SSTL to build Canadian satellite constellation

Brazilian fields: There is a growing market in imagery to assist farmersImage copyright

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Brazilian fields: There is a growing market in imagery to assist farmers

The Canadian UrtheCast company has formally placed a contract with UK firm SSTL to build its UrtheDaily Earth observation (EO) constellation.

This network of spacecraft, due to launch in 2020, will image the entire global landmass (not including Antarctica) every 24 hours.

One of its key uses will be in “smart agriculture” – taking pictures to help farmers better manage their crops.

SSTL is a world leader in manufacturing satellite constellations.

It has produced series of spacecraft for other EO interests, such as the RapidEye network now owned by Planet and the DMC-3 operation leased to the Chinese concern 21AT.

SSTL is also in the consortium that makes multiple spacecraft for the European Commission’s satellite-navigation system, Galileo.

The Guildford-based manufacturer has been working on the UrtheDaily concept with UrtheCast for a while.

It would see, most probably, eight spacecraft launched into a polar orbit about 600km above the planet.

Arranged like a pearl necklace, these satellites would follow each other, crossing the equator at 10:30 local time.

They would gather something on the order of 140 million square km of land imagery a day (clouds permitting) at a resolution of about 5m.

UrtheCast is a relatively new operator. It started out taking pictures of the Earth from the space station using British-built cameras, and has since acquired the Spanish Deimos satellites to complement its business.

It plans also to launch in the 2020s a novel, high-resolution capability that would see eight pairs of optical and radar satellites circling the globe.

This concept is called OptiSAR. Flying radar with optical enables pictures to be gathered in all weathers, even when there is cloud.

The leading radar satellite would also map the cloud cover so that the trailing optical spacecraft could more efficiently target those regions of the Earth’s surface that were clearly observable.

“We’ve been working with UrtheCast on OptiSAR for about three or four years now, and on UrtheDaily for about the the last year, year and a half,” explained Luis Gomes from SSTL.

“There is an identified need in the market for very high-quality imagery at medium resolution, around 5m, for precision agriculture and environmental monitoring.

“We’d already been developing a design for this kind of system and then UrtheCast said it was the kind of thing they wanted.

“The aim is to have all the satellites built by 2020. That’s a challenge, but it’s achievable,” he told BBC News.

SSTL is about to launch a still and video-imaging satellite for the British EO analytics company Earth-i. The spacecraft, dubbed EiX2, will be the first in what is expected to be a large constellation of platforms.

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Nearby planet is ‘excellent’ target in search for life

Ross 128 bImage copyright
ESO / M. Kornmesser

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Artwork: Ross 128 b might be a target in the search for extra-terrestrial life

Astronomers have found a cool, Earth-sized planet that’s relatively close to our Solar System.

The properties of this newly discovered planet – called Ross 128 b – make it a prime target in the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

At just 11 light-years away, it’s the second closest exoplanet of its kind to Earth.

But the closest one, known as Proxima b, looks to be less hospitable for life.

Found in 2016, it orbits the star Proxima Centauri, which is known to be a rather active “red dwarf” star. This means that powerful eruptions periodically batter Proxima b with harmful radiation.

The new planet, Ross 128 b, orbits a star that’s not dissimilar to Proxima Centauri (it’s also a red dwarf), but is significantly less active.

Where should we look for alien life?

Neighbouring star has Earth-sized planet

Co-discoverer Nicola Astudillo-Defru from the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland told BBC News: “Just because Proxima Centauri blasts its planet with strong flares and high energy radiation, yes, I think Ross 128 is much more comfortable for the development of life.

“But we still need to know what the atmosphere of Ross 128 b is like. Depending on its composition and the reflectivity of its clouds, the exoplanet may be life friendly with liquid water as the Earth, or sterile like Venus.”

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ESO/F. Kamphues

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The discovery was made at the La Silla Observatory in Chile

Lead author of the study describing the find, Xavier Bonfils, from the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in Grenoble (IPAG), France, told BBC News: “Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of our sample and, although it is a little further away from us (2.6x), it makes for an excellent alternative target.”

