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U.S. ranks 24th in newly released 2020 Environmental Performance Index



June 4 (UPI) — The United States isn’t doing a very good job of protecting the environment, according to researchers at Yale and Columbia universities. The U.S. ranks 24th in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index, released Thursday.

The relatively poor ranking, putting the United States behind most of Europe, reflects the nation’s growing environmental and sustainability problems — including the rolling back of EPA rules and relaxed enforcement for air and water protections by the Trump administration — experts say.

Scientists at Yale and Columbia ranked 180 countries on 32 key indicators across 11 categories related to environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The latest index, produced every two years, was compiled using a data-driven and empirical approach, according the report’s authors.

“This is the most comprehensive Environmental Protection Index that we’ve produced yet,” Zach Wendling, postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said during a press conference on Zoom. “The top ten consists entirely of European countries that have made long-term investments in public health and environmental protection.”

“The U.S. comes in 24th, at the bottom of wealthy democracies,” Wendling said.

According to the EPI and the index’s authors, Denmark leads the world in the effort to protect the environment and mitigate climate change.

“We have adopted a climate law with broad support that legally binds us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent of 1990 emissions,” said Dan Jørgensen, the minister of climate and energy in Denmark.

According to Jørgensen, Denmark’s political leaders asked a team of scientists to determine what the European nation needed to do to adequately slow climate change.

“Now, our task is to make the necessary possible,” he said.

The Danish politician said slowing climate change will require hard work by dozens of countries all over the world.

“We are proud to be number one, but we really welcome competition in the years ahead,” Jørgensen said.

Denmark is followed in the rankings by Luxembourg, Switzerland, Britain, France, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany.

Authors of the new EPI report used data to spot environmental problems, assess the deployment of environmental policy solutions and determine whether environmental policies are producing results.

Countries that are making concerted efforts to protect air and water and protect environmental problems — and getting results — are likely to score higher marks and get positioned near the top of the index.

In addition to analyzing data related to air and water pollution, scientists looked at key indicators related to biodiversity, habitat and fisheries health, ecosystem services and climate change. When aggregating data to arrive at the final rankings, researchers gave more weight to some categories and key indicators than to others.

“The largest issue categories — the issues that rest of the world seems to care most about — are climate change, biodiversity and air quality,” Wendling said.

Researchers hope countries will use the index’s granular data to better understand how they rank in terms of specific areas of environmental protection and sustainability.

“For those that are lagging, there are opportunities to look issue by issue at where there’s room for improvement,” said Daniel Esty, professor of environmental law and policy at Yale. “We hope countries will view the EPI as a spur to further action.”

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample



Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.

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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates



Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.

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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction



Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.

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