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Saturday, January 16, 2021

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Conservatives Turning to New Social Media Platforms

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WASHINGTON — Reuters reports that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have started to ban conservative commentators and the American president from their platforms. Amazon Web Services even went so far as to shut down a website called Parler, touted as a free-speech alternative to Twitter. The big tech companies behind the move say they're doing this because some of the commentators on these channels are inciting violence. Conservative and liberal analysts alike have expressed concern over the move, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying: "It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions." With Parler closed down, conservatives now have few dependable platforms to speak through. The most popular option seems to be a social network website called Gab, which is touted as a website that can't be shut down because it provides its own web services. Other options are the Telegram messaging app, the Rumble video platform, MeWe, and 2nd1st.

'Super-Earth' Discovered Orbiting One of the Galaxy's Oldest Stars

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RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA — Scientists have discovered a unique rocky "super Earth" near one of the oldest stars in the galaxy, according to a statement from the University of California, Riverside. The planet, known as TOI-561b, is located 280 light-years away in a part of the Milky Way known as the galactic thick disk. TOI-561b is about 50 percent larger than Earth and roughly three times its mass and roughly the same density. It orbits a star named for NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — TESS Object of Interest 561, or TOI-561. Discovery of planet TOI-561b and observations made about its composition have been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

Engineers Fix Ice Station Amid Risk of Ice Calving

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HALLEY STATION, ANTARCTICA — Amid fears that the structure might meet a catastrophic end when the ice it stands on breaks off into the ocean, a small party of engineers has reopened the UK's Halley research station in the Antarctic. The BBC reports that the base had been "mothballed"; in part because of Covid, but also because the ice shelf it stands on could soon calve into the ocean. The British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, is trying to avoid having staff in the base when this happens. But some maintenance still has to be performed and a suite of instruments needs servicing. The party of ten will only stay until mid-February before shutting Halley down again. Halley station sits on a floating platform of ice known as the Brunt Ice Shelf. The shelf has developed a number of cracks over the years, and the widening of two of these prompted BAS in 2017 to move Halley to a more secure location. The whole station was dragged on skis over 20km upstream. The most obvious piece to break away has been stubbornly hanging on by a thread for months. This 1,500 square kilometer chunk of ice needs to calve before the station can be reopened.

China Plans Massive Dam Near Disputed Border With India

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MEDONG, CHINA — China plans to build up to 60 gigawatts of hydropower capacity on the Yarlung Zangbo River, better known as the Brahmaputra. The hydropower project, which would dwarf the output of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, is part of China's 14th Five-Year Plan. Details of the project were first announced in Chinese state media. The mega dam would be constructed in Tibet on the "Great Bend" in the Brahmaputra, where water can drop up to 2,000 meters in the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon. Citing officials, China's state-run Global Times reports the hydropower station would help "maintain water resources and domestic security" — and could generate income of $3 billion annually for Tibet.

Astronomer Doubles Down: 'Oumuamua Could be Alien Craft'

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U.S. — Astronomer Avi Loeb just published a new book in which he doubles down on his controversial claim that interstellar object Oumuamua could have been an alien craft. Here's what you need to know: Oumuamua is the first interstellar object ever observed by humans. It was discovered on 19 October 2017, when it was about 33 million kilometers from Earth, and already heading away from Earth. Scientists were unable to get a clear picture of how the object looked, but estimate it is roughly a cigar-shaped object that entered the solar system at an unusual orbit and unusually high speed. Researchers found it hard to determine some of the phenomena displayed by the object. One scientist, Avi Loeb, published an article in 2018 stating that the object could be a light sail or probe sent intentionally to Earth's vicinity by an alien civilization. Other astro-physicists were not impressed. In 2019, an international team of researchers published a study and said they found that "Oumuamua's properties are consistent with a natural origin." But Loeb replied in 2020 that the data we gathered on Oumuamua is incomplete. He added that "to learn more, we must continue to monitor the sky for similar objects." According to Forbes magazine, Loeb's new book doubles down on his claim that the object could have been an alien craft.

Indonesian Boeing 737 Crashes After Takeoff With 62 On Board

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JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Sixty-two people are presumed dead after a passenger plane went missing off Indonesia's coast shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Saturday, Jan. 9. Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182 departed from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at 2:36 p.m. local time, nearly an hour after its scheduled departure time of 1:40 p.m. Four minutes later, at 2:40 p.m., the Boeing 737-500 disappeared from radar, BBC News reports, citing Indonesia's transportation ministry. Fishermen in the area told the Associated Press they heard an explosion, followed by a large splash in the water. According to flight tracking website Flightradar24.com, the plane fell more than 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet, in less than a minute. According to reports there were 50 passengers on board — including seven children and three babies — along with six working crew and six other crew. All were Indonesian.

US Capitol Stormed by Angry Americans — Timeline

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WASHINGTON — On 6 January, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested outside the US Capitol building and hundreds of people stormed the building itself. One woman was shot dead by a guard and three people died in medical emergencies. Here's how it happened: On Wednesday 6 January hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered outside the US Capitol building to protest what they believed to be a stolen election and deep-seated corruption within the US political system. CBS News reports that this is how events unfolded: At around noon, President Trump spoke to supporters at a rally outside the White House. He repeated his claim that the election was stolen and encouraged his supporters to join a planned protest outside the Capitol building. At 1 PM, a joint session of Congress started inside the Capitol building. Around 1:30, some protesters started confronting the police. At 2:15, the Senate suddenly recessed as protesters swarmed the building. At 2:30, the mayor of D.C. ordered a 6 PM curfew. At 2:38, Trump asked his supporters via Twitter to support the police. Around 3 PM, protesters reached the interior of the Capitol building. The Senate was evacuated soon after. At 3:30, Trump ordered the National Guard to the Capitol. At 4 PM, a protester was shot dead inside the Capitol. At 4:15, Trump told his supporters "go home now." Around 5 PM, police cleared out the last protesters.