The new world was discovered with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (Harps) instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The work will be published in the journal Astronomy Astrophysics.

Dr Astudillo-Defru said the find was the result of more than a decade of “intensive monitoring” using the Harps instrument.

At 1.35 times the mass of our planet, Ross 128 b is a bit heftier than Earth and orbits 20 times closer to its star than we orbit the Sun. But because the new planet’s parent star is much smaller and dimmer than our yellow sun, it receives only a little more solar radiation than Earth.

Consequently, it is expected to have a surface temperature close to that on our own planet.

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Artwork: The Extremely Large Telescope should be able to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets like Ross 128 b

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Artwork: The James Webb Space Telescope should launch in 2019

In the search for habitable worlds beyond our Solar System, astronomers generally look for low-mass, rocky and temperate planets like ours.

But these are comparatively difficult to detect; most of the 3,500 known exoplanets are so-called Hot Jupiters – huge gas giants orbiting very close to their parent stars that don’t have suitable conditions for life.

Of the smaller contingent of Earth-sized planets, the vast majority orbit red dwarf stars – the most common type in the Milky Way. Because this category of star is dim, it’s easier for astronomers to detect low-mass planets when they pass in front (as viewed from Earth), blocking out a portion of the light.

Red dwarfs are generally more active than G-type stars like the Sun, but there’s underlying variation.

At “just” 4.2 light-years away, Proxima b may be the closest exoplanet with a mild temperature. But it receives about 30 times more extreme ultraviolet radiation than Earth. Ross 128 b, on the other hand, is the “quietest” nearby star to host a temperate exoplanet.

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Artwork: Proxima b is in the habitable zone, but could be exposed to harmful levels of radiation

Astronomers often talk about the “habitable zone” around a star – it’s the range of distances where temperatures allow water (essential for life as we know it) to remain liquid on the surface of a planet.

Where the habitable zone lies depends on the star itself: red dwarfs are dimmer and therefore cooler than the Sun, so their habitable zones are shifted closer in than the equivalent zone in our Solar System.

There’s still uncertainty about whether Ross 128 b is within its star’s habitable zone, but scientists say that with temperatures of between -60 and +20°C, it can be considered temperate.

But, as Dr Astudillo-Defru alluded to, a lot depends on the presence of an atmosphere. An envelope of greenhouse gases can warm the surface and provide sufficient pressure to keep water in the liquid state.

Next, astronomers want to study the atmospheric composition and chemistry of suitable, nearby worlds like Ross 128 b. The detection of gases such as oxygen could potentially point to biological processes.

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ESO/A. Ghizzi Panizza

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The Harps instrument is housed at the 3.6m telescope in La Silla

But Nicola Astudillo-Defru told me: “It is still a debate what are the best biomarkers. For now we have di-oxygen (O2) and ozone as good bio-markers, others like carbon dioxide or methane can be generated both from geological events or life. For sure we will start looking for these species and water vapour.”

Several gases have already been detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets, but this line of enquiry is expected to be boosted immeasurably when observatories such as the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) get going in coming years.

“When the ELT comes online (at the middle of the next decade) it shall provide both the collecting power and the angular resolution to observe Ross 128 b directly. We will be able to see if it has an atmosphere and, eventually, to search for O2, water and CH4 (methane),” Dr Bonfils explained.

“Each one would be super exciting and an important step toward the evidence of life outside our Solar System. Yet, individually, none is a definitive proof for life. There are ways to produce either O2 or CH4 abiotically. However, for now, we don’t know any false positive if all three were to be detected together.”

Although currently 11 light-years from Earth, the new planet’s parent star Ross 128 is moving towards us and is expected to overtake Proxima Centauri as our nearest stellar neighbour in just 79,000 years – a heartbeat on cosmic timescales.

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Fishing ‘best argument for seagrass conservation’

An indigenous child fisher in Indonesia collecting urchins and porcupine fish in seagrassImage copyright
Chris Smart

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An indigenous child fisher in Indonesia collecting urchins and porcupine fish in seagrass

The importance of seagrasses is further emphasised in a new report that looks at how they underpin fishing worldwide.

