A new book asks: What makes humans call some animals pests?

We spend so much time making sure wildlife stays away from us, whether that’s setting traps, building fences or putting out poisons. Sure, unwanted guests are annoying. But why do we consider some animals “pests”? It’s all about perspective, says science journalist Bethany Brookshire. “We can put poison out for rats and protest their use as laboratory animals. We can shoot deer in the fall and show their adorable offspring to our children in the spring,” she writes in her new book, Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.
Brookshire argues that we deem animals “pests” when we fear them (like snakes). Or when they thrive in a niche we unintentionally created for them (think rats in the New York subway). Or when they find a way to live in a habitat now dominated by humans (all those deer in the suburbs). Sometimes we demonize an animal if we feel like it’s threatening our ability to control the landscape (like coyotes that attack our livestock, pets and even children).

Through the lens of science, history, culture, religion, personal anecdotes and a big dose of humor, Brookshire breaks down how our perspective shapes our relationships with our animal neighbors. She also goes into the field — trailing rats, hunting pythons, taming feral cats, tracking drugged-up bears — to see firsthand how pests are treated.

Science News spoke with Brookshire, a former staff writer for Science News for Students (now Science News Explores), about what we can learn from pests and how we can co­exist with them. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SN: What inspired you to write this book?

Brookshire: I wrote a news story that was about mice living with humans (SN: 4/19/17). [It was based on a study] showing that we’ve had house mice since we’ve had houses. I love the fact that humans have had these other animals taking advantage of the ecosystems that we create basically since we started living settled life. Every location that has humans has their “rat.” Sometimes that’s a rat, and sometimes it’s a pigeon or a cockatoo or a lizard or a horse. It’s not about what these animals are doing. Animals live in ecosystems that we create, and we hate animals that live too close.

SN: What surprised you during your research?

Brookshire: The reflexiveness of people’s responses [to pests]. People respond emotionally. When you make them pause and think about it, they go, “Oh wow, that doesn’t make any sense. I should not be caught trying to kill a raccoon with a sword.” But in the moment, you’re so wrapped up in the violation of what you see as your personal space.

The other thing is the extent to which our disdain of pests is wrapped up in social justice. A lot of times we see this hatred and disgust for animals that we see as “low class.” High-class people don’t have rats. And that’s really about social justice, about infrastructure and the ability of people to live in clean houses, store their food properly or even have a house at all.

Also, the way we deal with these animals often has vestiges of colonialism, as in the chapter on elephants. [In Kenya, European colonists] made people grow corn and sugarcane, which elephants love. Colonization created national park systems that assumed that humans had no place in wilderness, shoving out Indigenous pastoralists. Colonization created the market for poached ivory. And colonizing people assumed that Indigenous people did not like elephants or know their benefits. We are living with the consequences. Many modern efforts at elephant protection are spearheaded by Western people, and they assume the biggest issue with elephants is poaching and that Indigenous people don’t know what’s best for themselves or the elephants. In fact, human-elephant conflict [which includes elephant crop raids] is the far bigger problem, and Indigenous people have a long history of coexisting with elephants.

SN: In the book, you looked at many different cultures and included Indigenous voices.

Brookshire: It’s important to realize there’s more than one way to look at the world. By learning from other cultures, it helps us understand our biases. It’s only when you get outside of your own beliefs that you realize that’s not just the way things are.

SN: That shows up when you write about the Karni Mata Temple in India, also known as the Temple of Rats. Temple rats are not treated as pests, but a rat in a house would be.
Brookshire: That’s the result of context. And you see that in Western cultures all the time. People love squirrels. Well, they’re basically rats with better PR. Then you have people who have pet rats, who would probably scream if a sewer rat ran by.

SN: Are there any animals that you consider a pest?

Brookshire: No. The animal that I’ve probably come away with the most negative impression of is humans. It’s funny because we think we can extinct anything. And I love how these animals have gone: “Oh, poison? That’s cute.” “Oh, a trap? You’re funny.” We’ve tried to use electric fences on elephants [to stop them from eating crops]. And elephants are like, “Guess what? Ivory doesn’t conduct electricity.” Even if they don’t have tusks, elephants just pick up a log [to destroy the fence].

SN: Are you hoping to change people’s minds about pests?

Brookshire: I hope that they will ask why they respond to pests the way they do. Instead of just going, “This animal bothers me,” ask why, and does it make sense. I also hope it opens more curiosity about the animals around us. I learned from Indigenous groups just how much knowledge they have of the animals in their ecosystem. I hope more people learn. A world that you know a lot about is just a better world to live in.

A natural gene drive could steer invasive rodents on islands to extinction

In the battle against the invasive house mouse on islands, scientists are using the rodent’s own genes against it.

With the right tweaks, introducing a few hundred genetically altered mice could drive an island’s invasive mouse population to extinction in about 25 years, researchers report in the Nov. 15 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The trick is adding the changes to a section of mouse DNA that gets inherited far more often than it should.
Scientists have been creating similar extra-inheritable genes — called gene drives — in the lab. The chunks are designed to get passed on to most or all of an animal’s offspring instead of the usual half, and make those offspring infertile in the bargain. Scientists have used gene drives to reduce populations of mosquitoes and fruit flies (SN: 12/17/18).

