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 31 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:41 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
A moment that changed me – getting my first dog, Sniff

Eleanor Morgan

A someone who has experienced mental health problems, I can testify that a dog is not just a pet – they have incredible healing powers too

Thursday 27 August 2015 13.16 BST
Guardian

I grew up with dogs, no fewer than two at any one time. All the photos of me growing up, from Brillo pad-haired toddler, to teenager about to leave home, involve human limbs and furry legs intertwined in some way. Our first dog, Sniff, was the special one. A black whippet-labrador cross with a white diamond over her heart, she let me and my siblings ride her round the garden all day long and suffered the endless tugging and twirling of her ears, all with a stretchy smile on her face. She sat still as I put her in flowery dresses and tied tea towels round her head to make her look like an old Italian nonna. Silly girl.

Sniff wasn’t just a dog. They never are. There are those who balk at the idea of attaching such profound emotion to an often stinking animal (I know one person who says “all dogs are Tories”), but if you know, you know. When I think about my childhood, happy and bucolic but spliced with trauma, I remember above almost all else the weight of Sniff in bed with me, under the covers. She was mine and I told her things. When your world fills with pain as a child – family separation, infidelity, arguing, courts, protracted physical illness – throwing your small body over something unfalteringly loyal, warm and with a heart beating just like your own, drowns out all the noise. And when you wake up in the morning and they’re still there, looking at you, not getting up until you’re ready, you feel safe. Watched.

    When I think about my childhood, I remember above almost all else the weight of Sniff in bed with me, under the covers

When Sniff died, my dad laid her out in a blanket on the back doorstep for us to say goodbye before he buried her. There was my best friend, lying stiff on her side with her tongue hanging out. She never let her tongue hang out but her heart wasn’t beating now, was it? She didn’t care about being graceful any more. Our other dog, Scruff, came and sniffed her up and down before running inside to hide. My own teenage heart was too heavy to keep me upright. I had two days off school and I’m not sure I’ve known grief like it since.

The things animals can do for mental health are well-documented. Across America, people are taking dogs, cats and llamas (really) everywhere with them for emotional support, as explored wonderfully in this New Yorker piece. Pet therapy is used widely in settings such as residential homes, children’s wards and psychiatric hospitals, particularly with dogs, because their presence is both calming and highly sensory. Dogs have been shown to reduce the agitation of dementia patients, for example, and increase pleasure just by being there. The patient may take the time to groom the animal, take it on a little walk or give it a treat, and with that comes a sense of purpose. In fact, there are studies that show significant reductions in anxiety scores after animal-assisted therapy sessions in hospitalised psychiatric patients.

I know first hand what dogs can do for an anxious mind. After an initial run of bewildering panic attacks at school, aged 17, anxiety would grow into something that would overshadow great blocks of my adult life. As a late teen, one of the only things that made me feel better when I got anxious at night was picking up my mum’s Jack Russell, Harry, when everyone had gone to sleep and taking him into bed with me. He wriggled and snored and dropped the kind of hot, meaty farts that can actually induce terror in a person, but it didn’t matter. Listening to his breathing as he lay there was the most soothing thing I knew.

All through my anxious years I’ve quietly craved a bit more than the shimmer of human contact. Love from a partner is essential and life-affirming, and with the patience and kindness of a few select people, I have reached a point where – touch wood, because anxiety can turn even the most positive of statements into a ruminative whirlpool – anxiety is still something I live with, but no longer defines my life to the extent it has in the past. But there’s always been space for something else.

In my bleakest of moments, I have found myself craving the company of a different four-legged friend. Not just for the comfort, but purpose and focus, too. A real reason to leave the house and make conversation.

    I’m not saying that Pamela has taken away my anxiety, but she’s given me focus

Somewhere in my subconscious, memories have been built that associate pain relief with the presence of a dog. Four years ago, I became depressed as a result of unsustainable anxiety levels. This depression was defined by utter bewilderment and constant physical pain. It was the most intense pain I’ve ever known. During this time, I had a recurring daydream of lying on a sunny patio with a dog, stroking its hot belly, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that even the thought of it built a moat around my misery. My partner was heroic, utterly, but something in me regressed to craving the near-telepathic micro-ness that is holding a dog in your arms, telling it that it’s a good boy or girl while smoothing its ears down. Only, it was never the right time to get one, because of work and life.