These flowering plants, which grow in near-shore waters, are under intense pressure – some estimates suggest global losses are running at 7% a year.

The grasses provide shelter and food for many sea creatures and that makes them a natural draw to fishers.

But Richard Unsworth and colleagues say this valuable resource will need better management if it is to be sustained.

Our study is really the first to show just how important seagrass meadows are to fishing,” explained the researcher from Swansea University in the UK.

“Wherever you get seagrasses, you get fishing, basically,” he told BBC News.

Seagrass meadows are found around every continent except Antarctica.

The plants cycle nutrients, stabilise sediments, and – as photosynthesisers – act as a “sink” for carbon dioxide.

They also provide nursery habitat for juvenile fish, which hide from predators among the stems.

However, the scale of the importance of the meadows to fisheries has been more supposition than fact because of a paucity of data on how they are actually used, according to Dr Unsworth.

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Richard Unsworth

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The study details the many different types of gear used to fish among the plants

His team set about correcting this by interviewing experts – including other scientists and fisheries managers – on what they were observing around the world.

The team also took in case studies covering all regions from the Philippines to Zanzibar, Indonesia, the Turks and Caicos Islands and locations in the Mediterranean.

The picture that emerges is much the same everywhere.

Fishers actively target seagrasses because they recognise the habitats’ great productivity.

This is true from small-scale recreational activity all the way through to large-scale commercial practice.

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Benjamin Jones

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Fixed fyke nets are commonly placed in many seagrass meadows in Eastern Indonesia

The study details the types of tools and equipment used – from spears to nets – and the variety of species taken, from invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp and clams, to popular finfish such as mullet, herring and snapper.

One critical point to emphasise from the assessment is that many hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend on the catch from seagrass meadows for their daily protein intake.

This makes their conservation and proper management all the more important, says the team.

There is a claim that a meadow area equivalent to two football pitches is disappearing every hour.

Such statements are very hard to verify, but there is no doubt that seagrasses are being diminished by poor water quality in coastal areas as a result of agricultural and urban run-off, among several threats that also include insensitive fishing practices.

Team member Lina Nordlund, from Stockholm University, said: “The ecological value of seagrass meadows is irrefutable, yet their loss continues at an accelerating rate.

“Now there is growing evidence globally that many fisheries associated to seagrass are unrecorded, unreported and unmanaged, leading to a tragedy of the seagrass commons.”

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Richard Unsworth

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Netting for shrimp among seagrasses in north Wales

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, from Cardiff University, added: “Arguments in support of seagrass have in the past too often focused on the fluffy – such as the conservation of seahorses.

“I don’t want to dismiss seahorses’ importance, but the reality is that seagrasses have much higher value in supporting fisheries. And I’ve come across numerous occasions where fishermen have been against conservation of seagrasses because they can’t moor their boats in these locations, when it’s those seagrasses that support their activity in the first place.

“What we need to do is increase the level of understanding and appreciation of these habitats.”

The team’s study – Global significance of seagrass fishery activity – is published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.

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Trump puts elephant trophy imports on hold

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service argues hunting “will enhance the survival of the African elephant”

President Donald Trump has suspended the import of elephant hunting trophies, only a day after a ban was relaxed by his administration.

Imports of trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zambia and Zimbabwe had been set to resume, reversing a 2014 Obama-era ban.

But late on Friday, President Trump tweeted the change was on hold until he could “review all conservation facts”.

The move to relax the ban had sparked immediate anger from animal activists.

“Your shameful actions confirm the rumours that you are unfit for office,” said French actress and animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot in a letter to President Trump.

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Protests spread on social media with many sharing images of President Trump’s sons posing with dead animals during their hunting trips in Africa.

One photo of Donald Trump Jr shows him holding the amputated tail of a dead elephant.

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had argued that hunting fees could aid conservation of the endangered animals.

Experts say that populations of African elephants are plummeting.

Their numbers dropped by about 30% from 2007-14, according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census.

The non-profit group’s report found a population drop of 6% in Zimbabwe alone.

Despite their listing under the Endangered Species Act, there is a provision in US law that allows permits to import animal parts if there is sufficient evidence that the fees generated will actually benefit species conservation.