But mammals are a different story. Scientists have previously synthesized a gene drive that gets passed on in mice about 80 percent of the time (SN: 1/23/19). But the drive isn’t strong enough to stop a population quickly.

Luckily, nature has it handled. A haplotype is a naturally occurring group of genes that gets passed on as a unit during replication. The genome of the house mouse (Mus musculus) has a particular haplotype, called the t haplotype, that gets passed on to offspring more than 95 percent of the time, instead of the typical 50 percent.

This natural gene drive has benefits, says Anna Lindholm, a biologist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the study. It “evolved naturally and continues to be present in the wild, and we have as yet not found resistance to it in wild populations,” she says. It’s also not found in species besides M. musculus, meaning it probably won’t spread to other noninvasive mice.

Molecular biologist Paul Thomas and his colleagues decided to target the t haplotype with the cut-and-paste molecular tool called CRISPR/Cas9 (SN: 8/24/16). They used CRISPR to insert the gene sequence for the CRISPR tool itself into the t haplotype. When a male mouse carrying the altered t haplotype mates with a female, the inserted genes for the CRISPR tool spring into action. It uses a special genetic guide to target and inactivate the gene for the hormone prolactin — rendering any baby female mice infertile.

The best part is that the natural t haplotype can also sterilize males, says Thomas, of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Males with two copies — homozygous males — won’t reproduce at all.

“If you could get a t to spread through a population, you could get homozygous males being sterile,” he says. “And with the addition of the CRISPR element on top of that, we get homozygous females that are also sterile.”
To find out how well the t haplotype mice do on an island where mice are wreaking havoc on biodiversity, the scientists used a computer simulation of an island with 200,000 mice. The team found that adding just 256 mice with the CRISPR-altered t haplotype could successfully drive the mouse population to zero in around 25 years. Even without CRISPR, adding mice with the normal t haplotype could tank the population in about 43 years.

But models aren’t mice. In a final test, Thomas and his colleagues made the model reality. The team altered the t haplotype in a small group of mice in the lab and used genetic tests to show that those mice would pass on their new genetics 95 percent of the time.

“This is a clever idea, to build on the t haplotype natural drive system and use CRISPR, not for spreading the construct, but for damaging genes necessary for female fertility,” Lindholm says. “This is a big advance in the development of new tools to control invasive mouse populations.”

The next step, Thomas says, will be to test the effects in real populations of mice in secure enclosures, to find out if the genetically tweaked t can stop mice from reproducing. The scientists also want to ensure that any engineered mice released into the wild have some safety mechanism in place, so other mice elsewhere remain unaffected.

The final version might target tiny mutations that only occur on one island where the pest population is isolated, Thomas suggests. If the mouse escaped onto the mainland, its altered genes would have no effect on the local mice. The scientists also want to consult with people living in the area, as officials did when genetically modified mosquitoes were released in Florida (SN: 5/14/21).

Finally, he notes, 25 years is a long wait for some endangered island populations. “We would love to see CRISPR work faster,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress.”

A new portable device can reveal a chili pepper’s heat

Just how hot is your chili pepper? A new chili-shaped device could quickly signal whether adding the pepper to a meal might set your mouth ablaze.

Called the Chilica-pod, the device detects capsaicin, a chemical compound that helps give peppers their sometimes painful kick. In general, the more capsaicin a pepper has, the hotter it tastes. The Chilica-pod is sensitive, capable of detecting extremely low levels of the fiery molecule, researchers report in the Oct. 23 ACS Applied Nano Materials.

The device could someday be used to test cooked meals or fresh peppers, says analytical chemist Warakorn Limbut of Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai, Thailand. People with a capsaicin allergy could use the gadget to avoid the compound, or farmers could test harvested peppers to better indicate their spiciness, he says.
A pepper’s relative spiciness typically is conveyed in Scoville heat units — an imperfect measurement determined by a panel of human taste testers. Other more precise methods for determining spiciness are time-intensive and involve expensive equipment, making the methods unsuitable for a quick answer.

Enter the portable, smartphone-compatible Chilica-pod. Built by Limbut and colleagues, the instrument’s sensor is composed of stacks of graphene sheets. When a drop of a chili pepper and ethanol solution is added to the sensor, the capsaicin from the pepper triggers the movement of electrons among the graphene atoms. The more capsaicin the solution has, the stronger the electrical current through the sheets.

The Chilica-pod registers that electrical activity and, once its “stem” is plugged into a smartphone, sends the information to an app for analysis. The device can detect capsaicin levels as low as 0.37 micromoles per liter of solution, equivalent to the amount in a pepper with no heat, one test showed.

Limbut’s team used the Chilica-pod to individually measure six dried chili peppers from a local market. The peppers’ capsaicin concentrations ranged from 7.5 to 90 micromoles per liter of solution, the team found. When translated to Scoville heat units, that range corresponds to the spice of peppers like serrano or cayenne — mild varieties compared to the blazing hot Carolina reaper, one of the world’s hottest peppers (SN: 4/9/18).

