular emphasis on those species posing the greatest risk.
“This process will be kept under review and adjusted as necessary in the light of any changes in circumstances.”
The British Poultry Council said eggs could still be sold as free range because the measures were compulsory, and there was no threat to supplies of Christmas turkeys.
Chief executive Richard Griffiths welcomed the decision.
“The poultry industry has been liaising closely with Defra to ensure we are best prepared should the risk of bird flu heighten, and contingency plans are in place and under constant review,” he said.
“Most birds can be taken inside their houses within a matter of hours. Where birds like geese and game can’t be housed, measures will be put in place to ensure separation from wild birds.
“There is no risk to public health and this is a precaution based on a disease in birds.”
Last month, 190,000 ducks were culled in the Netherlands to try to prevent the spread of bird flu across northern Europe.