We’re always hungering for more Viola Davis. The Oscar winner, 57, is joining the “Hunger Games” prequel as the villainous head game-maker Dr. Volumnia Gaul in “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” based on the novel by the original trilogy’s scribe, Suzanne Collins, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “The ‘Hunger Games’ films have always been elevated by their exceptional casting, and we are thrilled to be continuing that tradition with Viola Davis as Volumnia Gaul. Her formidable and powerful presence will add layers of complexity and menace to this story,” said Nathan Kahane, Lionsgate mo...
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Astronomers now routinely discover planets orbiting stars outside of the solar system – they’re called exoplanets. But in summer 2022, teams working on NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite found a few particularly interesting planets orbiting in the habitable zones of their parent stars.
One planet is 30% larger than Earth and orbits its star in less than three days. The other is 70% larger than the Earth and might host a deep ocean. These two exoplanets are super-Earths – more massive than the Earth but smaller than ice giants like Uranus and Neptune.
Earth is still the only place in the universe scientists know to be home to life. It would seem logical to focus the search for life on Earth clones – planets with properties close to Earth’s. But research has shown that the best chance astronomers have of finding life on another planet is likely to be on a super-Earth similar to the ones found recently.
Common and easy to find
Most super-Earths orbit cool dwarf stars, which are lower in mass and live much longer than the Sun. There are hundreds of cool dwarf stars for every star like the Sun, and scientists have found super-Earths orbiting 40% of cool dwarfs they have looked at. Using that number, astronomers estimate that there are tens of billions of super-Earths in habitable zones where liquid water can exist in the Milky Way alone. Since all life on Earth uses water, water is thought to be critical for habitability.
Based on current projections, about a third of all exoplanets are super-Earths, making them the most common type of exoplanet in the Milky Way. The nearest is only six light-years away from Earth. You might even say that our solar system is unusual since it does not have a planet with a mass between that of Earth and Neptune.
Another reason super-Earths are ideal targets in the search for life is that they’re much easier to detect and study than Earth-sized planets. There are two methods astronomers use to detect exoplanets. One looks for the gravitational effect of a planet on its parent star and the other looks for brief dimming of a star’s light as the planet passes in front of it. Both of these detection methods are easier with a bigger planet.
Super-Earths are super habitable
Over 300 years ago, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that Earth was the “best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz’s argument was meant to address the question of why evil exists, but modern astrobiologists have explored a similar question by asking what makes a planet hospitable to life. It turns out that Earth is not the best of all possible worlds.
Due to Earth’s tectonic activity and changes in the brightness of the Sun, the climate has veered over time from ocean-boiling hot to planetwide, deep-freeze cold. Earth has been uninhabitable for humans and other larger creatures for most of its 4.5-billion-year history. Simulations suggest the long-term habitability of Earth was not inevitable, but was a matter of chance. Humans are literally lucky to be alive.
Researchers have come up with a list of the attributes that make a planet very conducive to life. Larger planets are more likely to be geologically active, a feature that scientists think would promote biological evolution. So the most habitable planet would have roughly twice the mass of the Earth and be between 20% and 30% larger by volume. It would also have oceans that are shallow enough for light to stimulate life all the way to the seafloor and an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). It would have an atmosphere thicker than the Earth’s that would act as an insulating blanket. Finally, such a planet would orbit a star older than the Sun to give life longer to develop, and it would have a strong magnetic field that protects against cosmic radiation. Scientists think that these attributes combined will make a planet super habitable.
By definition, super-Earths have many of the attributes of a super habitable planet. To date, astronomers have discovered two dozen super-Earth exoplanets that are, if not the best of all possible worlds, theoretically more habitable than Earth.
Recently, there’s been an exciting addition to the inventory of habitable planets. Astronomers have started discovering exoplanets that have been ejected from their star systems, and there could be billions of them roaming the Milky Way. If a super-Earth is ejected from its star system and has a dense atmosphere and watery surface, it could sustain life for tens of billions of years, far longer than life on Earth could persist before the Sun dies.
Detecting life on super-Earths
To detect life on distant exoplanets, astronomers will look for biosignatures, byproducts of biology that are detectable in a planet’s atmosphere.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was designed before astronomers had discovered exoplanets, so the telescope is not optimized for exoplanet research. But it is able to do some of this science and is scheduled to target two potentially habitable super-Earths in its first year of operations. Another set of super-Earths with massive oceans discovered in the past few years, as well as the planets discovered this summer, are also compelling targets for James Webb.
But the best chances for finding signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres will come with the next generation of giant, ground-based telescopes: the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the 25.4-meter Giant Magellan Telescope. These telescopes are all under construction and set to start collecting data by the end of the decade.
Astronomers know that the ingredients for life are out there, but habitable does not mean inhabited. Until researchers find evidence of life elsewhere, it’s possible that life on Earth was a unique accident. While there are many reasons why a habitable world would not have signs of life, if, over the coming years, astronomers look at these super habitable super-Earths and find nothing, humanity may be forced to conclude that the universe is a lonely place.
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to correct the size of the Giant Magellan Telescope.
A federal judge tossed out a lawsuit from the right-wing law outfit Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) that challenged the Biden Administration’s student debt forgiveness plan.
WILL had filed the lawsuit earlier this week on behalf of the Brown County Taxpayers Association, arguing the plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for people who make less than $125,000 a year is illegal executive overreach.