Paul Bosland, a plant geneticist and chili breeder at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces who wasn’t involved in the study, notes that capsaicin is just one of at least 24 related compounds that give peppers heat. “I would hope that [the device] could read them all,” he says.

This robotic pill clears mucus from the gut to deliver meds

A mucus-wicking robotic pill may offer a new way to deliver meds.

The multivitamin-sized device houses a motor and a cargo hold for drugs, including ones that are typically given via injections or intravenously, such as insulin and some antibiotics. If people could take such drugs orally, they could potentially avoid daily shots or a hospital stay, which would be “a huge game changer,” says MIT biomedical engineer Shriya Srinivasan.

But drugs that enter the body via the mouth face a tough journey. They encounter churning stomach acid, raging digestive enzymes and sticky slicks of mucus in the gut. Intestinal mucus “sort of acts like Jell-O,” Srinivasan says. The goo can trap drug particles, preventing them from entering the bloodstream.

The new device, dubbed RoboCap, whisks away this problem. The pill uses surface grooves, studs and torpedo-inspired fins to scrub away intestinal mucus like a miniature brush whirling inside a bottle. In experiments in pigs, RoboCap tunneled through mucus lining the walls of the small intestine, depositing insulin or the IV antibiotic vancomycin along the way, Srinivasan and colleagues report September 28 in Science Robotics. After churning for about 35 minutes, the pill continued its trip through the gut and eventually out of the body.

RoboCap is the latest pill-like gadget made to be swallowed. In 2019, some of the same researchers who developed RoboCap debuted a different device­ — one that injects drugs by pricking the inside of the stomach (SN: 2/7/19). That pea-sized injector was not designed to work in the small intestine, where some drugs are most easily absorbed. The RoboCap may also be able to deliver larger drug payloads, Srinivasan says.

‘Fen, Bog & Swamp’ reminds readers why peatlands matter

A recent TV ad features three guys lost in the woods, debating whether they should’ve taken a turn at a pond, which one guy argues is a marsh. “Let’s not pretend you know what a marsh is,” the other snaps. “Could be a bog,” offers the third.

It’s an exchange that probably wouldn’t surprise novelist Annie Proulx. While the various types of peatlands — wetlands rich in partially decayed material called peat — do blend together, I can’t help but think, after reading her latest book, that a historical distaste and underappreciation of wetlands in Western society has led to the average person’s confusion over basic peatland vocabulary.

In Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis, Proulx seeks to fill the gaps. She details three types of peatland: fens, which are fed by streams and rivers; bogs, fed by rainwater; and swamps, distinguishable by their trees and shrubs. While all three ecosystems are found around most of the world, Proulx focuses primarily on northwestern Europe and North America, where the last few centuries of modern agriculture led to a huge demand for dry land. Wet, muddy and smelly, wetlands were a nightmare for farmers and would-be developers. Since the 1600s, U.S. settlers have drained more than half of the country’s wetlands; just 1 percent of British fens remains today.
Only recently have the consequences of these losses become clear. “We are now in the embarrassing position of having to relearn the importance of these strange places,” Proulx writes. For one, peatlands have great ecological value, supporting a variety of wildlife. They also sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and some peatlands prevent shoreline erosion, while buffering land from storm surges (SN: 3/17/18, p. 20). But the book doesn’t spend too much time on nitty-gritty ecology. Instead, Proulx investigates these environments in the context of their relationship with people.

Known for her fiction, Proulx, who penned The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” draws on historical accounts, literature and archaeological digs to imagine places lost to time. She challenges the notion that wetlands are purely unpleasant or disturbing — think Shrek’s swamp, where only an ogre would want to live, or the Swamps of Sadness in The Neverending Story that swallow up Atreyu’s horse.

Proulx jumps back as far as 20,000 years ago to the bottom of the North Sea, which at the time was a hilly swath called Doggerland. When sea levels rose in the seventh century B.C., people there learned to thrive on the region’s developing fens, hunting for fish and eels. In Ireland, “bog bodies” — many thought to be human sacrifices — have been preserved in the peat for thousands of years; Proulx imagines torchlit ceremonies where people were offered to the mud, a connection to the natural world that is hard for many people to comprehend today. These spaces were integrated into the local cultures, from Renaissance paintings of wetlands to British lingo such as didder (the way a bog quivers when stepped on). Proulx also reflects on her own childhood memories — wandering through wetlands in Connecticut, a swamp in Vermont — and describes how she, like writer Henry David Thoreau, finds beauty in these places. “It is … possible to love a swamp,” she says.

Fens, bogs and swamps are technically distinct, but they’re also fluid; one wetland may transition into another depending on its water source. This same fluidity is reflected in the book, where Proulx flits from one wetland to another, from one part of the world to another, from one millennium to another. At times didactic and meandering, Proulx will veer off to discuss humankind’s destructive tendency not just in wetlands, but nature in general, broadly rehashing aspects of the climate crisis that most readers interested in the environment are probably already familiar with. I was most enthralled — and heartbroken — by the stories I had never heard before: of “Yde Girl,” a redheaded teenager sacrificed to a bog; the zombie fires in Arctic peatlands that burn underground; and the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird missing from southern U.S. swamps for almost a century.

