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Half the Milky Way’s sun-like stars could be home to Earth-like planets

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Nearly 4,300 exoplanets have been discovered by astronomers, and it’s quite obvious now our galaxy is filled with them. But the point of looking for these new worlds is more than just an exercise in stamp collecting—it’s to find one that could be home to life, be it future humans who have found a way to travel those distances or extraterrestrial life that’s made a home for itself already. The best opportunity to find something like that is to find a planet that resembles Earth.

And what better way to look for Earth 2.0 than to search around stars similar to the sun? A new analysis of exoplanet data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which operated from 2009 to 2018, has come up with some new predictions for how many stars in the Milky Way galaxy that are comparable to the sun in temperature and age are likely to be orbited by a rocky, potentially habitable planet like Earth. When applied to current estimates of 4.1 billion sun-like stars in the galaxy, their model suggests there are at minimum 300 million with at least one habitable planet. 

The model’s average, however, posits that one in two sun-like stars could have a habitable planet, causing that figure to swell to over 2 billion. Even less conservative predictions suggest it could be over 3.6 billion.

The new study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it will be soon, and it is due to be published in the Astronomical Journal.

“This appears to be a very careful study and deals with really thorny issues about extrapolating from the Kepler catalogue,” says Adam Frank, a physicist and astronomer at the University of Rochester, who was not involved with the study. “The goal is to get a complete, reliable, and accurate estimate for the average number of potentially habitable planets around stars. They seem to have made a good run at that.”

Scientists have made several attempts in the past to use Kepler data to work out how many sun-like stars in the galaxy have potentially habitable exoplanets in their orbit. But these studies have provided answers that ranged from less than 1% to more than 100% (i.e., multiple planets around these stars). It’s a reflection of how hard it’s been to work with this data, says Steve Bryson of NASA Ames Research Center in California, who led the new work.

Two major issues have created this large window: incomplete data, and the need to cull false detections from the Kepler data set.

The new study addresses both of these problems. It’s the first of its kind to use the full Kepler exoplanet data set (more than 4,000 detections from 150,000 stars), but it’s also using stellar data from Gaia, the European Space Agency’s mission to map every star in the Milky Way. All that helped make the final estimates more accurate, with smaller uncertainties. And this is after scientists have spent years analyzing the Kepler catalogue to strip away obscuring elements and ensure that only real exoplanets are left. Armed with both Kepler and Gaia data, Bryson and his team were able to determine the rate of formation for sun-like stars in the galaxy, the number of stars likely to have rocky planets (with radiuses 0.5 to 1.5 times Earth’s), and the likelihood those planets would be habitable.

On average, Bryson and his team predict, 37 to 60% of sun-like stars in the Milky Way should be home to at least one potentially habitable planet. Optimistically, the figure could be as high as 88%. The conservative calculations pull this figure down to 7% of sun-like stars in the galaxy (hence 300 million)—and on the basis of that number, the team predicts there are four sun-like stars with habitable planets within 30 light-years of Earth. 

“One of the original goals of the Kepler mission was to compute exactly this number,” says Bryson. “We have always intended to do this.” 

Habitability has to do with the chances a planet has temperatures moderate enough for liquid water to exist on the surface (since water is essential for life as we know it). Most studies figure this out by gauging the distance of an exoplanet from its host star and whether its orbit is not too close and not too far—the so-called Goldilocks zone.

According to Bryson, orbital distance is a useful metric when you’re examining one specific star. But when you’re looking at many stars, they’ll all exhibit different brightnesses that deliver different amounts of heat to surrounding objects, which means their habitable zones will vary. The team instead chose to think about habitability in terms of the volume of light hitting the surface of an exoplanet, which the paper calls the “instellation flux.” 

Through stellar brightness data, “we are measuring the true temperature of the planet—whether or not it is truly in the habitable zone—for all the planets around all the stars in our sample,” says Bryson. You don’t get the same sort of reliable temperature figures working with distances, he says. 

Though Bryson claims this study’s uncertainties are smaller than those in previous efforts, they are still quite large. This is mainly because the team is working with such a small sample of discovered rocky exoplanets. Kepler has identified over 2,800 exoplanets, only some of which orbit sun-like stars. It’s not an ideal number to use to predict the existence of hundreds of millions of others in the galaxy. “By having so few observations, it limits what you can say about what the truth is,” says Bryson.