This summer, I left my senior position at Vice to write a book about anxiety. Writing it has been very rewarding but also hard, because it involves re-visiting some of the most desperate times of my life, which triggers all sorts of anxious muscle memory. Writing is also, by its very nature, defined by long periods of isolation. That isolation and room for my thoughts run wild can be a trigger and, after an afternoon spent agonising over something or other, I thought: I’m going to do it.

Initially, I swore I’d get a rescue dog, but during an idle look online over breakfast one morning, there she was. A fuzzy picture of a three-month-old smooth-haired cockapoo, black as a crow, needing to be re-homed because her young owner was pregnant with her second child and didn’t think she could handle the puppy anymore. We sent a few emails and I went to see her in Essex the next day. It had been a bad week, anxiety-wise, but sitting on their kitchen floor as this Hairy Maclary ran rings around me, I clean forgot. The day after, we went to get her and bring her to London.

In the five weeks that she’s been with me, Pamela has injected more joy than I thought she could. Amid the turds (in their myriad consistencies), the biting, the tapeworm (long gone now) the digging, the following, the jumping, the goose shit eating, the farting, sweet jesus the farting, I feel different.

I’m not saying she’s taken away my anxiety, but she’s given me focus. It’s not just the bomb that goes off in my chest when she tries to get up on the bed in the morning, gruffly howling with her mouth in a perfect, tiny “o”, nor is it about losing the plot when she runs full pelt at me with her ever scruffier beard full of water and kibble bits. I have a lot of purpose these days, but she’s given me more, on the days I need it most.

A dog is better than any mindfulness app – it’s not a pre-recorded thing for everyone, it’s living and it’s for you. In the moment. They can sense when you need calm and they respond. CBT and medication might be the stalwarts for treating anxiety long-term, and both are part of my life, but in the day-to-day, moment-to-moment, sometimes we need something else, something tangible. I wish more anxious people had such immediate access to dogs, because they’re better than any benzodiazepine or beta-blocker out there.

 32 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:38 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Knut the polar bear died of autoimmune illness usually found in humans

Knut died suddenly at Berlin zoo in 2011, but the cause of the illness was a mystery until a researcher noticed similar symptoms in human patients

Emily Mobley
Thursday 27 August 2015 14.00 BST
Guardian

When a four-year-old celebrity polar bear named Knut died suddenly at Berlin zoo in 2011, vets were at a loss to explain the death.

Knut rose to fame as bear cub when he was rejected by his mother at birth, along with his twin brother who died within days.

To ensure the bear got his bottle every two hours, his main keeper, Thomas Doerflein, camped out at the enclosure. Knut became so famous he appeared on magazine covers.

The day Knut died, shocked visitors saw him turn around a few times before slumping into the water at his enclosure. A postmortem revealed the bear had encephalitis, or a swollen brain, but the cause of the illness was a mystery.

The first hint of an answer came when Harald Prüss, a researcher at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Disorders in Berlin, read the postmortem report and noticed similarities between Knut and human patients with an autoimmune disease that caused brain swelling.

Prüss noticed that antibodies in Knut’s blood looked similar to those he had seen in patients in 2010 whose encephalitis had yet to be explained. He contacted Alex Greenwood, an expert in wildlife diseases who was working on Knut’s case, and the two decided to investigate.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers describe how they went on to uncover how Knut died. They took sections of Knut’s brain that had been kept in storage and stained them to show the presence of antibodies. These revealed patterns that closely matched those seen in the brains of people with a rare autoimmune disorder known as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis or anti-NMDAR, which causes seizures, cognitive problems and even coma.

Knut is the first animal to be diagnosed with the disease, and the discovery has opened the door to new realm of research. “For domestic, wild and zoo animals this represents the birth of a new field of research and understanding of encephalitis of unknown origin,” Greenwood said.

Antibodies that normally defend against viruses can turn on the body’s own tissues and attack its cells. Knut’s antibodies had attacked nerve cells in the brain important for memory and cognition, causing seizures that led to his drowning in the pool.