Ancient fish fossils highlight the strangeness of our vertebrate ancestors

My, what small teeth they had.

A newfound treasure trove of ancient fish fossils unearthed in southern China is opening a window into the earliest history of jawed vertebrates — a group that encompasses 99 percent of all living vertebrates on Earth, including humans. The fossil site, dated from 439 million to 436 million years ago, includes a revealing variety of never-before-seen small, toothy, bony fish species.

The diversity of the fossils at this one site not only fills a glaring gap in the fossil record, but also highlights the strangeness that such a gap exists, researchers report in the Sept. 29 Nature.

“These discoveries confirm what we’ve been arguing for” for years, based on smaller bits of fossils, says Michael Coates, a paleobiologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the research.

Genetic analyses had previously pointed to this time period, known as the early Silurian Period, as an era of rapid diversification of jawed vertebrates. But the toothy fishes seemed to have left few traces in the fossil record. Instead, as far as the fossil record was concerned, jawless fishes appeared to rule the waves at the time. And what jawed fishes have been preserved were rarely bony; most have been chondrichthyans, ancient cartilaginous ancestors of modern sharks and rays.

The Chongqing Lagerstätte — paleontologists’ word for a rich assemblage of diverse species all preserved together at one site — “fundamentally changes that picture,” write paleontologist You-an Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues in the study. The site is teeming with toothy, bony fishes, particularly armored placoderms, but bears just one chondrichthyan.
The first creatures to develop a backbone were fish, and they did it around 480 million years ago (SN: 10/25/18). Genetic analyses have suggested that by about 450 million years ago, those fish also developed jaws, the better to chomp each other with. But the earliest complete fossils of such jawed fish appear relatively late in the fossil record, about 425 million years ago. By the Devonian Period, which spanned from 419 million to 359 million years ago, jawed fishes were a global phenomenon, earning that era the nickname “Age of Fishes” (SN: 7/17/18).

The discovery also hints that the ancestor of both types of jawed fishes, bony and
cartilaginous, could have arisen earlier than thought, Coates says. It’s possible that the last common ancestor of modern jawed vertebrates appeared during the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, which began around 471 million years ago (SN: 1/24/17). To date, scientists have found only three varieties of fish body fossils dating to that time period, all jawless, finless and “vaguely resembling a super-sized armor-plated tadpole,” Coates

Here’s a closer look at a few of the newly discovered fishy denizens of the Chongqing Lagerstätte.

Little but fierce
About 20 separate specimens of a little fish that the researchers have called Xiushanosteus mirabilis were found at the Chongqing site. Those finds make the animal the most abundant type of fish in that fossil assemblage.

X. mirabilis was only about 30 millimeters long, about the length of a paper clip, but it bears a strong resemblance to larger armored placoderms to come in the future: It had a broad, bony head shield and a body covered in small, diamond-shaped scales.
The surprising abundance of this type of fish at a site from the early Silurian Period might just be due to lucky fossilization conditions — the small, delicate bones of X. mirabilis and the other jawed fishes found at Chongqing would be harder to preserve than the larger jawless specimens of the time, or the more robust toothy bony fishes of the later Devonian Period. But another possibility is that this site is an outlier in its time that just happened to be popular with the placoderms.

A heavily armored, diminutive shark
Two types of jawed fish arose around 450 million years ago — and both make an appearance at the Chongqing site. The new site is remarkable for its diversity of osteichthyans, bony jawed fishes like X. mirabilis. But cartilaginous Shenacanthus vermiformis also spent some time in this environment.

S. vermiformis is represented by only a single specimen at Chongqing, but like X. mirabilis, it is excellently preserved from head to tail. It was diminutive too, just 22 millimeters long. Though it had a similar body plan to other chondrichthyans, it did differ in one key way: Like X. mirabilis, S. vermiformis was heavily armored, with extensive plates on its underside and back.

A time of transition
The Chinese site isn’t just shedding light on ancient jawed fish — it offers a window into the evolutionary transition of body features from jawless to jawed species. One newly discovered jawless creature, dubbed Tujiaaspis vividus, turns out to be closely related to a group of jawed fishes called galeaspids, researchers report in a separate paper in the same issue of Nature.

The well-preserved fossils of T. vividus open up new opportunities to learn how its jawed relatives acquired their arrangements of fins, a transition for which there has been little previous evidence, writes Matt Friedman, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in a commentary in the same issue of Nature. That’s because galeaspids have distinctive head shields, but scientists haven’t previously been able to peer beneath these fossilized shields to study the hidden anatomy.

Thanks to these close relatives, the researchers pieced together how paired fins in the jawless fish evolved in stages to become separate pectoral and pelvic fins in their jawed cousins. Such fins are the precursors of arms and legs in later tetrapods (SN: 5/30/18).

Artemis I finally launched. Here’s what it means for human spaceflight

Fifty years ago, three NASA astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, concluding the final Apollo mission. Less than a dozen years after President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely back to the Earth,” that historic program had achieved its goals and ended.

