Rocket With Planet-Hunting Telescope Lifts Off

A Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Wednesday carrying SpaceX’s first high-priority science mission for NASA, a planet-hunting space telescope whose launch had been delayed for two days by a rocket-guidance glitch.

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:51 p.m. EDT, starting the clock on a two-year quest to detect more worlds circling stars beyond our solar system that might harbor life. 

The main-stage booster successfully separated from the upper stage of the rocket and headed back to Earth on a self-guided return flight to an unmanned landing vessel floating in the Atlantic.

The first stage, which can be recycled for future flights, then landed safely on the ocean platform, according to SpaceX launch team announcers on NASA TV.

Liftoff followed a postponement forced by a technical glitch in the rocket’s guidance-control system.


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Britain to Ban Sale of Plastic Straws in Bid to Fight Waste

Britain plans to ban the sale of plastic straws and other single-use products and is pressing Commonwealth allies to also take action to tackle marine waste, the office of Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May said.

It said drink stirrers and cotton buds would also be banned under the plans.

May has pledged to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042 as part of a “national plan of action.”

“Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world, which is why protecting the marine environment is central to our agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting,” May said in a statement ahead of a Commonwealth summit Thursday.

Leaders from the Commonwealth — a network of 53 countries, mostly former British colonies — are meeting in London this week.

May is looking to deepen ties to the Commonwealth as Britain seeks to boost trade and carve out a new role in the world ahead of the country’s departure from the European Union in March next year.

Britain will commit 61.4 million pounds ($87.21 million) at the summit to develop new ways of tackling plastic waste and help Commonwealth countries limit how much plastic ends up in the ocean.

“We are rallying Commonwealth countries to join us in the fight against marine plastic,” May said.

“Together we can effect real change so that future generations can enjoy a natural environment that is healthier than we currently find it.”

The statement said environment minister Michael Gove would launch a consultation later this year into the plan to ban the plastic items. It gave no details who the consultation would be with.


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Training Surgeons to Perform Robotic Surgery

Since 2000, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the world’s first robotic surgical system, almost 4,000 of these sophisticated machines have been deployed in operating suites around the world. Recognizing that the proficiency of the surgeons who use them can be subjective, a group of surgeons at the University of Southern California, in cooperation with the manufacturer Intuitive Research, is developing a system for more objective evaluation. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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Global Leaders Seek to Reignite Fight Against Deadly Malaria

Renewed action and boosted funding to fight malaria could prevent 350 million cases of the disease in the next five years and save 650,000 lives across commonwealth countries, health experts said Wednesday.

Seeking to reignite efforts to wipe out the deadly mosquito-borne disease, philanthropists, business leaders and ministers from donor and malaria-affected countries pledged 2.7 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) to drive research and innovation and improve access to malaria prevention and treatments.

Spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, the leaders warned against complacency in fighting malaria — a disease that kills around half a million people, mainly babies and young children, each year.

While enormous progress has been made over the past 20 years in reducing malaria cases and deaths, in 2016, for the first time in a decade, the number of malaria cases was on the rise and in some areas there was a resurgence, according to the World Health Organization.

The disease’s stubbornness is partly due to the fact that the mosquito that transmits the disease and the parasite that causes it have developed resistance to the sprays and drugs used to fight them, health experts say. It is also partly due to stagnant global funding for fighting malaria since 2010. Climate change and conflict can also exacerbate malaria outbreaks.

“History has shown that with malaria there is no standing still — we move forward or risk resurgence,” Gates said in a statement ahead of a “Malaria Summit” in London on Wednesday.

​$1 billion extra pledged

His multibillion-dollar philanthropic fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is co-convening the summit, pledged an extra $1 billion through to 2023 to fund malaria research and development to try to end malaria for good.

“It’s a disease that is preventable, treatable and ultimately beatable, but progress against malaria is not inevitable,” Gates said. “We hope today marks a turning point.”

The malaria summit was designed to coincide with a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London this week. The 53 Commonwealth countries, mostly former British colonies, are disproportionately affected by malaria — accounting for more than half of all global cases and deaths, although they are home to just a third of the world’s population.

Among new funding and research commitments announced at the summit, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said $2 billion would be invested in 46 countries affected by malaria between 2018 and 2020.