In 2015 a US dentist from Minnesota killed a famous lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Cecil’s death triggered an outrage in the US and Zimbabwe, and briefly forced the hunter into hiding.

Media captionThe BBC’s Rebecca Morelle: “The black market is growing and growing”

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Small steps forward as UN climate talks end in Bonn

Fiji Cop23Image copyright
Malcolm Senior

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This climate conference, presided over by Fiji, has achieved progress on technical issues

UN climate talks in Bonn have concluded with progress on technical issues, but with bigger questions about cutting carbon unresolved.

Delegates say they are pleased that the rulebook for the Paris climate agreement is finally coming together.

But these technical discussions took place against the backdrop of a larger battle about coal, oil and gas.

It means that next year’s conference in Poland is set for a major showdown on the future of fossil fuels.

This meeting, known as COP23, was tasked with clarifying complex operational issues around the workings of the Paris climate agreement.

One of the most important elements was the development of a process that would help countries to review and ratchet up their commitments to cut carbon.

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Fiji, holding the presidency of this meeting, proposed what’s being called the Talanoa Dialogue.

Over the next year, a series of discussions will take place to help countries look at the promises they have made under the Paris pact.

“A key element in Poland is this Talanoa dialogue, to make sure it doesn’t result in just a talk show,” said Yamide Dagnet with the World Resources Institute.

“In Poland, ministers will have to look each other in the eye and say they will go home and enhance their actions, so that by 2020 we end up with national plans that will be a much more ambitious set of climate actions.”

Looming over these discussions in Bonn was the question of coal, oil and gas.

US coal and nuclear companies organised a presentation here arguing that fossil fuels should be a key part of the solution to rising temperatures.

Glimmers of hope

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin

Optimistic would be too strong. Slightly less pessimistic would be more accurate. After two decades of grindingly under-ambitious conferences, at last a faint glimmer of light.

The flamboyant flourish of the Paris accord offered more dramatic cause for optimism, with its world leaders, hugs and tears.

But dull Bonn gave a more prosaic hint of what might be achieved if politicians can capitalise on a world shifting towards clean technology far faster than anyone could have expected.

Trump’s snub didn’t derail negotiations, which were mostly cordial, with a clear common goal.

Governments can now see a clean energy future is not just achievable but affordable. Many know they need to cut emissions further, and some are ready to do so.

However, the gulf remains between aspiration and actions. There is acrimony also over the lack of cash to help poor nations.

And the venue of the next annual meeting – Poland’s coal capital Katowice.

So, the battle’s not over, but real-world energy economics are on the cusp of overtaking politics as the main driver of climate protection.

And that’s a glimmer indeed.

Their meeting was interrupted by dozens of singing protestors, who echoed the feelings of many delegates that unabated fossil fuels shouldn’t be part of the future energy mix.

The US seemed to have a divided presence at this gathering.

Leaders from states and cities that want to stay in the Paris agreement were highly visible.

President Trump could “tweet his fingers off, but he won’t stop us,” said Governor Jay Inslee from Washington State.

White House special adviser on climate change, George David Banks, told reporters that President Trump was still open to staying in the Paris pact.

“The President has said multiple times that he is willing to consider re-engaging if he can find or identify terms that are suitable, that are fair to the United States,” he said.

That line didn’t seem to impress many attendees who said there could be no re-negotiation.

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Malcolm Senior

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There are concerns that next year’s conference in Poland could slow progress on cutting carbon

Even the US official negotiating team struck a different tone from the White House when they made their national statement to the meeting. There wasn’t a single mention of coal or fossil fuels.

Instead, it stated that the while the US might be out of the Paris deal, it wasn’t walking away from international climate discussions in one form or another.

“The United States intends to remain engaged with our many partners and allies around the world on these issues, here in the UN Framework Convention and everywhere else.”

In a further rebuff to those who came here to promote fossil fuels, the UK, Canada and Mexico, close allies and neighbours of the US, led a new global alliance to move away from coal.

Some 20 countries have signed up to end their reliance on unabated coal as an energy source. The Powering Past Coal Alliance hopes to have 50 members by the time of next year’s meeting in Poland.