Explainer: How President Trump Could Be Removed From Office

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WASHINGTON — The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters on Wednesday, Jan. 6, has prompted calls to remove the 45th president of the United States from office before his term ends on Jan. 20. This animation explains how invoking the 25th Amendment or impeachment and removal would work.

Venezuela to Make its Economy 100% Digital — No Notes

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CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Bloomberg reports that Venezuela's government says it's planning to move to a fully digital economy, as hyperinflation has made its worthless bolivar notes practically disappear. It says the move is also aimed at halting the "dollarization" of Venezuela's financial system. President Maduro said 18.6% of all commercial transactions are in dollars, while 77.3% are carried out in bolivars with debit cards. Only 3.4% are paid with bolivar notes. Maduro said: "They have a war against our physical currency. We are moving this year to a more profound digital economy." He said the goal is an economy that's 100% digital, adding that physical money will eventually disappear. Venezuela's currency has lost 99% of its value during three years of hyperinflation, forcing the country to issue higher-denomination notes that in turn become useless in record time. The largest note now in circulation, 50,000 bolivars, is worth only about four US cents. Cash is currently only used to ride public transportation, and the Caracas subway routinely stops charging passengers due to cash shortages.

Human Poo, Rotting Food to Power New Trains

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LONDON — The Times newspaper reports that trains powered by human sewage and discarded food will be introduced to Britain's railway for the first time under plans to phase out dirty diesel engines. A full-size "BioUltra" train capable of carrying 120 passengers is being developed with government funding. The lightweight, low-cost train will be fuelled by biomethane. Biomethane is a renewable gas made from organic waste. Britain currently has a number of sewage plants fitted with fermentation tanks. These fermentation tanks are filled with a combination of human sewage sludge, rotting food waste and other organic waste to create a potent mixture that is digested by bacteria in a process that creates methane gas. The gas then rises to the top of the pungent mixture, where it is siphoned off to mechanisms that separates the methane from other gases. The new, lightweight trains will burn the gas in special engines that will convert it into electrical power, which will charge the train's batteries and drive its motors. The rail cars are expected to reach speeds of up to 80 kilometers per hour.

SpaceX Wants to Catch Returning Boosters Before They Land

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HAWTHORNE, CALIFORNIA — Elon Musk says SpaceX will try a very different approach to landing its future reusable rocket boosters, according to tech website Techcrunch. On 31 December, Musk tweeted: "We're going to try to catch the Super Heavy booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load." Current Falcon 9 boosters return to Earth and land propulsively on their own built-in legs — but Musk's new plan for the Super Heavy booster is for the larger rocket not to have legs at all. SpaceX's Super Heavy booster is still under development. This giant booster rocket would be the biggest rocket stage ever built, featuring up to 28 Raptor rocket engines. The booster's landing sequence would still involve the use of its engines to control the velocity of its descent, but the new plan would see the grid fins — which help control its orientation during flight — double as catch arms that would catch on a giant catching bracket. This means the giant rocket would hang from its grid fans without touching the ground at all. This method would save cost, weight, and turnaround time by omitting landing legs from the rocket.

St. Vincent on Alert After Dormant Volcano Becomes Active

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ST. VINCENT — Residents of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have been warned they may have to evacuate their homes within 24 hours as a volcano that was dormant for decades shows signs of erupting. The La Soufriere volcano is located on the island of Saint Vincent. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency announced on its website that scientists observed an "effusive eruption within the crater, with visible gas and steam" on Dec. 29. The West Indies Seismic Research Unit said in a statement posted on Facebook that a new lava dome formed from fresh magma at the base of the volcano's crater on the same day. According to the United States Geological Survey, earthquake and volcanic activity in the Eastern Caribbean results from the subduction of the North American plate beneath the Caribbean plate.

Japanese researchers are developing wooden satellites

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KYOTO, JAPAN — Researchers from Kyoto University have teamed up with Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry to test the potential of using wood as a component in satellite construction, according to a report by the BBC and an article on Sumitomo Forestry's website. Satellites with wooden housings would leave fewer harmful materials behind when they burn up in the atmosphere. Per the BBC, the partnership will experiment with different types of wood in extreme environments on Earth and hopes to develop the world's first wooden satellites by 2023. Another benefit of using wooden housings is that many wavelengths of electromagnetic energy can pass through the material, so antennas could be housed internally. A Sumitomo Forestry spokesperson told the BBC that the wood it is using is an "R&D secret."

Ruby Lawsuits over Brain Damage Could be Tip of Huge Iceberg

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LONDON — Former international rugby players are suing rugby's governing bodies after being diagnosed with degenerative brain diseases, and CNN reports that this could be the tip of a very large iceberg, as more players are reporting symptoms of dementia and memory loss. Among players putting forward a legal case against the game's governing bodies are Steve Thompson, Michael Lipman and Alix Popham. All three are in their early 40s and have recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head. Thompson says his memory has deteriorated to the extent that he can't remember playing for England in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, let alone even being in Australia for the tournament. Thompson is part of a group of nine former players suing the governing bodies, but a wider group of more than 100 players say they are showing signs of neurological complications and are also interested in pursuing legal action, according to the lawyer co-ordinating the case.