Now, we’re going back. But this time will be different.

A pivotal moment for the return of crewed missions to the moon occurred at 1:47 a.m. EST on November 16, with the successful launch of Artemis I. NASA’s high-powered Space Launch System rocket roared and crackled as it lifted off the Florida coast on its maiden voyage. The rocket pushed the Orion capsule toward the moon, on a flight testing the technology that will eventually bring astronauts, both men and women, back to the lunar surface.

“It was just a spectacular launch,” says geologist Jose Hurtado of the University of Texas at El Paso, who works with NASA on mission simulations and programs to train astronauts in geology. “It really hits home to me what I love about space exploration, especially human exploration. It’s just an aspirational and inspirational spectacle, and I hope that everybody that was watching it got some of that inspiration.”
Now, the United States and China are leading the way to return humans to the moon. The two countries’ programs are massive and complex undertakings with potentially big payoffs. Both aim to boost scientific understanding about the moon and the early Earth, develop new technologies for space exploration and use on Earth, as well as set the stage for longer-term human space exploration.

Better than rovers
Apollo was “a technological program to serve political ends,” says space historian Teasel Muir-Harmony. It was rooted in the political tension and conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The program “was about winning the hearts and minds of the world public. It was a demonstration of world leadership … of the strength of democracy and then also of capitalism,” says Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo Spacecraft Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first-ever steps on the moon on July 20, 1969. Over the next few years, 10 more American men hopped, skipped and even drove across the pewter-colored, lifeless terrain of our planet’s only natural companion. Apollo 17 was the final mission in that series of landings, ending on December 14, 1972 (SN: 12/23/72, p. 404). Once Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt left their footprints embossed in the lunar dust and joined Ronald Evans in the command module, humans stopped walking on the moon.

In the decades since Apollo 17, about two dozen spacecraft from various countries have visited the moon. Some have orbited, others have slammed into the surface so researchers could study the material in the debris of those collisions, and some have landed and brought lunar samples back to Earth (SN: 1/16/21, p. 7).

While these uncrewed spacecraft have made some big strides in lunar exploration, humans could do better. “Nothing can replace the value of having a human brain and human eyes there on the scene,” Hurtado says.
One moment during Apollo 17 makes his point. Schmitt, the only geologist to visit the moon, noticed a patch of lunar soil with a particular rusty hue. He walked over, contemplated the surroundings and realized it was evidence of a volcanic eruption. He and Cernan scooped up some of this orange soil for later Earth-based analyses, which revealed that the orange glass blobs in the soil did in fact form during a “fire fountain” explosion some 3.7 billion years ago.

That discovery supported the idea that the moon had hosted volcanoes in its youth, and additional analysis of the orange soil’s chemical composition hinted that the moon formed at around the same time as Earth. Scientists wouldn’t have had access to the orange soil if it wasn’t for Schmitt’s quick grasp that what he saw was important. “Probably the ultimate field tool is the well-trained human,” Hurtado says.

In his 2005 book, Roving Mars, planetary scientist Steven Squyres wrote: “The unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect [Martian day], a human explorer on the scene could do in less than a minute.” Squyres, of Cornell University, led the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions to Mars (SN: 8/13/22, p. 20).

A long-awaited lunar return
Once Apollo ended, NASA shifted its focus to space stations to prepare for longer-term human spaceflight. Skylab launched in May 1973, hosting four crews of astronauts that year and the next. A few years later, the temporary station broke apart in the atmosphere, as planned. NASA’s next space station, the International Space Station, or ISS, was a larger, collaborative project that’s been hosting astronauts since November 2000. It’s still orbiting roughly 400 kilometers above Earth.

U.S. leaders have occasionally tried to shift NASA’s gaze from low Earth orbit, where the ISS flies, to a more distant frontier. Many presidents have proposed investments in different technology for different exploration goals and with different price tags. But by 2019, the plan was set: NASA would land humans on the moon’s south pole in 2024, though the timeline has since slipped.

“The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil,” said Vice President Mike Pence in early 2019. Shortly after, NASA named this effort the Artemis program — after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

The Artemis program is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars program, which aims to send humans farther into space than ever before. The moon is up first, with astronauts stepping on its surface as early as 2025. What the space agency and its partners learn during a few years of lunar exploration will help guide the phases beyond the moon, including sending astronauts to the Red Planet.

“The goal with Artemis is to build off everything we’ve done to this point and really start to establish a presence for humanity beyond low Earth orbit,” says planetary geologist Jacob Bleacher of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The first big test for Moon to Mars is to show that NASA’s rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, which has been in development for over a decade at a cost of more than $20 billion, can successfully launch a crew capsule, without the crew, beyond low Earth orbit.

But that effort has had a rocky start with the Artemis I launch scrubbed twice for fuel leaks and delayed by two hurricanes. Now that it’s off the ground, Artemis I will test the SLS rocket and the Orion advanced crew capsule on a roughly month-long trip beyond the moon and back (SN: 8/26/22). One more test flight, Artemis II, will follow a similar trajectory as the first mission, but with astronauts on board, launching no earlier than 2024.