2018′s summit in Katowice is seen as a critical junction on the road to making the Paris agreement work effectively when it comes into force in 2020.

By next December, the rulebook needs to be finished and there is to be a key review of carbon-cutting commitments made in 2015.

Many delegates are concerned that Poland’s widespread and continued use of coal makes it unlikely that there will be decisive steps taken at the meeting.

Some observers believe that measures are being taken to ensure that Poland doesn’t derail the momentum that has built up since Paris, and generally maintained here in Bonn.

“We had to leave Bonn with the process intact,” said one seasoned observer.

“We now need a series of ministerial meetings in the coming months to make political progress on the key elements, so that we box in Poland over the next year.”

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First gene-editing in human body attempt

Brian Madeux and his fianc Marcie HumphreyImage copyright
Children’s Hospital Oakland

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Brian Madeux and his fiancé Marcie Humphrey

Gene-editing has been attempted on cells inside a patient, in a world first by doctors in California.

Brian Madeux, 44 from Arizona, was given the experimental treatment to try to correct a defect in his DNA that causes Hunter’s syndrome.

Mr Madeux says he was prepared to take part in the trial as he is “in pain every second of the day”.

It is too soon to know whether or not the gene-editing has worked in Mr Madeux’s case.

Hunter’s syndrome is rare. Patients are born without the genetic instructions for an enzyme that breaks down long sugary molecules called mucopolysaccharides.

Instead, they build up in the body and damage the brain and other organs. Severe cases are often fatal.

“I actually thought I wouldn’t live past my early 20s,” said Mr Madeux.

Patients need regular enzyme replacement therapy to break down the mucopolysaccharides.

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Children’s Hospital Oakland

But Mr Madeux has been given an experimental treatment to rewrite his DNA to give him the instructions for making the enzyme.

The therapy was infused into his bloodstream on Monday at Oakland’s UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

The therapy contains two molecular scissors – called zinc finger nucleases – that cut the DNA at two precise spots.

This creates an opening for a new piece of DNA, containing the desired instructions, to be inserted into the patient’s genetic code.

The genetic therapy has been designed so it becomes active only once it gets inside Mr Madeux’s liver cells.

Dr Chester Whitley, one of the doctors working on the trial, told the BBC: “If works as well as it does in mice, this has huge ramifications.

“I’m very optimistic we have a both safe and efficacious way of providing gene therapy.”

His long-term hope is to perform gene-editing shortly after birth, because an “untreated baby loses 20 IQ points per year”.

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Children’s Hospital Oakland

Gene editing has been tried in people before, but cells have been taken out of the body, edited, checked for errors and then placed back in.

That works for tissues that can be temporally removed and returned at a later date like a sample of bone marrow.

However, such an approach is impossible for organs like the liver, heart or brain. It is why doctors have attempted the gene editing inside the patient’s body.

The trial is testing only the safety of performing the gene editing and it will require more research to know if it could be a valid therapy.

So far there have been no side effects in Mr Madeux and if everything continues to go well, then up to nine patients will receive the experimental procedure as part of the study.

‘New frontier’

Dr Sandy Macrae, from Sangamo Therapeutics, which designed the therapy, said: “For the first time, a patient has received a therapy intended to precisely edit the DNA of cells directly inside the body.

“We are at the start of a new frontier of genomic medicine.”

Further safety trials using the same technology to treat haemophilia B and Hurler syndrome are also planned.

Mr Madeux says he is prepared to have his DNA altered “if it will prolong my life and help scientists find cures for humankind”.

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Interstellar asteroid is given a name

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Artwork: Despite forming around another star, the object looks familiar in many respects

The first known asteroid to visit our Solar System from interstellar space has been given a name.

Scientists who have studied its speed and trajectory believe it originated in a planetary system around another star.

The interstellar interloper will now be referred to as ‘Oumuamua, which means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.

The name reflects the object’s discovery by a Hawaii-based astronomer using an observatory on Maui.

