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Too expensive, too slow: NASA asks for help with JPL's Mars Sample Return mission

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Too expensive, too slow: NASA asks for help with JPL's Mars Sample Return mission

After months of turmoil over the future of a vaunted mission to bring samples of the Red Planet back to Earth, NASA has its verdict on Mars Sample Return.

The space agency is “committed” to bringing those rocks back from Mars, Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday, but will have to do it with way less money and in far less time than currently designed.

And how exactly is NASA going to pull that off? Right now it has no idea — and it’s looking for someone who does.

“I have asked our folks to reach out with a request for information to industry, to [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and to all NASA centers, and to report back this fall an alternate plan that will get [the samples] back quicker and cheaper,” Nelson said in a press conference at NASA headquarters.

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His comments came in response to an independent review commissioned by NASA last year that declared there was “near zero probability” of Mars Sample Return making its proposed 2028 launch date, and “no credible” way to fulfill the mission within its current budget.

Pulling off the mission as designed would likely cost up to $11 billion, the review board found, with the samples not reaching Earth until at least 2040.

“The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive, and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long,” Nelson said. “It’s the decade of the 2040s that we’re going to be landing astronauts on Mars.”

The announcement comes as something of a blow to JPL, the La Cañada Flintridge institution tasked with managing the mission. JPL has already laid off more than 600 employees and 40 contractors this year after NASA ordered it to reduce spending in anticipation of budget cuts spurred by the challenges of Mars Sample Return.

Proposals go out soon to all NASA centers and the private aerospace sector for “a revised plan that utilizes innovation and proven technology to lower risks, to lower costs and to lower mission complexity so we can return these really precious samples to Earth in the 2030s,” said Nicky Fox, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate. The due date for proposals is next month, and those selected for further study will get NASA grants this summer.

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This essentially puts JPL in a position of having to compete for its own project.

“Right now if JPL were to come up with the answer, then I’d say JPL is gonna be sitting pretty good,” Nelson said during Monday’s news conference. “But we’re opening this up to everyone because we want to get every new and fresh idea that we can.”

NASA’s decision to outsource a solution to the Mars Sample Return problem frustrated some Mars scientists.

“What I expected is for NASA to step up and say, ‘These things are hard and we choose to do them,’ ” said Bethany L. Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech. “That is the leadership required to be the nation leading the world in space exploration.”

A joint project with the European Space Agency, Mars Sample Return would deliver rocks, rubble and dust that have already been gathered and sealed into tubes by the Perseverance rover.

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The current design relies on a lander that would retrieve those tubes from the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater and use a small rocket to ferry them into Martian orbit, where they would rendezvous with a spacecraft that would make the journey back to Earth. The rocket would touch down on Earth roughly five years after the orbiter’s launch.

The ultimate goal is to comb the samples for evidence that life has ever existed on Mars, and to help NASA plan for future crewed missions, Nelson said.

In the most recent planetary science decadal survey, a report prepared for NASA every 10 years by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, planetary scientists named the Mars Sample Return mission as the “highest scientific priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade” and argued that the program should be completed “as soon as is practicably possible with no increase or decrease in its current scope.”

But the authors cautioned that the ambitious mission shouldn’t come at the cost of other planetary science, suggesting a roughly $5-billion to $7-billion cap.

“Mars Sample Return is of fundamental strategic importance to NASA, U.S. leadership in planetary science, and international cooperation and should be completed as rapidly as possible,” the report stated. “However, its cost should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio.”

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The agency is committing to keeping the mission within that recommended budget, Nelson said. Allowing Mars Sample Return’s costs to reach the $8 billion to $11 billion the review board estimated would require NASA “to cannibalize other programs, other science programs, and there are so many that are absolutely important,” Nelson said.

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Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

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Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

Having depended on hearing aids for nearly three decades, I’m astounded by the lack of Medicare coverage for devices that can solve a problem afflicting tens of millions of older Americans.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans over age 70 have some degree of hearing loss, and over half of those 75 and older experience impairment serious enough to be considered disabling. But most don’t wear hearing aids.

Because the legislation that created Medicare nearly 60 years ago specifically excluded hearing aids, those who rely on the program’s traditional coverage must pay for them out of pocket. That expense is among the chief barriers to wider use of the devices.