Knut’s postmortem showed he had been exposed to flu viruses, but none of the bugs scientists found could explain his death. At the time, researchers did not consider that his death might have been caused by anything other than bacteria or viruses, because anti-NMDAR had only been discovered in humans four years earlier, in 2007.

People who are affected by the disease are treated with steroids and have antibodies removed from their blood.

Knut showed no symptoms before his seizures and sudden death. Even had he shown symptoms, it may have been too late to treat him. Greenwood added that the discovery of the autoimmune disease in Knut could help explain a large proportion of currently undiagnosable cases of encephalitis in animals.

“In the future, because treatment options are available in humans, that could easily be transferred to animals,” he said. “The death of many animals (particularly [those] of conservation concern) of encephalitis in the future may be preventable.”

Knuts lives on as a life-size model, which has been on display at Berlin’s Natural History Museum since 2013.

 33 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:35 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

What causes ‘strange’ earthquakes?

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Scientists know how tectonic plate boundaries cause earthquakes, but have been somewhat baffled by tremors occurring away from these geological borders.

According to a new study in the journal Nature, earthquakes not linked to fault lines are mostly driven by action occurring underneath tectonic plates.

Slightly below the Earth’s crust is a stratum of hot, semi-liquid stone that is constantly flowing, heating up and rising, then cooling and sinking. That convective course of action, interacting with the constantly changing motion of the plates at the exterior, is pushing intra-plate seismic action and establishing in a large part where those earthquakes occur. To a lesser scope, the framework of the crust above also has a bearing on the location of the quake.

To reach their conclusion, the team used an up-to-date mantle flow simulation to analyze the action below the north-south mountain belt running through the Western United States. The region is seismically active, and the reason Yellowstone has geysers is that it rests on top of a volcanic hotspot. Past research had indicated the varying density of the plates was the primary cause for this activity.

Earthquakes go with the convective flow

However, the team learned that the small-scale convective flows below the plate connected with seismic events above in a foreseeable way. The team also tried using the different plate density or “gravitational potential energy variations” to calculate seismic occasions and discovered a much lesser correlation.

“This will not be the last word on the origin of strange earthquakes. However, our work shows how imaging advances in seismology can be combined with mantle flow modeling to probe the links between seismicity and mantle convection,” study author Thorsten Becker, a professor of Earth sciences with the University of Southern California, said in a news release.

“This study shows a direct link between deep convection and shallow earthquakes that we didn’t anticipate, and it charts a course for improved seismic hazard mapping in plate interiors,” added co-author Tony Lowry, an associate professor of geophysics and geodynamics at Utah State University.

 34 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:34 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

New species of crayfish named after Edward Snowden

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Edward Snowden is best known as the man who blew the whistle on the US National Security Agency’s surveillance activity, but thanks to researchers at the Humboldt University of Berlin, he now has another claim to fame – as the namesake for a new species of crayfish.

The new species, which is described in a recent edition of the journal ZooKeys, has been named the Cherax snowden and was found in the freshwater tributary creeks in West Papau, Indonesia, by German scientist Christian Lukhaup and his colleagues, The Washington Post reported.

So what made him Lukhaup name this new creature after Snowden, who leaked top-secret NSA documents to a trio of journalists back in 2013, exposing the agency’s surveillance program? He wrote that it was because he viewed the controversial figure as an “American freedom fighter.”

“After describing a couple new species, I thought about naming one after Edward Snowden because he really impressed me,” he told the newspaper. “We have so many species named after other famous people who probably don't do so much for humanity. I wanted to show support for Edward Snowden. I think what he did is something very special.”

Gathering information about this new crawfish species

Unusual name aside, the new creature is pretty distinctive. It has an orange to greenish-orange motley tip and was collected by locals for ornamental purposes, the researchers said in a statement. Male members of the species measure between three to four inches in length, while females are about three inches long, and both have green pincers with orange tips.

According to The Washington Post, Lukhaup initially encountered the Cherax snowdens in 2006 thanks to a collector from Kepala Burung, but it wasn’t until earlier this year when he and his co-authors obtained additional specimens from an online store in Germany. After they acquired the new specimens, they extracted DNA from its muscle tissue to learn more about the creature.