It was discovered on 19 October this year by Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

Weryk and fellow Institute for Astronomy researcher Marco Micheli realised it was going extremely fast (with enough speed to avoid being captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull) and was on a very eccentric trajectory taking it out of our Solar System.

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The object’s velocity and eccentric trajectory suggests it originated outside our Solar System

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R. Ratkowski

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‘Oumuamua was discovered by the Pan-Starrs1 observatory on the Haleakala volcano, on Maui

Scientists who have made observations of ‘Oumuamua, say that despite its exotic origins, the asteroid is familiar in appearance.

In a paper submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, they argue that its size, rotation, and reddish colour are similar to those of asteroids in our Solar System.

Measuring about 180m by 30m, it resembles a chunky cigar.

“The most remarkable thing about ['Oumuamua] is that, except for its shape, how familiar and physically unremarkable it is,” said co-author Jayadev Rajagopal from the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

If planets form around other stars the same way they did in the Solar System, many objects the size of ‘Oumuamua are predicted to be slung out in the process.

“U1 may provide the first direct evidence that planetary systems around other stars ejected objects as they formed,” said Dr Rajagopal.

The object has also been given the more formal designation of 1I/2017 U1 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial bodies.

The “I” in this formal name stands for “interstellar” object, similar to the “C” and “A” in the designations for comets and asteroids, respectively.

‘Oumuamua is the first object to carry the “I” in front of its name.

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UK and Canada lead global alliance against coal

CoalImage copyright
Getty Images

The UK and Canada have launched a global alliance of 20 countries committed to phasing out coal for energy production.

Members including France, Finland and Mexico, say they will end the use of coal before 2030.

Ministers hope to have 50 countries signed up by the time of the next major UN conference in Poland next year.

However some important coal consuming nations, including China, the US and Germany have not joined the group.

Reducing global coal use is a formidable challenge, as the fuel produces around 40% of the world’s electricity at present.

As a highly carbon intensive source, coal contributes significantly to the rising levels of CO2 emissions that scientists reported earlier this week.

Researchers say that if the world is to curb dramatic temperature rises this century then coal use must be limited.

Called the Powering Past Coal Alliance, this new initiative sees countries, regions and provinces, signing up to setting coal phase-out targets and committing to no new investments in coal-fired electricity in their national jurisdictions or abroad.

No sacrifice

The UK has said it will end the generation of electricity from unabated coal by 2025. Unabated means that the coal is burnt without capturing the resulting carbon emissions.

Already, the move away from coal in the UK has been rapid. Around 40% of electricity was still being generated from coal in 2012 but in April this year the UK had its first full day without coal power in 135 years.

“We have not sacrificed growth,” said Claire Perry, the UK’s minister for climate change and industry.

“Since 1990 Britain has cut its emissions buy 42% and our economy has grown by 67%, that’s the best performance in the G7 so this is not something that’s a win-lose, it’s a win-win situation.”

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Energy ministers assembled at the meeting in Bonn

However many of those who have signed up to the alliance have little or no coal production or consumption, among them Fiji, Niue, and Costa Rica. Many of the richer countries involved have already announced their move away from coal and taken together the grouping only represents about 2.5% of global coal consumption.

There are also some significant coal consuming countries including Germany and China, absent from the list at present.

The anti-coal alliance are confident that by the time of the next major UN climate conference in Poland in 2018, there will be closer to 50 countries on board.

The development has been broadly welcomed by environmental groups.

“This is another positive signal of the global momentum away from coal, benefitting the health of the climate, the public and the economy,” said Jens Mattias Clausen from Greenpeace.

“But it also puts on notice the governments who lag behind on ending coal or those who promote it that the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel has no future.”

Closest of allies

Those involved in the coal industry say the alliance needs to put more efforts into developing technology that will allow coal use to continue.

“With the world set to use fossil fuels, including coal, for the foreseeable future, Canada and the UK should direct efforts to advancing carbon capture and storage technology because that’s much more likely to achieve global climate objectives than unrealistic calls to eliminate coal in major emerging economies,” said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of the World Coal Association.

With Canada and the UK leading the group, it means that two of the closest allies of the US are moving away from coal at a time when President Trump is talking about a revival for the fuel.