Korea's Tokamak Artificial Sun Sets Crazy Plasma Record

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DAEJEON, SOUTH KOREA — On November 24, Korea's KSTAR, a superconducting fusion device called a tokamak, set a new world record when it managed to keep plasma sizzling at over 100 million degrees Celsius for a full 20 seconds. This marks an important step toward reaching the elusive goal of creating cleaner energy via nuclear fusion. In a fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, resulting in a release of energy. To achieve this, hydrogen isotopes are placed inside a tokamak like KSTAR to create a plasma state where ions and electrons are separated, and the ions are then heated and maintained at extreme temperatures. A tokamak is a machine that creates three powerful magnetic fields to keep a superheated plasma confined. The powerful magnetic fields are designed to keep the plasma from touching the machine, as the plasma would vaporize the giant metallic machine if it escaped. An outer set of magnetic coils also shapes and positions the swirling, superheated plasma. The aim is to keep the plasma stable for long enough for fusion reactions to occur.

Nashville Bombing: How It Happened

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NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE — Authorities believe that Anthony Warner was the only person responsible for the Christmas day bombing in Nashville, and that he died in the explosion, according to the BBC. The initial theory is that Warner managed to concoct a powerful bomb and place it in his RV. He then drove the RV bomb to downtown Nashville on Christmas morning and parked it right next to an AT&T transmission building on Second Avenue North at 1:22 AM. Residents were woken up by the sound of around 20 gunshots between 5:11 AM and 5:26 AM. Police responded to the area at about 6 AM, and heard a warning coming from a loudspeaker on the RV. The voice warned of a bomb in the vehicle and told people to evacuate, while also counting down the minutes before the detonation. The bomb exploded at 6:29 AM, severely damaging the AT&T transmission building and knocking out data services in five states. Warner is known to have had extensive experience in IT work. Media reports say the FBI asked Warner's acquaintances if he was paranoid about 5G technology and believed theories that 5G was being used to spy on people.

Huge iceberg breaks into smaller chunks near South Georgia

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SOUTH GEORGIA — A massive iceberg that threatened the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia has broken up into four pieces, Live Science reported, citing the U.S. National Ice Center and the European Space Agency. The BBC reports experts feared the iceberg would become grounded on the underwater shelf just offshore. This would have devastated the local ecosystem as it would have forced animals such as king penguins and elephant seals to travel much greater distances to find food. The iceberg would also have crushed wildlife on the seafloor where it anchored.

Floating 'Mini-Nukes' Could Power Countries by 2025

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COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — The Guardian reports that Danish company Seaborg Technologies plans to fit barges with small nuclear reactors, to provide energy to developing countries. These reactors will be Compact Molten Salt Reactors, or CMSRs, in short. This is how CMSRs work: The primary loop is where the heat from standard nuclear rods are transferred to molten fluoride salt. The secondary loop is where this superheated liquid transfers its heat to a heat exchanger filled with coolant salt. The third loop is where the heat from the coolant salt is finally transferred to the liquids that will now transmit the nuclear heat energy into high-pressure steam, that spin the turbines, that spin fast to create lots of electricity. So, instead of Light Water, these reactors use salt that only melts at very high temperatures. Seaborg says this means that if the reactor core is ever exposed, the salt will turn into a solid rock, trapping the nuclear material inside it. Unlike the explosive pressures of other reactors, CMSRs operate at near-atmospheric pressures, and feature a frozen salt plug that melts if overheating occurs, allowing the core to drain into cooled tanks.

Detachable Hydrogen Pods Would Also Contain Plane Engines

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LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS — Airbus recently announced a breakthrough concept to sidestep a lot of the challenges associated with hydrogen-powered flight. The company's new idea is to place fully independent hydrogen fuel systems into pods that can easily be clicked on and off the wings of a turboprop airplane. These pods would contain their own fuel and engine systems, allowing Airbus to remove all fuel tanks from the plane's fuselage, thereby adding a lot more space for cargo and passenger seats. The pods would also add a safety element, as it would move the flammable hydrogen fuel from the fuselage to the wing, where a pod can easily be jettisoned in the unlikely event of a fire. The plan is to attach three pods on each wing. Each pod would contain a liquid hydrogen tank — with its own cooling system — a fuel cell, power electronics, and electric motors that will spin an eight-bladed lightweight propeller. On the ground, each pod can simply be replaced with a fueled and serviced pod, which removes the need to refuel the plane with the complex systems needed to keep the hydrogen at very cold temperatures.

Russian Agent Tricked Into Detailing Assassination Attempt

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BERLIN, GERMANY — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny survived an attempt to assassinate him with the nerve agent Novichok on August 20. Now the BBC reports that the investigative group Bellingcat says that Navalny duped a Russian FSB agent into revealing details of the attack. Navalny reportedly impersonated a security official when he called the agent. As part of Navalny's ruse to elicit more details of the assassination attempt, Bellingcat says the trick call was set up to indicate it was coming from an FSB landline. The agent, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, told Navalny that the Novichok had been placed in a pair of Navalny's underpants. Mr Navalny, who is still recovering in Berlin, posted a recording of the long conversation on his YouTube channel. The FSB agent also told Navalny the swift response of the airline pilot, and the emergency medical team in Omsk, could have been the reason for the failure to kill him. Mr Kudryavtsev said he had been sent to Omsk later to seize Mr Navalny's clothes and remove all traces of Novichok from them. Navalny is known for saying things like "President Putin is sucking the blood out of Russia".