Pharmaceutical firms GSK and Novartis also increased investment into malaria research and development — of 175 million pounds ($250 million) and $100 million, respectively. And five agrichemical companies launched a joint initiative to speed up development of new ways to control mosquitoes.


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US Drug Agency Wants Tighter Rules on Making Opioids

The U.S. government on Tuesday proposed tightening rules governing the amount of prescription opioid painkillers that drugmakers can manufacture in a given year, in hopes of reining in the deadly opioid epidemic.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Drug Enforcement Administration’s proposed changes to regulations covering addictive-drug manufacturing quotas. The plan could sharply reduce the annual production of painkillers.

“Under this proposed new rule, if DEA believes that a company’s opioids are being diverted for misuse, then they will reduce the amount of opioids that company can make,” Sessions said in prepared remarks.

The plan could affect opioid makers such as Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Mallinckrodt, as well as companies that distribute the drugs.

Hours before the announcement, federal, state and local law enforcement officials in West Virginia announced a crackdown on an opioid trafficking ring in Huntington, known as “ground zero” for the epidemic.

West Virginia sued the DEA in December over drug quota rules, arguing the agency’s policy wrongfully sets manufacturing quotas based on amounts of pills drugmakers expect to sell, not legitimate medical needs.

That approach, the state argued, has contributed to the growing addiction problem and the illegal diversion of pain medication.

“We must end senseless death in West Virginia,” said the state’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey. West Virginia is among the states that have suffered most from the crisis.

​National emergency declared

The Trump administration has made combating the opioid epidemic a top priority.

Last year, Trump declared it a national emergency, in a move to shore up more resources to expand access to treatment and give the government more flexibility in waiving rules and restrictions to expedite action.

Sessions has created an opioid task force and deployed prosecutors to hard-hit areas of the country with a mandate to bring more cases against traffickers.

While some enforcement efforts have focused on illicit traders and doctors who overprescribe, the government has also increasingly been taking aim at the drug companies themselves.

Recently, it sought permission from a federal court to participate in settlement negotiations aimed at resolving lawsuits by state and local governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The DEA proposal calls for quotas to be set after considering the potential for diversion of the drugs into illicit channels, and weighing input from states and other federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Sessions said the DEA has also entered into a prescription drug information-sharing arrangement with 48 state attorneys general to help them sniff out criminals peddling dangerous painkillers.

According to the CDC, 42,000 people died nationwide from opioid overdoses in 2016, the last year with publicly available data.


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Man With 3 Faces: Frenchman Gets 2nd Face Transplant

In a medical first, a French surgeon says he has performed a second face transplant on the same patient — who is now doing well and even spent a recent weekend in Brittany.

Dr. Laurent Lantieri of the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris first transplanted a new face onto Jerome Hamon in 2010, when Hamon was in his mid-30s. But after getting ill in 2015, Hamon was given drugs that interfered with the anti-rejection medicines he was taking for his face transplant.

Last November, the tissue in his transplanted face began to die, leading Lantieri to remove it.

That left Hamon without a face, a condition that Lantieri described as “the walking dead.” Hamon had no eyelids, no ears, no skin and could not speak or eat. He had limited hearing and could express himself only by turning his head slightly, in addition to writing a little.

“If you have no skin, you have infections,” Lantieri told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We were very concerned about the possibility of a new rejection.”

In January, when a second face donor for Hamon became available, Lantieri and his team performed a second face transplant. But before undergoing the second transplant, doctors had to replace all of the blood in Hamon’s body in a monthlong procedure to eliminate some potentially worrisome antibodies from previous treatments.

“For a man who went through all this, which is like going through a nuclear war, he’s doing fine,” Lantieri said. He added that Hamon is now being monitored like any other face transplant patient.

Hamon’s first face was donated by a 60-year-old. With his second transplanted face, Hamon said he managed to drop a few decades.

“I’m 43. The donor was 22. So I’ve become 20 years younger,” Hamon joked on French television Tuesday.

‘Hope’ for other patients

Other doctors applauded the French team’s efforts and said the techniques could be used to help critically ill patients with few options.

“The fact that Professor Lantieri was able to save this patient gives us hope that other patients can have a backup surgery if necessary,” said Dr. Frank Papay of the Cleveland Clinic. He said the techniques being developed by Lantieri and others could help doctors achieve what he called “the holy grail” of transplant medicine: How to allow patients to tolerate tissue transplants from others.