Artemis III, slated for 2025, is expected to return boots to the moon and make history by landing the first woman on the lunar surface. On that flight, the SLS rocket will launch the Orion crew capsule toward the moon. When it arrives at lunar orbit, it will dock with the human landing system, currently in development by the company SpaceX. Two astronauts will board the SpaceX vehicle, which will bring them to the moon for a 6.5-day stay. That landing system will also bring the astronauts back to Orion, still in lunar orbit, which will then return them to Earth.

If all goes well, NASA plans to run Artemis missions roughly once a year. “We hope to, through those missions that follow Artemis III, build up some infrastructure,” Bleacher says. That infrastructure will include hardware for developing and distributing power on the moon, rovers for the astronauts to traverse long distances and eventually living and working quarters on the surface. The aim is to increase the astronauts’ length of stay from days to perhaps months.

To help support these lunar astronauts, NASA is leading the creation of a new space station. Called the Gateway, it will orbit the moon when complete, maybe by the 2030s. Like the International Space Station, which is scheduled to safely break apart in early 2031, Gateway will be an international and commercial research station. It will also serve as a way station for trips to Mars and beyond.
The moon goddess
NASA astronauts likely won’t be the only people exploring the lunar surface. China aims to land its own astronauts at the moon’s south pole by the next decade. Begun in 2004, China’s lunar exploration program, Chang’e — named after the Chinese goddess of the moon — has seen fast progress. It “is very systematic, very well done, and they’ve been successful every step of the way,” says planetary geologist James Head of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

In 2018, China put a relay communication satellite in orbit around the moon. In 2019, China landed a rover on the lunar farside, providing the first up-close view of the side of the moon hidden from Earth. That rover is still operating. In November 2020, China sent another rover, which brought samples from the moon’s nearside to Earth the following month.

Next up, although China doesn’t share its specific schedule plans, is Chang’e 6, which will collect and return material from the moon’s farside. In 2026, China intends to launch its Chang’e 7 mission to the south pole to search for water ice. “There’s no question,” Head says, “that [China] will be sending humans to the moon toward the end of the decade.”

China’s human-occupied space station, called Tiangong, is now complete and in low Earth orbit. And Mars exploration is on the menu as well. China landed a rover safely there in 2021 and is gearing up for a sample-return mission in the same time frame as a NASA-European Space Agency sample-return mission to Mars.
Science is an international endeavor, but NASA and China’s space agency are unable to collaborate due to the Wolf Amendment (SN: 11/24/18, p. 14). Tacked onto a U.S. appropriations bill in 2011, the amendment prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from collaborating, designing and planning projects with China, unless authorization is granted by the U.S. Congress.

Some lunar scientists, however, hope there can be collaboration between the two nations, such as sharing returned samples. “There are a lot of different places to go in space, and there’s no sense duplicating everything,” Head says.

While human space exploration began as a competition, international collaboration is now the norm. Astronauts from 20 countries have visited the International Space Station over its 22-year history, living together for months and working toward shared interests.

“The International Space Station is a frigging United Nations in orbit in a tin can,” Head says. Private firms also have become increasingly involved in the ISS. And for the Moon to Mars program, international space agencies and private companies are participating, designing and fabricating crucial components.
To the south pole
When humans step on the moon again, they’ll investigate a never-before-explored locale, the moon’s south pole. It’s a region rich with impact craters, uplifted ancient material and water ice (SN: 11/13/09). Both the United States and China are targeting this area to answer new research questions and to access resources humans would need for an extended stay.

This cratered terrain reveals when rocky material tore through the solar system in the first billion years of its history, slamming into the nascent planets (SN: 4/25/12). Earth no longer tells that history, but the moon, without liquid water or a robust atmosphere to smooth away the evidence, retains a surface record of meteorite impacts over billions of years. “Because that record is so perfectly preserved on the lunar surface, it is the single best place in the entire solar system to understand the origin and early evolution of planets,” says planetary scientist David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

And while those are important mysteries, the south pole’s deep craters also hold something thrilling — water ice. There’s a lot to learn about that ice, says lunar exploration scientist Clive Neal of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. How much is there? Can it be extracted? How to refine it for human use? The Artemis explorers can address those questions, which would enable even longer-term exploration.

That’s the goal this time around: to stay longer for both science exploration and to learn how humans can have a lasting presence on another celestial body. This work “would extend the bounds of human experience in a way that has never happened before,” the Smithsonian’s Muir-Harmony says.

That’s a tall order, considering how NASA’s schedules keep slipping and the cost estimates for each piece of Moon to Mars keep ballooning. A 2021 audit estimates that by the end of 2025, the cost for the Artemis program will reach $93 billion, some $25 billion over NASA estimates.

These next few years of Artemis flights will show what NASA can do. And China’s upcoming missions will show what that nation’s lunar exploration can achieve. The world will be watching both.

New brain implants ‘read’ words directly from people’s thoughts

SAN DIEGO — Scientists have devised ways to “read” words directly from brains. Brain implants can translate internal speech into external signals, permitting communication from people with paralysis or other diseases that steal their ability to talk or type.