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From L-R: Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister; Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance; Claire Perry, UK climate change and industry minister

The White House has had a presence at this meeting with the President’s special adviser on climate change, George David Banks telling reporters that coal and other fossil fuels were an important part of the solution to climate change.

Mr Banks believes that a so-called “clean coal alliance” involving the US, Japan and others would be something the Trump team would favour.

“I would say that the administration is interested in the idea,” he told reporters.

“I’m guessing that would mean a clean coal alliance that would focus on highly efficient low emission coal plants and carbon capture utilisation and storage. I think there would be interest in exploring that.”

Many environmental campaigners though, believe that attempts to produce clean coal are essentially efforts to prolong the dominance of the fossil fuel industry.

“People were worried that this summit would see Trump assaulting the Paris Agreement with his coal lobbyists,” said Mohamed Adow from Christian Aid.

“But his actions have actually galvanised other nations into action, with a new alliance making it clear that coal’s climate change threat must be taken seriously.

“The bottom line is coal is a dirty, unnecessary, polluting fuel that deserves to remain in a more ignorant and backward era. These countries are showing they understand that.”

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Europe steps in to cover US shortfall in funding climate science

Emmanuel MacronImage copyright
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French president Emmanuel Macron says that Europe will cover any shortfall in funding for the global climate body, the IPCC.

The scientific organisation has faced uncertainty since President Donald Trump outlined plans earlier this year to cut US funding.

The UK government also pledged to double their IPCC contribution.

Speaking at UN talks in Bonn, Mr Macron said that climate change was the most significant struggle of our times.

Today saw the start of the high level segment at this meeting of global climate negotiators known as COP23.

In his statement to negotiators, the French president outlined the need for increased commitments to cut carbon.

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Mr Macron said these decisions must be based on clear scientific information.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long been seen as a key element of that system of advice to governments.

Meeting the challenge

Their assessment reports, which come out every six or seven years, are critical in informing the public and governments about the causes and impacts of climate change.

Earlier this year, President Trump proposed ending US funding for this body. Mr Macron said that Europe would now fill the gap.

“I propose that Europe replace America, and France will meet that challenge,” he told delegates here in Bonn.

“I would like to see the largest number of EU countries at our side, all together we can compensate for the loss of US funding but I can guarantee from the start of 2018, the IPCC will have all the money that it needs and it will continue to support our decision-making. They will not miss a single euro.”

The UK also announced that it would help the IPCC financially, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announcing a doubling of funding for the organisation.

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Mr Macron was keen to reinforce the leadership of France and the European Union on climate change. He announced that France would close all its coal plants by 2021, putting him at odds with German chancellor Angela Merkel who struggled with this issue as she tried to form a coalition government.

On renewable energy, Mr Macron outlined plans for projects that would build inter-connections between green energy producers and consumer across the continent.

“We will encourage and actively participate in funding all the projects we need bilaterally, with Germany and France but also with Ireland, Spain, Italy, the Benelux countries and Portugal,”

“These international interconnections will be aimed at utilising renewables most efficiently across our continent, throughout the EU,”

“This will be a guarantee that we will accelerate a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Earlier UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres had addressed the conference of the parties for the first time in his new role. He used the opportunity to call for greater investment in green energy – and an end to subsidies for coal, oil and gas.

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Getty Images

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Macron’s stance on coal puts him at odds somewhat with the German chancellor Ms Merkel

“In 2016, an estimated $825bn were invested in fossil fuels and high emissions sector,” he told the meeting.

“We must stop making bets on an unsustainable future that will place savings and societies at risk.”

Other leaders and senior ministers were scheduled to address the talks on Thursday amid progress across a raft of technical issues, including the wish of poorer nations to see more action from the richer states in the years before 2020, when the Paris pact kicks in.

There was also some good news from researchers who track the commitments of countries to cut their carbon emissions.

Scientists involved with the Climate Action Tracker said that while the decision of President Trump to withdraw from Paris would impact US commitments, their analysis showed that on the ground actions in India and China were making a difference in curbing emissions.