New Fungi Turn Flies Into Parasite-Spewing Zombies

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COPENHAGEN — Two new species of fungi have been discovered in Denmark that turn flies into zombies and eat them from the inside out, according to researchers from the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences The new species, Strongwellsea tigrinae and Strongwellsea acerosa, infect two types of Danish fly, Coenosia tigrina and Coenosia testacea. Research published in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology describes how spores from the fungus burrow their way into the fly's abdomen, where they bore holes from which thousands of torpedo-shaped spores burst to infect other flies. The researchers suspect the two fungi may produce amphetamine-like substances that keep their hosts alive and energized until there is nothing left in the fly's abdomen but fungus. These amphetamine-like chemicals may also keep other microorganisms away from the flies' wounds.

Here's What We Know About the New Coronavirus Strain

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LONDON — Concerns are growing over a new variant of the coronavirus blamed for a sharp rise in cases in the UK. The new strain, referred to as B.1.1.7 or VUI-202012/01, contains 23 mutations and other changes to its genome, according to a Reuters report. BBC News reports officials in the UK have suggested that the new strain may be 70 percent more transmissible than other forms of the virus.

How Spies Hacked US Secrets via Solarwinds' Orion Software

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WASHINGTON — The US is currently fighting a massive hack that came to light on December 13, when Reuters reported that hackers had gained access to US Treasury and Commerce Department emails. Since then, officials say at least six government agencies were infiltrated and thousands of companies were infected with malware. The highly sophisticated hack was first discovered by a cyber security firm called FireEye. The company found that it had itself been hacked, meaning that the hackers could have hacked the powerful tools FireEye used to access top-secret systems. Researchers later found that SolarWinds software was at the core of the hack. They believe a SolarWinds product called Orion spread the malware via its own software updates. Once downloaded, the malware signaled back to its operators where it had landed. In cases where access was especially valuable, the hackers then used it to deploy more active malicious software to spread across its host. Part of the problem is that most people don't even know they have parts of SolarWinds software running on their systems, or on systems they use every day.

Musk's Tesla, Boring Co. to Build Citywide Transit System

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LAS VEGAS — Last week, the Las Vegas City Council voted to approve the Boring Company's plan for a citywide Loop system. A Boring Company Loop system consists of tunnels in which Tesla autonomous electric vehicles travel at high speeds between stations to transport people within a city. The first system is currently being built at the Las Vegas Convention Center, but the Boring Company now plans to connect the convention center's Loop to casinos on the strip in order to eventually create a citywide Loop. The plan is to eventually build a 15-mile tunnel system that will go all the way from the McCarran airport to the Fremont Street Experience in the north, with stops along all the major resorts along the strip. The planned tunnel would also loop westward around the Allegiant Stadium and the Orleans Hotel. Officials have said that Boring Co. will cover the cost of building the main artery of the Loop. Hotels that want Loop stations will be responsible for paying those costs. "Zero public dollars would be going into this system," said Boring Co.'s president, Steve Davis.

Army Surrounds Gunmen and Their 337 Hostages

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KANKARA, NIGERIA — The governor of the Nigerian state of Katsina says the Nigerian military has found a group of gunmen and the 337 children they abducted from a government school 6 days ago. He said the group had been surrounded and negotiations have started. This is just the latest in a spate of such mass abductions of children in Nigeria. It started when a large number of gunmen riding motorbikes stormed the compound of a high school in Kankara. One of the boys who escaped said the attack started around 9:30 on Friday night, and that many students jumped the school fence and fled when they heard gunshots. However, they were tracked by the gunmen who had flashlights and who tricked them into believing that they were security personnel and asked them to return. The boys were then rounded up and forced to walk into the forest. The gunmen later ordered them to stop and started to count the child hostages. The eye witness said that 520 students were counted and that he did not see anyone else while he was escaping. The government has blamed the attack on Nigerian bandits who often kidnap children for ransom.

China 'Spying on Americans via Caribbean Networks'

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WASHINGTON — The Guardian newspaper revealed that China has likely been spying on US citizens via Caribbean phone networks for years. The paper based its article on research by Gary Miller, a former mobile network security executive. Miller has been analyzing sensitive signals data for years and says China appears to have used mobile phone networks in the Caribbean to surveil US mobile phone subscribers as part of its espionage campaign against Americans. He says that China uses one of its state-controlled phone operators to direct signalling messages to US subscribers, usually while they are travelling abroad. Signalling messages are commands that are sent by telecoms operators across the global network. They allow operators to locate mobile phones and connect users to one another. But some signalling messages can be used for tracking, monitoring, or intercepting communications. Miller said that China has lately favoured more targeted espionage and are likely using Caribbean networks as proxies to conduct its attacks, having close ties with these countries in both trade and technology investment.

World's Largest Iceberg Set to Collide With South Atlantic Island

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SOUTH GEORGIA — The world's biggest iceberg is headed straight toward an island in the South Atlantic and has the potential to cause significant damage to wildlife should it become grounded nearby. Based on currents and weather conditions, Iceberg A68a — which is roughly the size of Delaware — is poised to hit South Georgia this month, according to the Royal Navy. The BBC reports that because the iceberg is relatively thin — its cliffs rise 30 meters above the surface, while its keel is estimated to be only 200 meters deep — there's a danger it could become grounded just offshore, taking possibly 10 years to melt. This would devastate the local ecosystem as it would force animals such as king penguins and elephant seals to travel much greater distances to find food. The iceberg would also crush wildlife on the seafloor where it anchors. However, nutrients released when the iceberg melts would boost the local ecosystem.

