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Starliner faced “catastrophic” failure before software bug found

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Enlarge / Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in December.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

During its quarterly meeting on Thursday, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel dropped some significant news about a critical commercial crew test flight. The panel revealed that Boeing’s Starliner may have been lost during a December mission had a software error not been found and fixed while the vehicle was in orbit.

The software issue was identified during testing on the ground after Starliner’s launch, said panel member Paul Hill, a former flight director and former director of mission operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The problem would have interfered with the service module’s (SM) separation from the Starliner capsule.

“While this anomaly was corrected in flight, if it had gone uncorrected it would have led to erroneous thruster firing and uncontrolled motion during SM separation for deorbit, with the potential for catastrophic spacecraft failure,” Hill said during the meeting.

Starliner’s December test flight had to be cut short due to a well-publicized timing error that delayed the spacecraft’s service module from performing an orbital insertion burn. This caused the thrusters on board the service module, which provides power to Starliner during most of its mission, to fire longer than expected. As a result, the spacecraft did not have enough fuel to complete a rendezvous with the International Space Station, a key component of the test flight in advance of crewed missions.

At Thursday’s meeting, Hill revealed the second issue related to software and thruster performance publicly for the first time.

However, as part of reporting on a story about Starliner software and thruster issues three weeks ago, a source told Ars about this particular problem. According to the source, Boeing patched a software code error just two hours before the vehicle reentered Earth’s atmosphere. Had the error not been caught, the source said, proper thrusters would not open during the reentry process, and the vehicle would have been lost.

In a response to a query about this in mid-January, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed to Ars that software uploads were sent to Starliner “near the end of the mission.” However, the spokesperson then downplayed the gravity of the situation, saying, “The final upload before landing’s main purpose was to ensure a proper disposal burn of the Service Module after separation and had nothing to do with Crew Module reentry.” Because this made the issue sound not serious, Ars omitted it from the published story.

But the public remarks by Hill on Thursday appear to underscore the seriousness of the issue, and the safety panel recommended several reviews of Boeing. “The panel has a larger concern with the rigor of Boeing’s verification processes,” Hill said. “As a result, the panel recommends that NASA pursue not just the root cause of these specific flight-software anomalies but also a Boeing assessment of and corrective actions for Boeing’s flight-software integration and testing processes.”

The safety panel also recommended that NASA conduct “an even broader” assessment of Boeing’s Systems Engineering and Integration processes. Only after these assessments, Hill said, should NASA determine whether the Starliner spacecraft will conduct a second, uncrewed flight test into orbit before astronauts fly on board. (Boeing recently set aside $410 million to pay for that contingency).

Finally, before the meeting ended, the chair of the safety panel, Patricia Sanders, noted yet another ongoing evaluation of Boeing. “Given the potential for systemic issues at Boeing, I would also note that NASA has decided to proceed with an organizational safety assessment with Boeing as they previously conducted with SpaceX,” she said.

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CDC’s VaccineFinder aims to help you find COVID shots—but needs a lot of work

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Enlarge / A registered nurse practitioner holds up a sign and a flag asking for another patient to dose with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine as well as a more vaccine doses at a vaccination site in Seattle, Washington on January 24, 2021.

In its efforts to help Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is quietly working on a new website that will let people see every location in their community offering COVID-19 vaccinations, how many shots each of those locations has for the current day, and provide links to set up vaccination appointments.

That’s the ideal, at least; there’s a lot of work to do to get there.

Right now, the site—vaccinefinder.org—only has the full lists of vaccine providers for four states—Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee. Those lists include providers at hospitals, clinics, public health centers, doctor’s offices, drug stores, and grocery store pharmacies.

For the rest of the country, the VaccineFinder site only includes a partial list of providers that receive vaccine directly from the federal government.

John Brownstein, VaccineFinder founder and chief information officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, told NPR that more vaccine providers in more states are “expected to join in the coming days and weeks.”

In the meantime, Brownstein and others will work out the kinks of the site and test how it might hold up under heavy traffic. Similar sites set up by volunteers and individual states have been inundated with people seeking the coveted vaccines. With vaccine eligibility far outpacing the vaccine supply, the pursuit of scarce doses has led to frustrating glitches and crashes on the few vaccination sign-up sites that already exist. Such was the case for Massachusetts’s VaxFinder site, which crashed last week after about a million residents became newly eligible for a COVID shot and rushed to sign up.

The CDC’s VaccineFinder site aspires to dodge that fate and be a central, streamlined resource for people wanting to sign up for their shot.

