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Arab spacecraft enters orbit around Mars in historic flight

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Arab spacecraft enters orbit around Mars in historic flight

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on Tuesday in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

Ground controllers at the UAE’s space center in Dubai rose to their feet and broke into applause when word came that the craft, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, had reached the end of its seven-month, 300-million-mile journey and had begun circling the red planet, where it will gather detailed data on Mars’ atmosphere.

The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes in an intricate, high-stakes maneuver that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars’ gravity. It took a nail-biting 11 minutes for the signal confirming success to reach Earth.

Tensions were high: Over the years, Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of missions from various countries.

A visibly relieved Omran Sharaf, the mission’s director, declared, “To the people of the UAE and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the UAE reaching Mars.”

Two more unmanned spacecraft from the U.S. and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars over the next several days. All three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.

Amal’s arrival puts the UAE in a league of just five space agencies in history that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission. As the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, the flight is a point of intense pride for the oil-rich nation as it seeks a future in space.

An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control and said: “Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE. … Your joy is indescribable.”

About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.

A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land in May to look for signs of ancient life.

A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harbored microscopic life.

If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.

For months, Amal’s journey had been tracked by the UAE’s state-run media with rapturous enthusiasm. Landmarks across the UAE, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, have glowed red to mark the spacecraft’s anticipated arrival. Billboards depicting Amal tower over Dubai’s highways. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, casting even more attention on Amal.

If all goes as planned, Amal over the next two months will settle into an exceptionally high, elliptical orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers), from which it will survey the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere around the entire planet, at all times of day and in all seasons.

It joins six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.

Amal had to perform a series of turns and engine firings to maneuver into orbit, reducing its speed to 11,200 mph (18,000 kph) from over 75,000 mph (121,000 kph).

The control room full of Emirati engineers held their breath as Amal disappeared behind Mars’ dark side. Then it re-emerged from the planet’s shadow, and contact was restored on schedule. Screens at the space center revealed that Amal had managed to do what had eluded many missions over the decades.

“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the UAE’s space agency.

The success delivers a tremendous boost to the UAE’s space ambitions. The country’s first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. That’s 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, tweeted congratulations, saying: “Your bold endeavor to explore the Red Planet will inspire many others to reach for the stars. We hope to join you at Mars soon” with Perseverance.

In developing Amal, the UAE chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.

The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colorado, before being sent to Japan for launch last July.

The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch; that excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated — and expensive — because of their rovers. NASA’s Perseverance mission totals $3 billion.

The UAE, a federation of seven skeikhdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country’s scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.

“Today you have households of every single age group passionate about space, understanding a lot of science,” said al-Amiri, the chair of the space agency. “This has opened a broad range of possibilities for everyone in the UAE and also, I truly hope, within the Arab world.”

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

Americans are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey.

The national Harris Poll conducted over the weekend found a significant uptick in positive sentiment about the pandemic — and a drop in fears of the virus.

“The last year has certainly been difficult for many Americans and their families, but in the face of all the hardships and social distancing efforts, many have remained optimistic and resilient when it comes to their mental health,” John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, said in a statement.

More than half, or 52 percent, of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they are not afraid of dying as a result of catching COVID-19, the highest mark since July 2020.

For most of the year, the number of people who said they were frightened of being killed by the virus outnumbered the alternative.

More than 516,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but both deaths and cases have recently been on the decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of the adult population is now vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The poll found a 15 percent increase in how many Americans approve of how the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.

About 66 percent gave the nation’s inoculation efforts the thumbs up, compared to 51 percent just one month ago.

The findings came as President Biden on Tuesday said the US will have enough vaccines for every US adult by the end of May, two months earlier than previously anticipated.

Despite the stepped-up pace of vaccine production, the massive effort to get every American jabbed could extend well into the summer, officials said.

Biden said he hoped that the nation would be back to normal sometime before “this time next year.”

Still, when asked if they currently think there is light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said yes, according to the poll.

They were also more optimistic about the effects of the pandemic, with 66 percent overall saying their mental health has been affected in a positive way.