Age-related hearing loss impedes basic communication and the relationships that depend on it. Expanded access to hearing aids could therefore do no less than enable more older Americans to establish and maintain the social connections that are essential to a meaningful life.

Hearing loss is like an invisible, muffling curtain that falls in front of anyone speaking. Asking people to repeat themselves can yield irritated and hurtful responses. And it’s hopeless to ask a soft-spoken person to speak up. Sometimes it’s easier just to nod and smile.

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Many older people I know choose to avoid social gatherings altogether because they can’t hear well. Without hearing aids, I’d stay home too.

Hearing loss can harm one’s health in other ways. For example, I’ve written about the need for a comprehensive approach to reducing cancer risk at older ages, including preventive services such as colorectal cancer screening. But these services rely on conversations between patients and their healthcare providers. An older patient’s ability to hear and understand such conversations shouldn’t be taken for granted or ignored.

The Food and Drug Administration did improve access to hearing aids by making some of them available without a prescription in 2022, but the over-the-counter devices are inadequate for serious hearing loss like mine. My private health insurance, meanwhile, started covering hearing aids a few years ago, providing up to $2,500 for them every five years. One hearing aid alone can cost that much or more, however.

Despite its limitations, my private coverage for hearing aids is better than nothing, which is what traditional Medicare provides.

Hearing loss is more common among lower-income people and those without advanced education. The toll from noisy workplaces compounds age-related hearing loss for some. One analysis found that most Americans with a serious hearing disability can’t afford the typical price of hearing aids.

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Many of the older adults who can’t come up with these significant out-of-pocket expenses spent their working years in low-wage jobs that our country depends on. Denying them treatment for their hearing loss is a lousy way to treat people who gave years of service to our society.

Although some older adults with hearing loss won’t benefit from hearing aids, Medicare coverage for the devices might encourage more beneficiaries to get their hearing tested so they can get the treatment that’s right for them. And while Medicare coverage alone won’t address the stigma some people associate with hearing aids, the availability of newer, more comfortable and less obvious technology might win over some refuseniks.

Legislation reintroduced with bipartisan support last year would finally correct this glaring gap in Medicare coverage by removing the hearing aid exclusion from the law. There’s no reason to delay action on this any longer. Are our representatives listening?

Mary C. White is an adjunct professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, a Public Voices fellow at AcademyHealth in partnership with the OpEd Project and a former federal epidemiologist.

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Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

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Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

A second human case of bird flu in a diary worker has been confirmed in Michigan, state and federal health officials announced Wednesday.

The symptoms were mild, consisting of conjunctivitis. The Texas dairy worker who contracted the virus in March also came down with pink eye.

At a press call on Wednesday, Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the finding was “not unexpected” and that it was a scenario “that we had been preparing for.”

He said that since the discovery of H5N1 in dairy cattle, state and federal health officials have been closely monitoring farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers and urging farmers and farmworker organizations to “be alert, not alarmed.”

Federal officials say they still believe the human health risk of bird flu is low; however, it underscores the need for people who are interacting with infected or potentially infected farm animals or birds to take precautions, including avoiding dead animals and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) if there’s a need to be in close contact.

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Though a nasal swab from the person in Michigan tested negative for influenza, an eye swab from the patient was shipped to the CDC and tested positive for influenza A(H5N1) virus.

This is the third case of H5N1 reported in the United States. A poultry worker in Colorado was identified in 2022.

Although the symptoms in the three farmworkers in the U.S. have been mild, people elsewhere in the world have suffered more severe illness, including death. According to the World Health Organization, between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 28, 2024, there have been 888 cases of human infection from 23 countries; 463 were fatal.

In preparation for a more widespread outbreak, the CDC updated its guidance for PPE in dairies and issued a nationwide order for healthcare providers to be on the lookout for novel influenza.

On Tuesday, the CDC asked clinical laboratories and health departments to increase the number of influenza samples being analyzed “to maximize the likelihood of catching a case of H5N1 in the community,” Shah said.

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The US Department of Agriculture is also expanding its surveillance and support by providing $1500 to non-infected farms to beef up biosecurity, and $100 to producers who want to buy inline samplers to test their milk. The agency will also provide $2000 per farm to cover veterinary fees for testing, as well as shipping costs to send those tests to laboratories for analysis.

There have been no cases of H5N1 detected in California’s dairy herds.