New results from two studies, presented November 13 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, “provide additional evidence of the extraordinary potential” that brain implants have for restoring lost communication, says neuroscientist and neurocritical care physician Leigh Hochberg.

Some people who need help communicating can currently use devices that require small movements, such as eye gaze changes. Those tasks aren’t possible for everyone. So the new studies targeted internal speech, which requires a person to do nothing more than think.

“Our device predicts internal speech directly, allowing the patient to just focus on saying a word inside their head and transform it into text,” says Sarah Wandelt, a neuroscientist at Caltech. Internal speech “could be much simpler and more intuitive than requiring the patient to spell out words or mouth them.”

Neural signals associated with words are detected by electrodes implanted in the brain. The signals can then be translated into text, which can be made audible by computer programs that generate speech.

That approach is “really exciting, and reinforces the power of bringing together fundamental neuroscience, neuroengineering and machine learning approaches for the restoration of communication and mobility,” says Hochberg, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Wandelt and colleagues could accurately predict which of eight words a person who was paralyzed below the neck was thinking. The man was bilingual, and the researchers could detect both English and Spanish words.

Electrodes picked up nerve cell signals in his posterior parietal cortex, a brain area involved in speech and hand movements. A brain implant there might eventually be used to control devices that can perform tasks usually done by a hand too, Wandelt says.

Another approach, led by neuroscientist Sean Metzger of the University of California, San Francisco and his colleagues, relied on spelling. The participant was a man called Pancho who hadn’t been able to speak for more than 15 years after a car accident and stroke. In the new study, Pancho didn’t use letters; instead, he attempted to silently say code words, such as “alpha” for A and “echo” for E.

By stringing these code letters into words, the man produced sentences such as “I do not want that” and “You have got to be kidding.” Each spelling session would end when the man attempted to squeeze his hand, thereby creating a movement-related neural signal that would stop the decoding. These results presented at the neuroscience meeting were also published November 8 in Nature Communications.

This system allowed Pancho to produce around seven words per minute. That’s faster than the roughly five words per minute his current communication device can make, but much slower than normal speech, typically about 150 words a minute. “That’s the speed we’d love to hit one day,” Metzger says.

To be useful, the current techniques will need to get faster and more accurate. It’s also unclear whether the technology will work for other people, perhaps with more profound speech disorders. “These are still early days for the technologies,” Hochberg says.

Progress will be possible only with the help of people who volunteer for the studies. “The field will continue to benefit from the incredible people who enroll in clinical trials,” says Hochberg, “as their participation is absolutely vital to the successful translation of these early findings into clinical utility.”

Why daylight saving time just isn’t healthy, according to science

Daylight saving time has ended, and most Americans have turned their clocks back an hour. My sixth-grader is in heaven.

At 6:50 a.m. these days, our once testy tween zombie is now … moderately awake and relatively lucid.

Instead of rising to gauzy predawn light, she’s got glowy morning sunshine beaming around her curtains. When she sets off for school, the sun has been up nearly a full hour. Just a 60-minute change has lightened both the morning and her mood. At breakfast today, I think I even spied a smile.

On November 6, every state in the United States except Hawaii and most of Arizona switched from daylight saving time, or DST, to standard time (those two states don’t observe DST). That switch shifted an hour of light from the evening to the morning. In March, we’ll move in the other direction when we “spring forward,” trading morning light for brighter evenings.

The United States’ biannual time change has been lighting up headlines since the U.S. Senate’s unanimous vote in March to make daylight saving time permanent. The Sunshine Protection Act would forgo turning clocks to and fro, repeating an unpopular experiment Congress tried in the 1970s and prioritizing evening light throughout the year. But the health case for staying on daylight saving time is pretty dim. And what such a shift could mean for adolescents is especially gloomy.

Even the name “daylight saving time” isn’t quite right, says Kenneth Wright, a sleep and circadian expert at the University of Colorado Boulder. There’s no change in the amount of daylight, he says. “What we’re doing is changing how we live relative to the sun.” When we move our clocks forward an hour, noon no longer represents when the sun is near its highest point in the sky. Suddenly, people’s schedules are solarly out of sync (SN: 10/17/16).

That’s a big deal biologically, Wright says. Humans evolved with a daily cycle of light and dark. That sets the rhythms of our bodies, from when we sleep and wake to when hormones are released. Morning light, in particular, is a key wake-up signal. When we tinker with time, he says, “we’re essentially making the choice: Do we want to go with what we’ve evolved with, or do we want to alter that?”

From a health perspective, if he had to rank permanent daylight saving time, permanent standard time or our current practice of biannual clock changing, Wright says, “I think the answer is incredibly clear.” Permanent standard time is healthiest for humans, he says. In his view, permanent daylight saving time ranks last.

Daylight saving time takes a toll on health
Wright is not alone. As daylight saving time ticked toward its yearly end, sleep experts across the country stepped out in favor of standard time.

Scientists have linked sleep loss, heart attacks and an increased risk of dying in the hospital after a stroke to the transition to daylight saving time, neurologist Beth Malow wrote in Sleep in September. She testified to that this year before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee.