Work to do

“The idea is to show where COVID-19 vaccine providers [are] that are open to the public—how to contact them, how to book an appointment, and try to show the daily inventory status so people are clear where there’s vaccine and where there isn’t,” Brownstein said.

Brownstein and his team have a decent history of doing that. The site—built up from a collaboration between the CDC, Boston Children’s Hospital, and recently, subcontractor CastLight—dates back to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. Since then, the site has functioned as a resource for people looking for all sorts of vaccinations, including seasonal flu shots

But realizing that goal for COVID-19 will take more than just getting more vaccine providers and states online. People will still have to navigate state-specific rules and procedures for eligibility, registration, wait-listing, and appointments. The site also relies on the providers to accurately and consistently report how much inventory they have every 24 hours. There are reportedly more than 110,000 providers across 64 US jurisdictions. Only about 29,000 providers are currently plugged into the CDC’s VaccineFinder.

Still, Brownstein is optimistic and ambitious about the sites’ future. He added that, after the sites are fully operational, they plan to share data with third parties, allowing people to find the sites’ vaccine availability data on sites like Google Maps and Waze. “So it’s not just about coming to the website, but meeting consumers where they are and making sure that anybody who’s looking for a vaccine knows where to find them,” he said.

All of those of capabilities will have to be worked out quickly as the pace of vaccine distribution and vaccination is expected to speed up. Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden announced new deals with Pfizer and Moderna for 200 million additional vaccine doses by the end of July. On top of earlier deals and expedited delivery agreements, that puts the country on track to have enough doses to vaccinate 300 million Americans—600 million doses—by the end of July, which is just months away.

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The genetics of relatively healthy obesity

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In general, obesity is linked with a large range of health problems—for most people, at least. But for a substantial minority of those who are overweight, obesity is accompanied by indications of decent health, with no signs of impending diabetes or cardiovascular disease. These cases have probably received unwarranted attention; who doesn’t want to convince themselves that they’re an exception to an unfortunate rule, after all? But the phenomenon is real, and it’s worth understanding.

To that end, a large international team of researchers has looked into whether some of these cases might be the product of genetic influences. And simply by using existing data, the team found 61 instances where a location in our genomes is associated with both elevated obesity and signs of good health, cardiovascular or otherwise.

Good and bad

The team’s method of searching the genome is remarkably straightforward, and it relies on the fact that many research groups have already done so much work to look for factors associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular health. This work includes searching for areas of the genome associated with measures of obesity, like body mass index, body fat percentage, and waist-to-hip ratio. Insulin and glucose levels have also been studied genetically, as these numbers give some indication of how the body is responding to weight and food intake. Cardiovascular health measures including things like cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as blood pressure, have also been explored.

Combining all the past studies in these areas, the researchers were able to leverage a sample of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

To find the sorts of genes the team was interested in, the researchers had a simple criterion: the same area of the genome has to be associated with both one of the measures of obesity and one of the measures of metabolic or cardiovascular health. After doing the pairwise comparisons, they checked whether any of the areas that came out of the analysis was associated with more than one measure (so, for example, health levels of both cholesterol and glucose).

Overall, 62 different sites within the genome came out of this analysis. The authors broke these down into three different groups, based on their behavior. And, by looking at health outcomes of participants in the UK Biobank, it was possible to see what happens in individuals who have a large number of the variants associated with obesity. For the full group of 62 sites, having lots of obesity-associated variants seemed to be related to the distribution of body fat, which is less harmful when deposited under the skin than when it builds up around the waist.

One group had elevated levels of body fat but broad indications of good cardiac and metabolic health. At least some members of this group appeared to influence where the fat ended up being deposited (less around the gut). People with a lot of these variants tended to have less fat-free mass and, somewhat oddly, were taller.

Another group—the largest, with 31 sites—seemed to be involved with fat regulation, since it was associated with a better ratio of good to bad cholesterol and lower triglycerides. Here, there was no indication that body fat distribution was more favorable in those who have a lot of these variants. Finally, the third group seemed to be associated with a general increase in fat and reduced indications of diabetes risk, without a focus on any particular aspect of them. Consistent with this, people with an abundance of these variants tended to have changes in glucose levels.

What’s there?

In many cases, these variants are inside of genes (or very close to them), so we can look into what the genes linked to these variants are actually doing. A look at the past research on these genes indicated that the genes were frequently associated with processes that affect adipose tissue, as you might expect, including altering the activity of other genes in adipose cells. There were also indications that the genes might be involved in metabolism, with associations with the adrenal cortex, liver, and pancreas.