Officials said ongoing analysis of the nation’s dairy supply suggests it is safe to consume, Despite the risk to human health being low, an official with the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response said it will make Tamiflu available upon request “to jurisdictions that do not have their own stockpile and are responding to pre-symptomatic persons with exposure to confirmed or suspected infected birds, cattle or other animal exposures.”

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of the preparedness agency, said it started the “fill and finish” process for approximately 4.8 million doses of vaccine “that is well matched to the currently circulating strain of H5N1 through the national pre-pandemic influenza vaccine stockpile program.”

She said the decision to get started on H5N1 vaccines was not a response to any heightened concern, but since it takes several months to fill and finish vaccine doses, the agency “thought it made sense given what we were seeing.”

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Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

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Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

Lung-irritating pollution created by cooking with gas stoves may be contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths and cases of childhood asthma in the United States, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

For decades, scientists have known the flames from a gas stovetop produce nitrogen dioxide, a pungent gas that can inflame a person’s lungs when inhaled. But for the first time, a team of researchers from Stanford University and Oakland-based research institute PSE Healthy Energy published a nationwide estimate of the long-term health consequences associated with cooking with natural gas and propane stoves.

Researchers concluded that exposure to nitrogen dioxide emissions alone may contribute to nearly 19,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. It has also resulted in as many as 200,000 current cases of pediatric asthma compared with cooking with electric stoves, which do not produce nitrogen dioxide.

Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science.

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Stanford researcher Yannai Kashtan noted higher levels of pollution were correlated with the amount of gas that was burned. But pollution also accumulated at higher levels inside smaller homes.

“If you live in a smaller house, you’re exposed to more pollution, and that can lead to income and racial disparities in exposure,” Kashtan said. “In general, folks living in neighborhoods with higher levels of outdoor pollution also tend to have higher indoor pollution. So this environmental injustice extends indoors as well.”

The American Gas Assn., a trade organization representing more than 200 local energy companies nationwide, dismissed the findings as “misleading and unsupported.”

“Despite the impressive names on this study, the data presented here clearly does not support any linkages between gas stoves and childhood asthma or adult mortality,” the association’s president and CEO, Karen Harbert said in a statement earlier this month.

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The study is the latest examining the serious health effects associated with breathing fumes from gas stoves, which release planet-warming carbon emissions and a variety of air pollutants. In recent years, the popular household appliance has become a political hot-button issue as policymakers and regulators have weighed environmental impacts against consumer choice.

Many large cities in California, including Los Angeles, have moved toward phasing out gas stoves in newly constructed residences. Earlier this month, the California Assembly advanced a bill to the Senate that would require gas stoves to come with warning labels detailing the pollution and health effects that can arise from cooking with gas.

Gas stoves emit a variety of pollutants, including asphyxiating carbon monoxide, cancer-causing formaldehyde and benzene. The flame also creates nitrogen dioxide, a precursor to smog and a pollutant that can cause difficulty breathing.

Environmental groups say consumers should be notified about these pollutants and the potential harm they can cause.

“Gas stoves create pollution in our homes, increasing the risk of childhood asthma and other respiratory problems for our families,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director for California Public Interest Research Group. “However, this risk has largely been hidden from the public. Consumers deserve the truth when it comes to the danger of cooking with gas. Warning labels will give consumers what they need to make informed decisions when they purchase appliances for their homes.”

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Kashtan and other researchers had previously discovered cooking with gas stoves presented a similar cancer risk as inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. They also found some gas stoves leaked contaminants even when the burners were off.

The effects are especially devastating to children, whose smaller and still-developing lungs need to take more breaths than adults, Kashtan said. Older adults, especially those with cardiovascular or respiratory illness, are also more vulnerable to pollution from gas stoves.

To alleviate indoor air pollution, experts recommend using ventilation hoods and opening windows while cooking,

Starting in 2008, California required new and redeveloped homes to have ventilation that could prevent pollution from building up indoors. But during their research, measuring emissions in more than 100 households across the country, Yannai said they found many kitchens didn’t have ventilation hoods at all.

Although the health effects of breathing these pollutants are clear, researchers still wonder to what degree these conditions could be reversible. As communities take steps to mitigate their exposure or transition away, he said we could soon see the results.

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“It’s never too late to stop breathing in pollution,” he said.

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