New Section of Aztec Skull Tower Unearthed in Mexico City

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican archaeologists have excavated more sections of the Aztec "tower of skulls" in the heart of Mexico City and unearthed an additional 119 skulls, authorities announced on Dec. 11. Since 2015 more than 600 skulls have been unearthed at the site, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Reuters reports that the tower was approximately 5 meters, or 16.4 feet, in diameter, and is thought to have been part of the Huey Tzompantli, a huge palisade of skulls that 16th century Spanish conquistadors claimed to have seen in the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. The tzompantli sat in front of the Templo Mayor and was flanked by two towers of mortared skulls, in the middle of a temple complex that was the spiritual and political heart of the Aztec capital. In a statement released by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto described the tower as one of the country's most impressive archaeological finds in recent years.

Giant Vertical Indoor Hydroponic Farm To Start Production

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COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — In the past, people in Denmark would have to import foods like lettuce from southern countries during the long Danish winters. But now a new vertical indoor farm on the outskirts of Copenhagen will produce 1,000 metric tons of greens a year. The new Nordic Harvest vertical farm stands 14 layers high in a 7000 square meter facility that's around 4 storeys high. The Danish company built the farm in partnership with Taiwanese tech provider, YesHealth. The company says farms covering an area the size of 20 soccer fields could fully supply the country's entire demand for greens. The facility uses hydroponics, a technology that grows food with fertilizer-filled water and doesn't require the use of soil or pesticides. Thousands of LED lights simulate sunlight to drive plant growth. Nanobubble hydroponics technology efficiently oxygenates the roots of the plants. The system's water is spiked with liquid microbial fertilizers that are made from natural ingredients like soy milk and oyster shells, differing from the common practice of using synthetic mineral fertilizers in hydroponic farming.

Discovered: Ancient Amazonian Villages Laid Out Like Clocks

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UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, UK — Billions of laser pulses fired from a helicopter flying over the Brazilian part of the Amazon rainforest have exposed a vast network of long-abandoned circular and rectangular-shaped villages, a new study found. The abandoned villages dated from the years 1300 to 1700. The round ones all had remarkably similar layouts, with elongated mounds circling a central plaza like marks on a clock. "These elongated mounds, when seen from above, look like the rays of the sun," the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology. Using Lidar technology the researchers could penetrate the rainforest's canopy and map the landscape below. The distinctive and consistent way indigenous people arranged these villages suggests that they had specific social models for the way they organized their communities. It's even possible that this configuration was meant to represent the cosmos, the researchers noted. Further analysis of these "sun" villages revealed they had carefully planned roads that were up to 6 meters wide, with high banks.

Ocean Cleanup to Build More Floating River Plastic Collectors

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ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS — The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organization developing technologies to rid the world's oceans of plastic, is ramping up production of its Interceptor, an autonomous system that removes plastic waste from rivers. On Thursday, Dec. 10, the organization announced a partnership with Konecranes, a Finnish company that produces lifting equipment. Konecranes will handle manufacturing, installation and maintenance of the Interceptor with local partners. The company is already building two interceptors at its MHE-Demag facility in Klang, Malaysia. Ocean Cleanup states on its website that the Interceptor is capable of extracting 50,000 kilograms of trash a day. The organization claims that under optimal conditions, that number could increase to 100,000 kilograms of waste per day. The Ocean Cleanup currently has three Interceptors operating in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic, with a fourth due to launch in Vietnam early next year. Ocean Cleanup has ambitious plans of tackling 1,000 of the world's most polluting rivers by 2025. The organization says it has established that these waterways — which comprise 1 percent of the world's rivers — are responsible for 80 percent of plastic waste present in oceans.

Neanderthals Buried Their Dead, New Study Suggests

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LA FERRASSIE, FRANCE — Researchers recently analyzed the remains of a Neanderthal child and found that the two-year-old was probably buried by its tribe, casting new light on the way these ancient cousins of humans treated their deceased. According to the research paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the child's skeleton was first unearthed in 1973 from a rock shelter at the La Ferrassie dig site in southwest France. Much of the evidence for Neanderthal burial practices comes from digs undertaken in the early 20th century, before today's rigorous archaeological standards. This led to initial scepticism as to the veracity of the purported burial sites. The new researchers re-examined the remains and re-visited the original excavation site. They concluded that 41,000 years ago, the child had been laid carefully in a grave that was then covered with fresh soil. This would make it the first evidence for a Neanderthal burial in Europe, adding further support to the notion that funerary practices are not unique to our species. The team radiocarbon dated one of the skeleton's smaller bones, placing it at around 41,000 years old.

Planets Combining to Form Rare 'Christmas Star'

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NEW YORK — Astronomers are calling it the Great Conjunction of 2020. On December 21 — coincidentally the winter solstice — the two largest planets in our solar system will appear to almost merge in Earth's night sky. Jupiter and Saturn will get so close in the sky that they will almost appear to merge with one another. Such a conjunction has not occurred for almost 800 years. During the event, these two shiny gas giants will sit just 0.1 degrees apart, or a mere one-fifth the width of the Moon. The sight will likely leave many casual observers wondering "What are those large, bright objects so close together in the sky?" In fact, Jupiter and Saturn will be so close that you will be able to fit them both in the same telescopic field of view. That's an incredibly rare occurrence. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were this close together was in 1226 A.D., at a time when Genghis Khan was conquering large swaths of Asia, and Europe was still generations away from the Renaissance. The next Great Conjunction will occur in 2080. Of course, many of us won't be around then, so it would be wise to soak in this show while you can.