Eastern District of Wisconsin Judge William C. Griesbach dismissed the lawsuit, writing in his decision that the BCTA did not have the grounds to bring the lawsuit. WILL had argued that because the BCTA’s members pay federal taxes, they’re able to bring a suit against the executive branch’s use of that money.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held, however, that the payment of taxes is generally not enough to establish standing to challenge an action taken by the Federal Government,” wrote Griesbach, an appointee of President George W. Bush.
WILL said after the dismissal that it planned to appeal the decision.
“This is an extraordinary case based on an extraordinary claim of executive power by the President,” WILL deputy counsel Dan Lennington said in a statement. “This case was always destined to be decided by higher courts, and we will continue the fight to the Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.”
The lawsuit is one of several across the country challenging the loan forgiveness plan, but WILL gained attention for using a racial argument in its suit. The White House has said the plan will narrow the racial wealth gap, a reason WILL argued amounts to an “improper racial motive” and a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection laws.
Previously, WILL has filed lawsuits against other Biden Administration programs that attempted to benefit people of color. In 2021, the group successfully killed a program that provided aid to Black farmers.
The application for student debt forgiveness is expected to be released sometime this month. WILL had asked Griesbach to order a temporary injunction that the applications not be released, a step that he said was unclear he could take, even if the BCTA had standing because “a substantial question remains as to whether Plaintiff can demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm.”
About 685,000 borrowers in Wisconsin will be eligible for relief under the Biden plan, which will forgive $10,000 in debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year, or couples who earn less than $250,000 a year. Pell grant recipients will be eligible for up to $20,000 in debt forgiveness.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, at the end of 2021, Wisconsin had 785,600 borrowers with a collective $24.7 billion in student loan debt. The average balance is $31,482, while the median balance is $17,037. The delinquency rate on those loans is 6%.
Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.
TOPEKA — At national and local levels, Kansas Republicans are rallying around the issue of battling fentanyl to win over voters in a close race.
During Wednesday’s GOP rally in Topeka, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall told the crowd that, unlike Gov. Laura Kelly, Attorney General Derek Schmidt would take fentanyl off the streets.
“We need a governor who supports law and order, and will keep our families safe, and who gets fentanyl off the streets and out of social media,” Marshall said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Legal fentanyl is prescribed for pain relief. Illegal fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs because it’s a cheap way to create a more powerful high. Because fentanyl isn’t detectable without a test strip, people taking fentanyl-laced drugs are at a greater risk of overdose.
Marshall introduced legislation in September aimed at holding social media companies accountable for their role in fentanyl distribution. Marshall believes drug cartels are using social media such as TikTok to traffic fentanyl throughout the U.S.
Schmidt, the GOP nominee for governor, blamed Kelly for rising fentanyl abuse in the state, saying that the “poison” was manufactured in China by a branch of the Chinese Communist Party and then shipped to Mexico, where it is “mixed up and put together by drug cartels” and then smuggled over the border.
Schmidt said Kelly wasn’t doing enough to help southern governors with immigration problems.
“When she was asked for help by the border governors down on the southern border of the United States, she didn’t just say no,” Schmidt said. “She said they’re engaged in political games. That was her phrase.”
Kansas Democrats have pushed back against Schmidt’s rhetoric. State Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said Republicans needed to focus on the state’s fentanyl problem at the local level instead of talking about border issues.
“I would challenge any Republican to tell me what Kansas can do about securing the border with Mexico. We have absolutely zero authority over that,” Probst said. “So for them to try to capture the fentanyl issue, which is a very real issue in our communities, and tie it to border security, it’s a dog whistle, because they can get people scared about immigration and tie it to fentanyl. And try to conflate those two issues.”
Probst also said Schmidt was silent about the fentanyl issue when Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would legalize fentanyl testing strips earlier this year.
“You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little skeptical and jaded and cynical when I now hear Republicans talking about this as an issue they care about,” Probst said.
During the rally, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said if elected, he would take legal action against President Joe Biden, saying his immigration policies opened the door for drugs brought across the Mexican border.
“If Joe Biden comes up with yet another way to open our borders, to bring in more fentanyl to our streets, what are we going to do?” Kobach said, in a call-and-response with the audience.
The audience chorused back: “Sue Joe Biden.”
U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner said Kansas, and the U.S. in general, was being swamped with illegal immigrants bringing fentanyl across the border.
“The Border Patrol is being overrun right here in Kansas,” LaTurner said. “We’re dealing with this on a daily basis. The No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 is fentanyl. Over 300 Americans every single day are dying of this. It’s pouring across our southern border, and this administration isn’t doing anything about it.”
LaTurner’s statistics have not been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said leading causes of death among all American adults in 2020 were heart disease, cancer and COVID-19. Preliminary CDC data for 2021 shows a similar trend.
Opioid overdoses are on the rise, though. CDC data for 2021 showed more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in a single year, with most of these overdoses involving opioids.
In 2021, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said that out of the 338 drug overdoses reported between Jan. 1 and June. 30 of that year, 149 were related to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. The provisional report showed a 54% increase in fatalities from an overdose during the same six-month period in 2020.
A new report of child deaths across the state showed six fentanyl-related deaths in children under the age of 17 in 2020.
Kelly announced a $17.2 million federal grant given to the state and the Kickapoo Tribe to address the opioid crisis on Thursday, a day after Schmidt’s comments.
The funding will be used to treat opioid addiction and increase access to recovery support services, among others, with the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths. According to the press release, recovery support services will go to those using prescription opioids, heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and psychostimulants.
“The opioid crisis impacts families across Kansas, which is why it’s critical that we make opioid treatment and prevention resources available in every community,” Kelly said in the news release. “This funding will help make that possible, and in doing so save lives and bring relief to struggling Kansans.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.