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Chris Hadfield
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18-ton section of Chinese rocket crash lands following uncontrolled reentry

If you were awaiting screaming death from the skies, you can relax. For now.

China's Long March 5 (CZ-5B) rocket on the way up.

Image source: STR/Getty Images
  • China's Long March 5 rocket core has landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean following an uncontrolled entry.
  • Most of the time, returning hardware that doesn't burn up plunges into the ocean or uninhabited areas.
  • There have been two larger returnees in the past, though this one was quite big.

Maybe future generations will look back on these early days of space exploration and chuckle at what we had to suffer through. We live in a time when, every now and then, word goes out that some giant chunk of uncontrolled defunct space junk is about to crash down upon us somewhere, so, um, duck? The hope during such moments is that the deadly debris will land in the ocean that covers most of the Earth's surface or in some unpopulated area, and it usually does. Usually.

Anyhow, if you've been anxiously looking up this week — either at the sky or your ceiling in quarantine — waiting for the core section of China's Long March 5 (CZ-5B) rocket to end you, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It landed safely, for humans anyway, in the ocean off the west coast of Mauritania in northwest Africa on May 11.

Long March into the sea

Though CZ-5B is one of the largest craft to come down in an uncontrolled reentry, its size is not the only thing that had astronomers like Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on the edge of their seats. "I've never seen a major reentry pass directly over so many major conurbations!" he tweeted. (A conurbation is an extended urban area.)

While some debris comes down via a controlled landing, that was not the plan for CZ-5B. McDowell tells CNN, "For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth." No biggie, he says, since, "Once they reach the lower atmosphere they are traveling relatively slowly, so worst case is they could take out a house."

CZ-5B took off just a week or so ago, on May 5 for just a few days in orbit. Some of its 30-meter-long core stage burned up on reentry, and apparently none of what remained hit anyone, but there are reports of property damage in the Côte d'Ivoire village of N'guinou.

We’ve ducked debris before

A no-doubt radioactive piece of Cosmos 954

Image source: Natural Resources Canada/Wikimedia

At this point, there have been a number of well-publicized spacecraft plummeting down destination-unknown. Probably the scariest was the return of the 4.4-ton Soviet-era spy satellite Cosmos 954. What made its uncontrolled re-entry so frightening is that it was nuclear-powered and threatened to spew radioactive material all over wherever or whomever. The original plan had been to boost it high into a nuclear-safe orbit, but a separation failure doomed the craft to fall back to Earth.

In the end, Cosmos 954 did crash in Northwestern Canada, blowing radioactive debris over a wide area. Canada billed the U.S.S.R $6 million for the cleanup, of which only $3 million was eventually paid.

Probably the first widely publicized uncontrolled return, and one of the two most massive, was of Skylab in 1979. It was another case of a craft coming back earlier than intended, and though NASA couldn't control the 77-ton craft's reentry point, it could control the manner in which it tumbled on down. The nail-biting ended on July 11, 1979, when most of Skylab burned up over the Indian Ocean, though some big pieces survived the descent and landed southeast of Perth, Australia. No one got hurt. The Australian town of Esperance charged NASA $400 for littering. The U.S. also didn't pay up.

Another piece of debris larger than CZ-5B was the Soviet Salyut 7 after nine years in orbit. At the time it came down, it was docked with another spaceship, Cosmos 1686. Salyut 7 weighted in at about 22 tons, as did Cosmos 1686. The connected pair of craft reentered together, burning up and breaking apart over Argentina, with bits raining down on the town of Capitan Bermudez. Amazingly, no one was injured.

One could say we've been pretty lucky so far, though it's hard not to look forward to a time when dying spacecraft can be somehow vaporized out in space where it's safe instead putting those of us down here at absolutely-nothing-you-can-do-about-it risk.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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