China Upping Its Intimidation Game in the South China Sea

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VANGUARD BANK, SOUTH CHINA SEA — During 2020, despite the pandemic, China has increased its campaign of using its ships to claim most of the South China Sea as its own territory, including a shoal only 140 kilometers from Malaysia. Named Luconia Shoals, this submarine ridge lies 1,500 kilometers from China's southern island of Hainan. The shoal is also inside Malaysia's Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning that China has no legal right to patrol the area. However, Chinese coast guard ships are currently harassing oil and gas activity in the area, according to the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS. The CSIS released tracking data showing that Chinese patrol ships have been increasing their aggressive patrolling in the region. One important concern is that these ships are now also targeting Vanguard Bank, an oil and gas-rich shoal claimed by Vietnam. The area had been quiet until Chinese vessels began persistent patrols in July, when Vietnam decided to cancel a drilling project in the area. The CSIS says Beijing is using the persistent patrols in an effort to normalize its presence and thereby strengthen its claims of ownership.

Microwave Weapons 'Were Probably Used' Against US Diplomats

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WASHINGTON — A newly released scientific report casts more light on the case of US diplomats who believed they had suffered physical damage from microwave weapons used by enemy agents. A panel of US scientists found that the symptoms were likely caused by directed microwave devices, renewing discussions about the use of microwave radiation in 5G wireless networks. As with the difference between microwave ovens and microwave weapons, the discussions revolve around exactly how short the wavelengths in 5G microwaves are, and how directed they are. A new report by a US National Academy of Sciences committee has found that "directed" microwave radiation is the likely cause of illnesses among American diplomats in Cuba and China. Microwave weapons work in much the same way as an ordinary microwave oven. A strong electrical current is fed into a magnetron. A magnetron is a high-powered vacuum tube that oscillates microwaves to produce high-energy microwave radiation. However, in a microwave oven, this energy bounces around within the walls of the oven. Instead of containing the energy inside a box, a microwave weapon concentrates the energy into a focused direction, with minimal broadening of the energy stream. This is why it's also called a directed energy weapon. AP reports the committee's finding provides the most definitive explanation yet of the illness that struck scores of government employees, first at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016, and then in China and other countries. Many of the officers suffered from dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and loss of hearing, memory and balance, and some were forced into permanent retirement.

First Large-scale Offshore Wind Farm Planned for U.S. East Coast

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MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS — The first "commercial scale" offshore wind farm is coming to the U.S. The developers of the Vineyard Wind 1 project off Massachusetts announced on Dec. 1 that they will use General Electric's massive Haliade-X wind turbines, the largest and most powerful offshore wind turbines in the world. According to GE, each 13 MW Haliade-X turbine is capable of generating 312 megawatt-hours in one day. The turbine stands at 853 feet, or 260 meters tall. GE says a single spin of its 722-foot, or 220 meter, rotor can power a home for two days. Vineyard Wind has leased a 160,000-acre area 15 miles from the south coast of Martha's Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts, according to the company's website. Vineyard Wind 1 will consist of 62 Haliade-X turbines spaced at least eight-tenths of a mile apart. The 800 MW project will power about 400,000 houses in New England and should go online in 2023.

The U.S. Plans Phased Allocation of Coronavirus Vaccines

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has made deals to procure 100 million doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for US$1.95 billion and 100 million of Moderna's for US$1.5 billion, with options to buy more, as part of the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed. According to a Reuters analysis, up to 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines are expected to be available in the U.S. by the end of 2020. Doses will be allocated by the federal government based on state populations, and the states must follow general guidance from the CDC's Interim Playbook for COVID-19 when implementing their vaccine plans. This animation explains how the U.S. plans to roll out vaccinations for COVID-19.

Amazon Deforestation Increasing Under Bolsonaro's Government

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MANAUS, BRAZIL — The fate of the Amazon rainforest hangs in the balance as Brazil's government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, this year allowed a 9.5% yearly increase in deforestation of the world's last great wilderness. As reported by Reuters, this increase is especially worrisome, as it follows on a whopping 34% increase in 2019, which was Bolsonaro's first year as president. This means that the total area that had been deforested in 2020 is the highest it's been in 12 years. It also means that Brazil will miss its own target, established under a 2009 climate-change law, to reduce annual deforestation to about 3,900 square kilometers. The 2020 figure of 11,088 square kilometers is a massive 7,200 square kilometers more than this target of 3,900. The Amazon is the world's last big rainforest, and its protection is crucial to stopping catastrophic climate change, because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs. The Brazilian NGO, Climate Observatory, says the huge increase in deforestation reflects Bolsonaro's efforts to hamper inspection bodies that fight deforestation and land theft in the Amazon.