However, the researchers emphasized that “the continued collection of these crayfish for the trade is not a sustainable practice, and if the popularity of the species continues, a conservation management plan will have to be developed, potentially including a captive breeding program.”

 35 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:32 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

Malformed plankton fossils part of mass extinction ‘kill mechanisms’

by Eric Hopton
Red Orbit

Environmental problems caused by heavy metal have been around a long time. No, we’re not talking Megadeath, Iron Maiden, or even Black Sabbath, rather, high concentrations of elements like iron, lead, and arsenic. The story goes back more than 400 million years, and new investigations of ancient “malformed” fossil plankton found that heavy metal pollution was involved in the “kill mechanism” of some of the world’s largest extinction events.

An ancient clue hidden in the rocks

Life on Earth today was shaped by such Palaeozoic mass extinction events during the Ordovician and Silurian periods, 485 to 420 to million years ago. Some of these periodic events led to the eradication of up to 85 percent of marine species. Glacial episodes also played a part, but cooling itself now looks just part of a bigger picture.

An international team led by Thijs Vandenbroucke, a researcher at the French CNRS and invited professor at UGent, and Poul Emsbo of the US Geological Survey, investigated a little known association between “teratological” or “malformed” fossil plankton assemblages that coincided with the initial stages of these extinction events.

These malformed fossil remains from the late Silurian (415 million years ago) contain highly elevated concentrations of heavy metals, including iron, lead, and arsenic. We know these toxins cause morphologic abnormalities in modern aquatic organisms, so the study’s authors came to the conclusion that metal poisoning caused the malformations seen in the Silurian fossils, and may have even contributed to their extinction as well as that of many other species.

Toxic metals warn of dying oceans

Recent studies indicate that increases in heavy metals correlate with disturbances in oceanic carbon, oxygen, and sulphur signatures, suggesting a connection with reductions in ocean oxygenation, known as “anoxia.”

The team believe metal toxicity, expressed in fossilized malformations, could be the missing link relating organism extinctions to widespread ocean anoxia. Increases in heavy metals and anoxia may be the early warning sign of the kill-mechanisms that catastrophically wiped out so much life.

This recurring correlation may be a previously unrecognized contributing agent to many, if not all, extinction events in the ancient oceans. It provides a dramatic new insight into the past and a better understanding of the threat of metal toxicity to today’s oceans.

The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.

 36 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:30 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

New images are closest yet of dwarf planet Ceres

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA released the latest batch of photos collected by the Dawn spacecraft of Ceres, and the new images provide the closest look yet at the large, cone-shaped mountain found in the southern hemisphere and other surface features of the dwarf planet.

While using its framing camera to map the dwarf planet’s surface at an orbital altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) on August 19, Dawn managed to get an up-close look at the four mile (six kilometer) tall mountain. The image was taken at a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel, and reveals narrow, braided fractures and an unusual bright region.

NASA also released images of a mountain ridge in the center of Urvara crater, and Gaue crater, a large crater with a sunken-in center. Urvara crater is 101 miles (163 kilometers) in diameter and was named after an Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields, while Gaue crater is was named after a Germanic goddess and is 52 miles (84 kilometers) in diameter.

Dawn mapping gravity field in preparation for final orbit

At its current altitude, Dawn takes 11 days to capture and transmit images of Ceres’ surface back to Earth, according to NASA. Each of those 11-day cycles 14 orbits, the agency added, and over the next eight weeks, the spacecraft will successfully map the dwarf planet’s entire surface a total of six times. That data will allow NASA scientists to create 3D models of Ceres.

During this time, Dawn will also gather data can will provide new insight into the minerals found on the surface of Ceres using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instruments.

Furthermore, mission scientists and engineers are in the process of refining their measurements of Ceres’ gravitational field, and that information will be used to help design Dawn’s next orbit, which will be its lowest. This final orbit will be at an altitude of just 230 miles (375 kilometers), and the spacecraft will begin its descent to this height in late October.

“Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration,” Dawn chief engineer and mission director Marc Rayman from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “The spacecraft's view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet.”