Dr. Bohdan Pomahac of Harvard University, who has done face transplants in the U.S., said similar procedures would ultimately become more common, with rising numbers of patients.

“The more we see what’s happening with [face transplant] patients, the more we have to accept that chronic rejection is a reality,” Pomahac said. “Face transplants will become essentially non-functional, distorted and that may be a good time to consider re-transplanting.”

He said it’s still unknown how long face transplants might last, but guessed they might be similar to kidneys, which generally last about 10 to 15 years.

“Maybe some patients will get lucky and their faces will last longer. But it will probably be more common that some will have to be replaced,” he said, noting there are still many unknowns about when chronic rejection might occur.

Lantieri said he and his team would soon publish their findings in a medical journal and that he hoped cases like Hamon would remain the exception.

“The other patients I’m following, some have had some alteration of their transplant over time, but they are doing fine,” he said. “I hope not to do any future transplants like this.”


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Study: Diamond From the Sky May Have Come From ‘Lost Planet’

Fragments of a meteorite that fell to Earth about a decade ago provide compelling evidence of a lost planet that once roamed our solar system, according to a study published Tuesday.

Researchers from Switzerland, France and Germany examined diamonds found inside the Almahata Sitta meteorite and concluded they were most likely formed by a proto-planet at least 4.55 billion years ago.

The diamonds in the meteorite, which crashed in Sudan’s Nubian Desert in October 2008, have tiny crystals inside them that would have required great pressure to form, said one of the study’s co-authors, Philippe Gillet.

“We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Switzerland.

Gillet, a planetary scientist at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, said researchers calculated a pressure of 200,000 bar (2.9 million psi) would be needed to form such diamonds, suggesting the mystery planet was as least as big as Mercury, possibly even Mars.

Scientists have long theorized that the early solar system once contained many more planets — some of which were likely little more than a mass of molten magma. One of these embryo planets — dubbed Theia — is believed to have slammed into a young Earth, ejecting a large amount of debris that later formed the moon.

“What we’re claiming here,” said Gillet, “is that we have in our hands a remnant of this first generation of planets that are missing today because they were destroyed or incorporated in a bigger planet.”

Addi Bischoff, a meteorite expert at the University of Muenster, Germany, said the methods used for the study were sound and the conclusion was plausible. But further evidence of sustained high pressure would be expected to be found in the minerals surrounding the diamonds, he said.

Bischoff wasn’t involved in the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

This story has been corrected to show that the meteorite fragments fell to Earth about a decade ago, not more than a decade ago.


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More Than 100 Parts for NASA’s Orion Capsule to Be 3-D Printed

More than 100 parts for U.S. space agency NASA’s deep-space capsule Orion will be made by 3-D printers, using technology that experts say will eventually become key to efforts to send humans to Mars.

U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, 3-D printing specialist Stratasys, and engineering firm PADT have developed the parts using new materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures and chemical exposure of deep-space missions, Stratasys said Tuesday.

“In space, for instance, materials will build up a charge. If that was to shock the electronics on a space craft, there could be significant damage,” Scott Sevcik, Vice President Manufacturing Solutions at Stratasys told Reuters.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has been used for making prototypes across a range of industries for many years, but is being increasingly eyed for scale production.

The technology can help make light-weight parts made of plastics more quickly and cheaply than traditional assembly lines that require major investments into equipment.

“But even more significant is that we have more freedom with the design … parts can look more organic, more skeletal,” Sevcik said.

Stratasys’ partner Lockheed Martin said the use of 3-D printing on the Orion project would also pay off at other parts of its business.

“We look to apply benefits across our programs — missile defense, satellites, planetary probes, especially as we create more and more common products,” said Brian Kaplun, additive manufacturing manager at Lockheed Martin Space.

Orion is part of NASA’s follow-up program to the now-retired space shuttles that will allow astronauts to travel beyond the International Space Station, which flies about 260 miles (420 km) above Earth.

The agency’s European counterpart, ESA, has suggested that moon rock and Mars dust could be used to 3-D print structures and tools, which could significantly reduce the cost of future space missions because less material would need to be brought along from Earth.


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