The report shows that the projected temperature rise facing the world by 2100 had dropped to 3.4C compared to 3.6C a year ago.

“It is clear who the leaders are here,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, part of the team the group that put the tracker together.

“In the face of US inaction, China and India are stepping up.”

“However, both need to review, and strengthen, their Paris commitments. Our projections show they will meet them much earlier than 2030.”

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‘Routine’ detection of space ripples

Graphic of black holes

Image caption

Comparison of black hole mergers seen by the laser interferometers. LVT151012 probably was a real event but it did not have the required confidence to be fully declared a formal detection

Gravitational waves have been picked up from another black hole merger.

It is the fifth time such an event has been validated, and the sixth occasion overall that ripples in space-time have been detected from far-off phenomena.

The LIGO-VIRGO collaboration, whose laser labs sense the waves, issued the news via a simple press release.

Previous events have had the fanfare of major international media briefings, which suggests the detections are almost now being seen as routine.

That in itself should be regarded as remarkable.

For decades, science chased the possibility that these very subtle signals might be observable, with a good many people doubting it would ever be achieved.

So to have arrived at a situation where the astonishing accomplishment is bordering on the ordinary is noteworthy in itself.

“I think we feel now that with the black hole binaries – unless we come across something that is qualitatively different then it really has started to become cataloguing if you like,” commented Prof Ken Strain, a collaboration member from Glasgow University, UK.

  • Gravitational waves: New toys to unwrap
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  • Gravitational waves quest to go into space

The new merger was picked up on 8 June by two of the three laser interferometer labs in the collaboration – the LIGO facilities in the US states of Washington and Louisiana.

The third station, the Italian VIRGO establishment near Pisa, was still being commissioned and therefore gathered no data.

But the LIGO pair were able to sense two objects, with masses about seven and 12 times that of our Sun, colliding at a distance of about a billion light-years from Earth.

The result was a black hole roughly 18 times as massive as our Sun, meaning energy equivalent to one solar mass was radiated across space in the form of gravitational waves.

It is the lightest merger of the five black hole binaries sensed so far and assumes the catalogue number GW170608.

A minimum of two labs must detect an event for it to be validated, and this observation was somewhat fortuitous in that one of the US labs was just returning to observations from a period of maintenance when the trigger occurred.

The absence of VIRGO’s involvement this time meant a tight triangulation of the location on the sky of the collision was not possible.

Gravitational waves – Ripples in the fabric of space-time

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Image caption

Artwork: Black hole merger generates gravitational waves

  • Gravitational waves are a prediction of the Theory of General Relativity
  • It took decades to develop the technology to directly detect them
  • They are ripples in the fabric of space-time generated by violent events
  • Accelerating masses will produce waves that propagate at the speed of light
  • Detectable sources ought to include merging black holes and neutron stars
  • LIGO/VIRGO fire precision lasers into long, L-shaped tunnels
  • The beams sense the way the waves stretch and squeeze the tunnels
  • Detecting the ripples opens up the Universe to completely new investigations

The very first gravitational waves detection was made in September 2015. All observations since have also been black hole mergers, apart from the event picked up on 17 August this year.

That was a collision of two neutron stars – the compact, rapidly rotating remnants from exploded stars (supernovas).

All the labs are now offline for improvements. They should come back online next October with the ability to sense twice the distance, with hopefully therefore eight times the detection rate.

“Roughly speaking that means that instead of one event a month, we should see perhaps two a week,” said Prof Strain. “Those would be ‘candidates’ that would have to be followed up and confirmed. That’s the broad expectation but it depends on the upgrades going as planned.”

Interesting targets not yet observed, but which should trigger the laser interferometers, include the supernova explosions themselves and “lopsided” neutron stars.

The latter is a particularly fascinating possibility. Neutron stars are expected to be nearly perfectly spherical, but if they have tiny “mountains” on their surfaces they ought to generate gravitational waves as they spin.

“One day we will find one of these pulsars (a special class of neutron star) where we actually see the gravitational wave signal synchronised to the rotation rate of the pulsar because this mountain, which may be a millimetre or so high, is going around and around,” Prof Strain told BBC News.

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© Warren Fyfe