 37 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:29 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

Normal beef twice as likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria as organic

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The next time you’re picking up ground beef for hamburgers or meatloaf, you might want to spend a little extra and get the organic, all-natural stuff, as a new Consumer Reports study has found it is less than half as likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the researchers behind the new study conducted lab tests on 300 samples involving more than 450 pounds of conventional and sustainably-farmed ground beef purchased in 26 US cities. They found that 18 percent of traditional beef contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains versus just nine percent of organically-produced meat.

The samples were tested for five types of microbes known to commonly cause food-born illness, including multiple strains of E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus. They found that all 458 pounds of beef tested contained enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli bacteria, or strains that signified fecal contamination.

Nearly 20 percent of them contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes nearly one million cases of food poisoning annually, and 10 percent of the samples contained a strain of S. aureus bacteria which can produce an illness-causing toxin that cannot be destroyed, even by proper cooking, Consumer Reports said. Only one percent of samples contained salmonella.

Safety experts: buy grass-fed organic beef, and thoroughly cook it

In light of the findings, experts are advising beef enthusiasts to make sure that their meat has been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees and to avoid undercooking them (which means no more rare burgers, folks, sorry). They are also advocating the use of safer, “grass-fed organic beef” since traditionally-raised cows are typically administered antibiotics.

“There’s no way to tell by looking at a package of meat or smelling it whether it has harmful bacteria or not,” explained Dr. Urvashi Rangan, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “You have to be on guard every time.”

“The most sustainable beef-production systems don’t rely on any daily drugs, don’t confine animals, and do allow them to eat a natural diet. Our findings show that more sustainable can mean safer meat,” she added. “We suggest that you choose what’s labeled ‘grass-fed organic beef’ whenever you can,” which she noted is safer and more humane (but unfortunately more expensive as well).

The USDA also recommend keeping beef at temperatures under 40 degrees or above 140 degrees at all times, to keep raw beef from touching cutting boards and utensils used for uncooked foods, to cook or freeze it within two days of purchase, to thaw it in the microwave or refrigerator, and to avoid grinding your own ground beef, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

 38 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:28 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

Look up! Supermoon to shine bright August 29th

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

Look to the skies this Saturday, because the first in a series of 3 full supermoons will be out! This month, the supermoon occurs on Sunday, August 30, at 11 a.m. EDT, about 18 hours after the full moon, according to Space.com. Because the supermoon occurs during the daytime in the US, the best time to view the full moon close to its supermoon status will be on Saturday night.

What is a supermoon?

Supermoons didn’t always have this name. In fact, the name supermoon came into existence on March 19, 2011 when media outlets used the term to describe the full moon. Before 2011, they were called perigee full moons, according to Earthsky.com.

Astrologer Richard Nolle described a supermoon as “a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.” By this definition, a new moon or full moon has to come within 224,834 miles (or 361,836 kilometers) of Earth to be considered a supermoon. This Saturday kicks off a full moon trio with the other two being on September 28 and October 27.

While all full moons cause bigger tides, but these closer supermoons elevate the tides even more, according to Earthsky.

When there’s a new moon each month, the sun, Earth, and moon are aligned with the moon sandwiched in between. This causes some pretty wide-ranging tides that are called spring tides. These closer new moons and full moons, or supermoons, accentate the spring tides even more, causing a perigean spring tide. This probably won’t cause flooding, but if you live near the coast, just keep an eye on the weather!

Get stoked for the next supermoon

While Saturday's supermoon will be cool, September's supermoon on the 27th will be even cooler, as it will be the closest and biggest supermoon this year at 221,753 miles (356,877 km). Plus, it occurs at night in North America, so we will be able to see it at its peak. This full moon in September is traditionally called the Harvest Moon because it would light the night, giving farmers a few extra hours to harvest their crops. This supermoon will also pass through Earth's shadow, causing a total eclipse of the moon! Double whammy.

Happy skywatching, and don't forget to glance up this Saturday night!

 39 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:26 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

High levels of mercury are contaminating the Grand Canyon

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

It is thought to be one of the most pristine examples of natural beauty in the US, but apparently not even the Grand Canyon is safe from pollution, as new research has found that the food webs near the landmark have been contaminated by mercury (Hg) and selenium (Se).