“My overall message was that permanent standard time was a healthier choice,” says Malow, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

For both Malow and Wright, some of the most compelling studies examine U.S. time zone borders. Living on the late sunset side of a border takes a toll on people’s health and sleep compared with those living on the early sunset side, scientists suggested in 2019. A similar study in 2018 also found an increased risk of liver cancer the farther west people lived within a time zone, where the sun rises and sets later in the day.

But the downsides of nighttime light are not always crystal clear. A November study, for example, suggested that year-round daylight saving time would reduce deer-vehicle collisions (SN: 11/2/22). But studies like these can be hard to interpret, Malow says. Other factors may come into play, like deer’s seasonal activity and changing roadway conditions. “The car-crash literature has been so mixed,” she says. “I’ve seen stuff come out on both sides.”

She points to a study in Time & Society in June which found that people on the western edge of a time zone had more automobile fatalities than their easterly neighbors.

Dark mornings and light evenings mean people’s body clocks don’t line up with the sun. That mismatch can hamper sleep, making for drowsy drivers, which may factor into collisions, Malow says. In the evenings, if “there’s still light in the sky, it messes with our brains.”
Morning light wakes up the brain
The brains of teens and tweens are even more vulnerable, Malow says. When kids go through puberty, the brain waits an hour or two longer to release melatonin, the “hormone of darkness,” which tells the bodies of kids and adults alike that it’s time to go to sleep.

Bedtime can be tough for older kids because, physiologically, they’re just not as sleepy as they used to be. And as I’ve learned with my daughter, if you throw early school start times in the mix, rising and shining can be even harder.

“I have a middle schooler, too. It’s brutal,” says Lisa Meltzer, a pediatric sleep psychologist at National Jewish Health in Denver. Some U.S. school districts are making changes that might make mornings easier. This year, most high schools and middle schools in California debuted later start times. Five years ago, Meltzer’s school district embarked on a similar experiment. What they learned can teach us how older kids might fare if daylight saving time were to stay put year-round, Meltzer says.

In 2017, the Cherry Creek School District in suburban Denver flipped middle and high schools’ early start times with elementary schools’ later ones. The change didn’t much affect younger kids, who still started class well after sunrise, at 8 a.m., says Meltzer, who presented the science behind changing school start times to her school board. But older kids, who started school at 8:20 a.m. or 8:50 a.m., noticed a big difference. They slept more at night and tended to function better during the day, Meltzer’s team reported most recently in the February Sleep Medicine.

“The number one thing [high-schoolers] said was how much they liked going to school when it was light out,” she says.

And it wasn’t just the students. Their teachers, too, felt the benefits of later start times, Meltzer and colleagues report November 6 in the Journal of School Health.

Morning light is crucial for keeping people’s bodies on schedule, Meltzer says. With permanent daylight saving time, kids will not have the same eye-opening, brain-wakening, a.m. sunshine. “We need morning sunlight to keep our internal clocks on track,” she says. “I cannot emphasize this enough.”

So far, the Senate’s plan for year-round daylight saving time has seemed to stall, so the prospect of an everlasting shift toward evening light doesn’t look bright. But come March, when daylight saving time begins anew, we’ll have to adjust again.

For kids struggling with sleep, Sonal Malhotra, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep doctor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has some tips. Consistency is key, she says: regular sleep, meal and exercise schedules. And when waking up, she adds, “make sure you have bright light.” Malhotra also recommends avoiding afternoon naps and caffeine.

I don’t know if my daughter will ever be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the mornings (I’m not), but when mornings eventually get darker, Malhotra’s advice may give us something to fall back on.

Why dandelion seeds are so good at spreading widely

You don’t need a dandelion to know which way the wind blows. But it can help.

On any given dandelion, some seeds are destined to go north, while others are fated to fly east, south or west, and every direction in between. In effect, each dandelion seed is programmed to release for a wind coming from one direction and resists winds from other directions, according to research to be presented at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics in Indianapolis on November 20.

Dandelion seeds are susceptible to different wind directions depending on where they are on the seed head, says Jena Shields, a biophysicist at Cornell University. The feathery seeds on the side facing a breeze will let go most easily; the others hold on tens to hundreds of times tighter — until the wind shifts.
It’s a phenomenon that Shields set out to study after her adviser noticed the way dandelions responded as his toddler played with the flowers.

Shields measured the force it takes to pluck dandelion seeds by supergluing a fine wire to the tufted ends and pulling them from the seed heads at various angles. This seed-by-seed study mimicked what happens when wind, or a child’s breath, pushes them over. Because each seed is most susceptible to winds from distinct directions, it helps prevent seeds from all going the same way, Shields says, and may explain why the plants are so successful at spreading. Once blown off a dandelion, the umbrella-like tuft on a seed carries it on the breeze that pulled it away (SN: 10/17/18).

“But a strong, turbulent wind can still send all the seeds flying in the same direction,” Shields says, so the effect can’t guarantee that a powerful gust or exuberant child won’t blow off all the seeds at once.