Lastly, the new study assumes a simple model for these exoplanets that could depart dramatically from conditions in the real world (some of these stars may form  binary star systems with other stars, for example). Plugging more variables into the model would help paint a more accurate picture, but that requires more precise data that we don’t really have yet. 

But it’s studies like these that could help us acquire that data. The whole point of Kepler was to help scientists figure out what kinds of interstellar objects they ought to devote more resources to studying to find extraterrestrial life, especially with space-based telescopes whose observation time is limited. These are the instruments (such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the ESA’s PLATO telescope) that could determine whether a potentially habitable exoplanet has an atmosphere or is home to any potential biosignatures, and studies like this latest one can help engineers design telescopes more suited to these tasks. 

“Almost every sun-like star in the galaxy has a planet where life could form,” says Frank. “Humanity has been asking this question for more than 2,500 years, and now we not only know the answer, we are refining our knowledge of that answer. This paper tells us there are a lot of planets out there in the right place for life to form.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Rusty but intact: Nazi Enigma cipher machine found in Baltic Sea

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The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Enlarge / The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

Divers scouring the Baltic Sea for discarded fishing nets have stumbled on the rarest of finds: an Enigma encryption machine used by the Nazis to encode secret messages during World War II.

The electromechanical device was used extensively by the Nazi military to encrypt communications, which typically were transmitted by radio in Morse Code. Three or more rotors on the device used a stream cipher to convert each letter of the alphabet to a different letter.

The Enigma had the appearance of a typewriter. An operator would use the keys to type plaintext, and the converted ciphertext would be reflected in 26 lights above the keys—one light for each converted letter. The converted letters would then be transcribed to derive the ciphertext.

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How the US, UK and China are planning to roll out vaccines

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The vaccines are coming. The UK became the first country in the West to approve a covid-19 vaccine for emergency use on December 2, specifically the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which has completed Phase 3 trials. But the US, EU, and many other countries are expected to follow suit in the following days and weeks. The imminent arrival of vaccines not only means that countries face a huge logistical challenge to distribute them—which is complicated by the fact the two most promising vaccines require ultra-cold temperatures—but they also have to grapple with hard choices over who gets them first. 

Here’s how different countries are making their decisions on distributing vaccines to their populations. 

United States

How many doses will be available? Up to 40 million doses are expected to be on offer in the US by the end of 2020—25 million of which will come from Pfizer-BioNTech, and 12.5 million from Moderna, according to Reuters. Since the vaccines each require two doses spaced several weeks apart, this will be enough to vaccinate 20 million people—but not all shipments will come at once. The first shipment will reportedly cover 3.2 million people, with 5-10 million more doses delivered each week after that.  

Who will get it first? In the US, individual states are responsible for creating their own vaccine distribution plans. They are meant to follow general guidance from the CDC’s Interim Playbook for Covid-19, which was shaped by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) with input from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

ACIP met on December 1, and voted on the recommended first phase of the distribution plan. This is known as 1a, and will prioritize 21 million health care workers and 3 million adults in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, who are particularly vulnerable. 

USA vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

The following phases will add other people to the list: 1b will prioritize other essential workers, such as school staff, while 1c prioritizes adults older than 65 and others with other medical issues that increase the risk of serious complications from covid.

Phase two would cover people who work in schools, transportation, congregate housing facilities, like nursing homes, and other places with high concentrations of people. Phase three includes young adults and children—in an attempt to stop super spreading events—as well as other essential workers not previously covered. Phase four would include everyone else. 

But the CDC guidelines leave a lot for state and local governments to interpret and implement. 

Even in phase 1, different states have different definitions for essential workers, for example. ACIP has yet to discuss anything beyond phase 1, leaving many open questions about how to prioritize the rest of the population. One analysis of 47 published state plans by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about half explicitly mentioned race and health equity as a factor for prioritization. 