About 30 percent of those respondents said they’ve found more things to be grateful for during the crisis; 28 percent said they’ve taken more “me time” to do things for themselves; and 25 percent said they’ve been praying more.

“While Americans remain vigilant over the pandemic,” Gerzema said, “it is an encouraging sign to see greater acceptance of the vaccine, a belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a declining sentiment in fear of dying from the virus.”

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Deep Nostalgia tool animates photos with creepy results

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Deep Nostalgia tool animates photos with creepy results

This technology was built in the name of nostalgia but is being used in the name of nonsense.

Late last month, genealogy website MyHeritage announced a new tool for animating photos called “Deep Nostalgia.” But while the tech was intended to let users “bring beloved ancestors back to life” and “experience your family history like never before,” many internet denizens have been finding other far less wholesome applications for it. 

“So I wanted to know how the recent #DeepLearning facial animations services do with busts and decided to give that botched Christiano Ronaldo statue a spin,” one Twitter user captioned a “#DeeplyDisturbed” video created with the MyHeritage software to show the bronze bust uncannily moving about. 

An animated version of the Mona Lisa is less disturbing, but still unsettling. 

“Since that #DeepNostalgia thing is gaining popularity, I found something that #InternetNeverForgets,” tweeted another user who experimented with the software to animate Beyoncé’s face mid-performance. 

“Frederick Douglass, the mighty abolitionist, was the single most photographed person in the United States during the nineteenth century. Here’s how he might’ve looked in motion. Brace yourself and press play,” tweeted a user who decided to use the tool for something closer to its intended purpose. 

MyHeritage is aware that the tool — created using tech developed by deep-learning company D-ID — could thrust photos deep into weird territory.

“Some people love the Deep Nostalgia™ feature and consider it magical, while others find it creepy and dislike it,” the company wrote in Deep Nostalgia’s FAQ section. “Indeed, the results can be controversial and it’s hard to stay indifferent to this technology.” 

With that in mind, MyHeritage invites users to “please use this feature on your own historical photos and not on photos featuring living people without their permission.” As well, the ability to include speech in the videos has purposefully not been included in order to “prevent abuse.” 

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Benefits of microdosing LSD are purely placebo: study

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Benefits of microdosing LSD are purely placebo: study

The positive impacts of microdosing hallucinogens may be no more than a hallucination, researchers have found.

Microdosing — or the practice of regularly using low doses of psychedelic drugs including LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — has become a relatively mainstream practice thanks to its trendiness in Silicon Valley, where CEOs, including Steve Jobs, have endorsed it as a productivity hack. A new study, however, has found that the purported benefits of taking a very small amount of hallucinogenics daily may in fact be more placebo than reality. 

In findings published Tuesday in the scientific journal eLife, researchers with the Imperial College London reported that their study of 191 participants — the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to date — found that “anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.” 

Researchers virtually guided study participants — all of whom were already regularly microdosing — through the process of preparing themselves four week’s worth of envelopes containing either a placebo gel capsule or one with a low LSD dose, each envelope bearing a QR code they logged following consumption. 

At the end of the trial period, researchers found that participants reported an improvement in psychological well being across the board, whether they were taking actual acid or placebos. 

“All psychological outcomes improved significantly from baseline to after the four weeks long dose period for the microdose group; however, the placebo group also improved and no significant between-groups differences were observed,” the scientists wrote. 

The report is full of numerous concessions regarding the the study’s weaknesses, including that it had a small participant pool and was performed by citizens, who were not in a clinical setting. 

Still, the citizen-science approach was vital as “restrictive drug policies make placebo-controlled studies on psychedelics difficult and expensive, in particular for microdosing, which involves taking psychedelics over a longer time period.” Unaffiliated scientists agree that the findings should be respected.

“This suggests that the perceived beneficial effects of microdosing psychedelics in this group are more likely to be a result of positive expectation than the capacity of the drug to induce a beneficial effect,” scientist James Rucker told the Guardian of the findings.  

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