A Chemical From Tires Is Causing Mass Die-Offs of Salmon

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TACOMA, WASHINGTON — For decades, after heavy autumn rainstorms, coho salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast have been dying in huge numbers before they spawn. Now scientists believe they have found the primary cause. A powerful antioxidant present in runoff called 6PPD, used in tires to make them last longer, is poisoning the fish. Researchers from the University of Washington Tacoma found that 6PPD reacts with ozone to form a previously unknown byproduct called 6PPD-quinone. The findings were published on Dec. 3, in the journal Science. According to the study, less than 1 percent of adult coho typically die before spawning. But in the mass die-off autumn events along the West Coast, 40 percent to 90 percent of the salmon have died. It is unlikely 6PPD-quinone is toxic only to coho salmon, the researchers said, but 6PPD-quinone is a ubiquitous pollutant. There are more than 1.4 billion vehicles on the planet, for which roughly 3.1 billion tires are produced annually, and 6PPD appears to be in all of them.

Army of Bank Robbers Terrorize Brazilian Cities for Hours

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CAMETA, BRAZIL — Only one day after a small army of heavily armed bank robbers besieged the southern Brazilian city of Criciuma, a similarly large group of gunmen besieged the city of Cameta, on the opposite side of the country. One civilian was killed and another wounded when the gunmen took residents hostage as they looted a bank. Para state officials said Wednesday that more than 20 criminals with assault rifles attacked a branch of the state-run Bank of Brazil in the city in the Amazon region overnight. Video on social media showed a line of roughly a dozen hostages being led away from a square in the city of 140,000 people, and shots ringing out in the night. Local media reported that a military police station was attacked, preventing officers from responding. "They drove around shooting at the police and at the houses. It was a horrible scene to see," said Junior Gaia, who lives nearby. "We were all lying on the floor, afraid they would invade our homes." The coordinated attack came a day after a similar overnight robbery in the southern city of Criciuma, when dozens of gunmen seized the city and took hostages as they used explosives to rob a bank.

Did an Earthquake Finish Off Giant Arecibo Mega-Telescope?

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ARECIBO, PUERTO RICO — For 57 years, until 2016, the Arecibo Observatory was the largest telescope on Earth. But that legacy came crashing down last week, just when a regional earthquake's wave train passed through the site. The collapse occurred when the tops of all three support towers snapped off, dropping the huge detector platform and its support cables onto the giant reflector dish below. This collapse had been expected since a second support cable broke on 6 November, following the previous failure of a support cable in August. Initial studies of the debris field indicate that the failure sequence started when a highly stressed cable in the weakened cable strand finally snapped, causing the central detector platform to detach and fall straight down. That platform's support structure fell sideways into the side of the crater, suggesting that it stayed attached to the remaining two cables and swung sideways. Engineers assume the tops of all three support towers snapped off when one of the three cable strands finally failed completely, causing enormous lateral stresses in directions that the towers were not designed to support.

SpaceX Starship to Make Its Biggest Hop Yet

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BOCCA CHICA, TEXAS — A SpaceX Starship prototype will make its highest hop yet as early as Friday, Dec. 3. Ars Technica reports that Starship prototype Serial Number 8 will fire its three Raptor engines and take off from the SpaceX South Texas launch site, the company's rocket production facility, test site and space port in the remote village of Boca Chica. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk on Tuesday said the Starship prototype will attempt to fly to an altitude of 50,000 feet, or 15 kilometers, as part of the first high-altitude test flight for the spacecraft. The company has permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a Starship launch from its Texas facility on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, according to the FAA's website. This will take it above nearly 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Ars Technica reports this will allow SpaceX to perform several new tests. These are tests of the Starship's body flaps, switching from propellant from the main fuel tanks to those used for landing burns, and the spaceship's ability to reorient itself for returning to the launch site. Afterwards the Starship will make a controlled descent back to the landing pad at the Boca Chica facility. Musk tweeted on Wednesday, November 25 that a "lot of things need to go right" and added that the Starship had "maybe [a] 1/3[c] chance" of landing intact.

New Deep-Sea Animal Might Not Be Seen Again for Centuries

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WASHINGTON — For the first time ever, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, have this week formally identified a new species of undersea creature based solely on high-definition video footage captured at the bottom of the ocean. Duobrachium sparksae — a strange, gelatinous species of ctenophore, was encountered by a remotely operated submersible during a dive off the coast of Puerto Rico in 2015. The creature has not been seen again and might not be encountered again for centuries, says NOAA marine biologist Allen Collins. The rare animal was found almost 4km deep on a deep-sea shelf called the Aricebo amphitheater. Its body is around 6 centimeters long, while its tentacles are around 30 centimeters long. The creature is carnivorous and feeds on small animals and insects. Its gelatinous body is transparent and contains small brushes or cilia that reflect light when they pulsate, making the animal look like a living neon light show. In the short time that scientists observed the three individuals, one of them used its tentacles to anchor it to the sea floor below it.

Sun Unleashes Largest Solar Flare in More Than Three Years

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WASHINGTON — A massive storm over the Sun discharged the largest solar flare in more than three years on Sunday, No. 29. Astronomer Tony Phillips reports at Spaceweather.com that the sun experienced a massive explosion known as a coronal mass ejection behind the southeast solar limb on Sunday. This was classified as an M-class flare by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a medium-sized blast. While the flare was not Earth-directed, and was partially eclipsed by the Sun, it did cause radio blackouts in the South Atlantic. However, Sunday's flare is just part of the beginning of a new solar cycle, which is called the solar minimum, and scientists expect a period of increasing activity and explosive sunspots until the solar maximum in roughly mid-2025. A more violent X-class flare directed toward Earth could cause fluctuations in power grids as well as high-frequency radio blackouts and navigational issues over the sunlit part of Earth. Humans are more vulnerable to solar flare now because of our increasingly digital society and reliance on satellite-based communications. According to NASA, solar flares take place when magnetic energy built up within the sun's atmosphere is suddenly released. They impact everything on the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to X-rays. The energy released is equivalent to millions of 100-megaton nuclear bombs exploding at the same time.