China

How many doses will be available? Chinese scientists say the country will have 600 million doses ready this year, the South China Morning Post reports. Wang Junzhi, a member of the nation’s vaccine task force, told journalists on December 4 that the doses of inactivated vaccines will be ready for launch before the end of the year. He said a “major announcement”on vaccine trials was expected in the coming weeks. 

China vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

China has five vaccine candidates from four manufacturers in phase three clinical trials, including the frontrunners from Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. While none have yet been approved for commercial use, they have been administered in so-called “pre-tests” in China, where coronavirus numbers are low, and are also undergoing phase three trials in 15 countries abroad. 

Who will get it first? That question’s already been answered. Emergency authorization was granted to the two leading candidates earlier this year: Since June, an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army members have received shots, and essential city workers started getting vaccinated in July. All in all, roughly one million people have received emergency authorization vaccines so far, including employees of state-owned enterprises, Huawei employees in 180 countries, and Chinese diplomats. 

“An emergency use authorization, which is based on Chinese vaccine management law, allows unapproved vaccine candidates to be used among people who are at high risk of getting infected on a limited period,” said Zheng Zhongwei, the director of the Science and Technology Development Center of China’s National Health Commission, in an interview with China’s state television channel on August 22.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to make the vaccine available around the world as a“global public good.” In October, China joined the Covax Facility, a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to equitably distribute vaccines. The US is not part of that group. 

The countries prioritized for distribution of the five Chinese vaccine candidates are primarily those which have hosted trials, which in turn is shaped by China’s strategic interest.  These include Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, which have signed deals for 46 million, 50 million, and 50 million Sinovac doses respectively; and Mexico, which has a deal with CanSino Biologics for 35 million doses. 

Little is known about how the Chinese government is prioritizing vaccine distribution domestically, though local reports suggest that individual provinces are making their own plans to buy vaccine doses, which will cost 200 RMB per dose (roughly $30.) The state insurance plan will not cover the cost. 

UK

How many doses will be available? The UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in the general public on December 2. It will start inoculating its population of 67 million people through the state-run National Health Service, with the first vaccinations to be given to the highest-priority individuals from December 7. The UK bought 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine; since each person requires two doses, so it has enough to vaccinate about a third of the population. It has also purchased 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, and smaller quantities of other vaccine candidates, bringing the total it has bought to 355 million—in short, more than enough to vaccinate everyone. 

Who will get it first? The UK’s decision relied on a group called the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent committee of academics and medical experts responsible for advising government ministers. For its phase one delivery, it divided the population into nine different groups, recommended vaccinating them in this order of priority, which the government has adopted:

  • Residents and staff working in elderly care homes
  • Everyone over 80 years old plus health and social care workers
  • Everyone over 75 years old
  • Everyone over 70 years old plus “clinically extremely vulnerable” individuals, which does not include pregnant people or those under the age of 18. 
  • Everyone over 65 years old
  • Adults aged 18 to 65 years in an at-risk group. This includes people with chronic diseases, diabetes, learning difficulties, morbid obesity or severe mental illness.  
  • Everyone over 60 years old
  • Everyone over 55 years old
  • Everyone over 50 years old

The JCVI has publicly explained its thinking in a 25-page document stating that “current evidence strongly indicates that the single greatest risk of mortality from covid-19 is increasing age.” It has not yet announced plans beyond phase one.

Elsewhere

Russia: Russia became the first country anywhere to approve a vaccine back in August 2020. President Vladimir Putin himself announced its Sputnik V vaccine had been granted authorization on August 11, before phase 3 trials had even started. Those are still underway, but the country is already preparing to start mass immunizations, with Putin ordering officials to start making the necessary preparations just hours after the news of the UK’s approval came in. Vaccinations will reportedly begin with healthcare workers and teachers. They will be free of charge, and the Kremlin says they will be carried out on a voluntary basis. Russia also says it will have up to 500 million doses ready for export. 
Other countries: The options are limited for many lower and middle income countries, since the world’s richest nations—including the 27 member-states of the EU as well as Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan—have already pre-ordered half of the world’s expected available supply. Ninety two of these countries have joined the Covax Facility, which has secured 700 million doses and aims to cover 20% of the population of lower and middle income countries by the end of 2021.

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3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

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Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

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