The study, led by scientists at the US Geological Survey and published in the latest edition of the journal Environmental Toxicity and Chemistry, found that the levels of these metallic elements in the interconnected food chains of the Colorado River frequently exceeded levels considered safe.

“The levels of Hg and Se were relatively high compared to other large river in the US, including those in landscapes more impacted by human activities,” USGS ecologist Dr. David Walters told redOrbit via email. “Concentrations regularly exceeded established risk thresholds provided by the EPA and other that are meant to protect fish and wildlife from exposure to Hg and Se.”

According to Discovery News, Dr. Walters and his colleagues collected data from six different sites along the river as it traveled through the canyon, and discovered that mercury and selenium levels in minnows, invertebrates, and fish exceeded dietary toxicity thresholds for both fish and for fish-eating wildlife.

Risk to humans is ‘relatively low’

Mercury, the website explained, is a neurotoxin that damages the central nervous system in both humans and other types of wildlife. Selenium, on the other hand, can cause people to lose their hair and teeth, experience problems with alertness, or develop tumor levels, the EPA added.

“The good news is that risks to humans from mercury exposure in fish is relatively low. The mercury concentrations in rainbow trout, a popular sport fish, were low in larger individuals that people might eat,” Dr. Walters said. So where did these toxic chemicals come from originally?

“The source of selenium to Grand Canyon is from irrigation of selenium rich soils in the upper Colorado River basin,” he said. “The source of mercury is likely atmospheric deposition of Hg related to human burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal. There is a global pool of anthropogenic mercury, we consists of very distant (Asia) and regional sources.”

Based on the design of their study, he said that the USGS cannot attribute the mercury levels in the area to any particular source, but he noted that this could be the target or future research. He also said that ongoing large-scale conservation is attempting to reduce selenium runoff, and that technological and regulatory efforts are trying to reduce coal-related mercury emissions.

“Even remote places on earth are rarely 'pristine,’” Dr. Walters noted. “Here, we found that the aquatic ecosystem in Grand Canyon is vulnerable to long-range transport of contaminants that are potentially harmful to fish, wildlife, and humans. Managing exposure risks are a challenge in the Grand Canyon, because sources of contamination occur far beyond the National Park boundaries.”

 40 
 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:24 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
August 27, 2015

NASA to design probes for upcoming missions to Uranus, Neptune

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Scientists at NASA have been asked to brainstorm new concepts for probes that could be sent to the last of the solar system’s planets yet to be orbited, Uranus and Neptune, as part of a mission that could launch in less than 15 years, according to published reports.

NASA’s request that members of its Jet Propulsion Laboratory facility in Pasadena, California begin assessing how to create and operate robotic spacecraft to send to these planets indicate that those worlds “are near the top of the space agency’s to-do list in the coming decades,” astronomy website Spaceflight Now said on Tuesday.

At a meeting of a NASA-sponsored working group devoted to outer planets research, the head of the agency’s planetary science division, Jim Green, explained that the goal was to develop low cost, scaled-back orbiters that could be launched in the late 2020s or early 2030s. Those probes would study the compositions, structures, and moons of Uranus and Neptune.

“We want to identify potential concepts across a spectrum of price points,” Green said, according to the website, adding that one of the obstacles that NASA has to overcome in order to make this mission a reality is “the huge price tag it takes... to get out to the outer solar system.”

Uranus and Neptune will have to wait their turn, however

Spaceflight Now explained that this is the first step in what will be an ongoing, multi-year effort to send a mission to the icy giant planets. The process will include cost evaluations and technical assessments, as well as federal budgeting and scientific peer review, Green said. Results from the evaluations will be presented to National Research Council scientists in the early 2020s.

A mission to Uranus and/or Neptune would most likely be “a multibillion-dollar flagship-class mission” similar to the Cassini orbiter, which travelled to Saturn, or the forthcoming probe that will be sent to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. NASA’s funding issues mean that only one such project can be in development at a time, so the proposed mission would almost certainly have to wait until the Europa mission launches in 2022.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to be able, even after we get Europa under our belt, to actually execute on the next large mission,” Green said, “but we need to make progress to understand our science priorities and look at this in a way that will prepare us for the next decade, but also utilize new technologies and capabilities that have come up (since the last decadal survey).”

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