How Iran's Nuclear Chief, Fakhrizadeh, Was Assassinated

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ABSARD, IRAN — Iranian journalist Mohamad Ahwaze claims to have received leaked information from the country's government about the assassination of Iran's leading nuclear scientist on Friday. Ahwaze says the attack was carried out by 12 gunmen, who were supported by a team of 50 operatives providing them with information and logistics. He says the hit squad knew Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's security convoy was on its way to his holiday home and were waiting in ambush at a traffic circle marking the entrance to the town of Absard. As the convoy entered the traffic circle, a car bomb exploded, hitting the rear security car. The 12 attackers then opened fire on the middle car with machine guns and 2 sniper rifles. According to Ahwaze one of the attackers then dragged the scientist out of his car and executed him. The attackers then disappeared, and so far not one attacker has been caught. The Iranian Fars News Agency gave a conflicting report, saying that there were no gunmen, and that the attack was done by firing a remote-controlled machine gun mounted on the truck that later exploded.

Heat and Evaporation Causing 'Irreversible' Drying of Mongolia

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UNIVERSITY OF GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN — Mongolia's semi-arid plateau may soon become as barren as parts of the American Southwest due to a "vicious cycle" of heatwaves, which exacerbates soil drying, and ultimately produces more heatwaves — according to a group of climate scientists. Writing in the journal Science, the researchers warn that heatwaves and concurrent droughts have increased significantly during the past two decades, with troubling implications for the future. Using tree-ring data, which offer a glimpse of regional climates from before modern weather logs, the researchers developed heatwave and soil moisture records that suggest recent consecutive years of record high temperatures and droughts have been unprecedented in more than 250 years. According to the study's findings, the record high temperatures in the region are accelerated by soil drying, and together these changes are magnifying the decline of soil water. When soil is wet, evaporation cools air at the surface. However, when soil no longer has any moisture, heat transfers directly to the air. The result is more heatwaves, which means more soil water losses, which means more heatwaves.

Google Plans to Sidestep Egypt by Running New Cable Over Israel

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA — Because of political conflicts in the Middle East, almost all of the Internet traffic between Europe and India currently goes through the region's one relatively neutral country, Egypt. Google, which is competing with Facebook to build high-speed cable networks worldwide, wants to change this dependence on Egypt by running its planned Europe-to-India cable over Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google's planned cable would for the first time connect through these two historical enemies — Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Journal says the breakthrough project follows deals orchestrated by the Trump administration that have created new diplomatic relationships between Gulf Arab states and Israel. The Journal reports that analysts say the Egyptian government charges telecom operators some of the heaviest fees to traverse its land and waters, which can add up to 50% of the cost of a route from Europe to India. Expanded connectivity between Europe and India would also help Google roll out data centers globally.

Boeing's Two New Airliner Families: S vs XXL

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — When we compare Boeing's 737 MAX family of narrowbody jets to its giant new 777x widebody airliners, we see that the 777x family's sizes completely dwarf the 737 MAX family's sizes. With its massive widebody fuselage, the 777x will be able to carry up to 426 passengers in two classes, compared to the big-selling 737 MAX 8's capacity of only 170 passengers. The 777x will also be able to fly much farther than the 737 MAX. Here, the longer 777-9x takes a back seat to the shorter 777-8x, which can fly for just over 16,000 kilometers. The 737 MAX's wingtips are very unique, as they feature a split scimitar design, to minimize aerodynamic drag associated with vortices that develop at the tips as the aircraft travels. To fight this same vortex effect, the 777x uses the same raked wingtip design used in the 787 airliner. These special wingtips increase the fuel efficiency and range of the 737 MAX and 777x models. The four 787 MAX models are priced from 100 million to 135 million US dollars, while the biggest 777x model is priced at 442 million, which is just under the 446 million that Airbus charged for its less efficient A-380. One very unique feature of the giant new 777x airliners are their groundbreaking folding wingtips. When folded, these wingtips save almost 7 meters of airplane width, allowing it to operate from normal airports that can not accommodate super-wide airliners like the A-380.

How the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID Vaccine Works

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LONDON — The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine was 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 In studies of more than 22,000 people in the UK and Brazil, AstraZeneca said in a November 23 press release. Like Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and unlike Pfizer and Moderna's mRNA vaccines, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a modified adenovirus as a vector. This animation explains how the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine works.

China Reaches Earth's Deepest Ocean Trench

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CHALLENGER DEEP, PACIFIC OCEAN — The Chinese government live-streamed footage of its new manned submersible as it reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench on Friday. The "Fendouzhe", meaning "Striver", submersible descended more than 10 kilometers into the submarine trench in the western Pacific Ocean with three researchers on board, state broadcaster CCTV said. Only a handful of people have ever visited the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a 2,550 kilometer-long depression in the Earth's crust that is deeper than Mount Everest is high. The first explorers visited the trench in 1960 on a brief expedition, after which there had been no missions until movie director James Cameron made the first solo trip to the bottom in 2012. Cameron described a "desolate" and "alien" environment. Fendouzhe, had earlier this month set a Chinese record of 10,909 meters for manned deep-sea diving after landing in the deepest known point of the trench, Challenger Deep, just shy of the 10,927-meter world record set by an American explorer in 2019.