A number of the variants appear to reside in DNA that helps control surrounding genes. This makes knowing what gene is affected by the genetic differences a challenge. But the researchers use a variety of criteria (which genes are active in fat cells, etc.) to get a sense of what the relevant genes are.

Overall, the researchers suggest these 62 genes affect a variety of relevant processes. Some of these are upstream of fat deposition, such as insulin signaling and glucose control. And others seem to regulate the process of breaking fats back down. Still others seem to control how adipose tissue develops, the switch between white and brown fat, and the location where fat forms. None of those is especially surprising, but it’s not necessarily predictable that they’d influence things in a way that seems to limit the damage that’s associated with fat accumulation.

While some people might view carrying these variants as a license for carrying a few extra pounds, the work doesn’t really get into how much impact each of these factors has on any of the things it has looked at, either in terms of obesity or health. If the variants are typical of other factors that influence complex traits, the individual impact of any of them is going to be extremely small.

The value of this sort of study really lies elsewhere. While we know obesity is linked with a variety of health risks, those links are complex and poorly understood at the moment. Research like this could cut back on the unknowns and help us figure out ways in which we might separate obesity, which doesn’t seem to be going away, from some of its consequences.

Nature Metabolism, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s42255-021-00346-2  (About DOIs).

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Live chat tomorrow: Ars Texas on living through last week’s arctic adventure

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Most of Texas endured record or near-record low temperatures last week as a late-season (for Texas, at least) arctic cold front sagged down across the state. In the week leading up to the event, forecasters warned residents to prepare for the kind of cold common in more northern climates but exceedingly rare for most of us down here—temperatures in the teens or even high single-digits (think lows around -12 to -10 degrees C for you folks who don’t use Freedom Units)—and even (gasp!) snow. Along the Gulf Coast where Ars Space Editor Eric Berger and I live, the combination of low temperatures and wintry precipitation was a once-in-30-years kind of event. (Indeed, the last time it got this cold here was in December 1989.)

The cold was expected, and while it’s unpleasant as hell to deal with in a city built for summer heat and not winter cold, it would have been manageable on its own. But what we weren’t expecting—well, most of us, at least—was having to deal with this rare low-temperature excursion without power or heat. As the front plowed across the state on the evening of Valentine’s Day, demand on the state’s power grid spiked to a record 69GW as residents turned on heaters to combat temperatures sliding down into the teens. (That level of power demand beat even the predicted extreme weather peak of 67GW and was higher than the previous February 2011 cold-weather-demand peak of 59GW.) As demand spiked, the state’s electrical grid operators had to take emergency measures to stave off total collapse.

And thus began a week of freezing misery for more than 4 million Texans who had to endure the coldest weather in decades without any power or heat, in homes designed to release summer heat rather than keep it in. The majority of the power-loss issues occurred in Houston.

No sir, I don’t like it

When temperatures finally clawed their way back above freezing a few days later and the power finally came back on for most folks, the picture wasn’t pretty. Many had made it through without any lasting damage other than losing their outdoor plants, but many others were dealing with that sad, old Texas refrain of flooded homes—though this time the flooding wasn’t from a hurricane but from burst pipes. Still others—those who had elected to take advantage of the fact that Texas’ energy market allows consumers to buy electricity at wholesale prices if they wish—faced exorbitant power bills of up to $9 per kilowatt-hour, a situation that no one in authority has shown much enthusiasm for addressing. Large swaths of the Houston metro area—home to about 7 million, or about twelve Wyomings’ worth of people—were under water-boil advisories. (Even now, a full week after the event ended, boil advisories persist for many parts of Houston.)

Worst of all, people died. The final tally is still uncertain, but the Associated Press cites at least 70 deaths attributable nationwide to the storm, with “most of those” occurring in Texas.

As with all disasters, the impact was hugely variable depending on where you lived and a healthy dose of chance. Some folks got through the entire event without losing power or having to boil water at all—it was just cold. Others found themselves having to bury family members.

It was not an awesome week.

But part of the way we heal from stuff like this is to talk about it—and that’s what we’re going to do.

Live chat: Friday, February 26, at 12:00pm EST

Join Ars alum and energy expert Megan Geuss tomorrow as she chairs a small panel consisting of space editor and local weather forecaster Eric Berger and myself. (I’m not a weather guy, but I did live through the event, so think of me like the Jim Nantz to Eric’s Tony Romo—he and Megan will bring the facts; I’ll make the jokes.)

We’ll be broadcasting the chat via Twitter Live, and if you just want to watch, you can follow along at this link. If you’d like to actually lob some questions at us, you can register at this Zoom link and drop questions into the chat, where our behind-the-scenes moderators will whisk them to our computer screens.

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