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  • richardmitnick 10:43 am on July 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Placebos, WSJ   

    From WSJ: “Why Placebos Really Work: The Latest Science” 

    Wall Street Journal

    The Wall Street Journal

    July 18, 2016
    Sumathi Reddy

    New evidence suggests the fake drugs may cause changes in the body, not just the mind

    Illustration: Jason Schneider for The Wall Street Journal

    Scientists are finding a growing number of ways placebos appear to bring about real health benefits in patients.

    The research could someday lead to increased use of placebos—substances that have no apparent pharmaceutical effect—in treatments for common diseases.

    Studies have shown that administering placebos reduces pain and symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and migraines, even when patients know they are taking a placebo. Scientists are exploring if they can get the same result in chronic back pain and cancer-related fatigue.

    Parkinson’s-disease researchers discovered that stopping patients’ real medication and substituting a placebo continues to ease their symptoms, likely because the body is preconditioned to trigger the same response.

    Numerous studies have documented neurobiological effects that placebos have in the brain, resulting in the release of neuromodulators that can help reduce pain and symptoms of illness. New evidence suggests the fake drugs may also affect the body, in particular the immune system, according to an animal study published online in July in the journal Nature Medicine.

    “This is not just making it up in your mind. The placebo effect has a biology,” says Ted J. Kaptchuk, director of the Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “The pathways that we know the placebo effects use are the pathways many significant drugs use.”

    Placebos are most commonly used in clinical drug trials, paired off against a new drug being developed. A surprisingly large number of doctors—studies and surveys suggest at least half—prescribe placebos to their patients. This is usually when there isn’t a suitable remedy on the market for a patient’s symptoms or the symptoms don’t seem to be a serious threat, such as fatigue or minor aches.

    The placebos doctors most often prescribe are active drugs but in such low doses that there is no apparent therapeutic benefit, says Walter Brown, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University who wrote “The Placebo Effect in Clinical Practice,” a book published in 2013. Physicians also prescribe vitamins, antibiotics or over-the-counter analgesics, like aspirin. Doctors rarely will prescribe an outright sugar pill.

    Guidelines from the American Medical Association from 2006 tell doctors it is unethical to give patients a placebo without disclosing it to them. But few doctors are believed to actually do this, experts say.

    Dozens of studies have shown that the power of placebos goes beyond patients’ imaginations, says Prof. Kaptchuk, of Beth Israel Deaconess. This was first demonstrated in 1979 when patients in a dental-pain experiment were given a placebo they thought was a painkiller, he says. About one-third of them reported less pain. Subsequent drugs to block the action of painkillers removed the placebo effect.

    The study showed placebos cause the brain to release endogenous opioids, or endorphins, that reduce pain, Prof. Kaptchuk says. Subsequent research has found that other substances are also activated by placebos, including endocannabinoids and dopamine, part of the brain’s reward system.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:47 pm on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From WSJ: “The Perils of Romanticizing Physics” 

    Wall Street Journal

    The Wall Street Journal

    Dec. 8, 2014
    Ira Rothstein
    Mr. Rothstein is a professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University.

    It is good to see movies such as Interstellar and The Theory of Everything achieving critical and box-office success—the latest evidence that the ideas involved in relativity and quantum mechanics can capture the imagination.

    Getty Images/Science Photo Library

    Physicists, such as myself, who work on these abstract subjects are funded predominantly by dwindling government grants and have an obligation to communicate these ideas to the public. But relating abstract mathematical ideas to those with less training is difficult, and it requires some pedagogical shortcuts that by necessity are oversimplifications. Quite often one must rely on metaphorical tools that, while vaguely capturing the idea, can often lead to false conclusions.

    The classic example of this comes from Albert Einstein. When trying to explain the concept of time dilation predicted in the theory of relativity, he said, “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”

    The maestro’s explanation is romantic, but it is also misleading: What Einstein was referring to is a psychological phenomenon, while time dilation is physical, as wonderfully depicted in Interstellar when the protagonist, Cooper, is forced to spend time in the proximity of a black-hole horizon, where his clock slows down relative to the Earth’s clock. Upon returning to Earth, he finds that his daughter, who was a teenager when he left, is now elderly, while he is still a young man.

    Understanding the fundamental nature of space and time gives us an appreciation of our place in the universe. But we should be careful not to extrapolate these ideas improperly. The possible implications of quantum entanglement in particular have resonated in modern culture—whether in the physics-infused movies of the moment or in the poet and essayist Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013). He wrote: “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication.”

    While this is lovely prose, the conclusion is misleading. Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in which two particles—say, electrons—are produced in such a way that they are correlated. So, if we know that one of them is spinning in one direction, then we know the other is spinning in the opposite way. What is remarkable about quantum mechanics is that we don’t know which way either particle is spinning until we measure it.

    Moreover, the spin of each particle is “fuzzy”—in some sense, in multiple spin states at the same time—until this measurement is made. But once we measure one particle’s spin, the other particle’s spin is fixed instantaneously, even if they were on opposite sides of our galaxy. (This seems to violate the idea that nothing can travel faster then the speed of light, but that’s another story.)

    Yet this quantum entanglement is extremely fragile and is destroyed by interactions with the surrounding environment. Trying to keep particles entangled at macroscopic-distance scales is a significant challenge for experimentalists. The truth is that humans are not interconnected by entanglement, at least not in the sense related by Mr. Wiman. I find it remarkable and inspiring that some of the discipline’s esoteric ideas have percolated into public consciousness, but we should be wary of applying them to matters that are better left to philosophers and theologians.

    With millions of moviegoers seeing Interstellar and The Theory of Everything, the temptation is stronger than ever to misapply modern ideas of physics in viewing the world. But we don’t need science to illuminate how we are interconnected—it is our humanity and our shared experiences, our joys and sorrows, not quantum mechanics and relativity, that bind us.

    Maybe that’s why the concept of time fascinates us so. After all, time is the fabric into which our lives are woven and in some sense defines the human condition. If we could only understand time better, maybe by finding the one “final equation”—as sought in “The Theory of Everything” by Stephen Hawking ( Eddie Redmayne ) and in “Interstellar” by Jessica Chastain ’s astrophysicist character—we would find some underlying secret that would shed light on the nature of our existence.

    Personally, I can say that my research on black holes hasn’t helped me get any closer to the most effective answer to my children’s most profound question about time and space: “Are we there yet?”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 6:55 am on July 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From The Wall Street Journal: “Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe” 

    Wall Street Journal

    The Wall Street Journal

    By Alan Hirshfeld
    Bellevue Literary Press, 399 pages, $19.95
    July 25, 2014
    Peter Pesic

    The crispness of Saturn’s rings; the strange, vivid colors of nebulae; the imposing spirals of distant galaxies: sights so vivid and familiar that we feel we have actually seen them ourselves, with our own eyes. Yet all these iconic views depend on photography or computer imaging, often pushed to their extremes, far beyond the capability of the human eye. To a surprising extent, what we consider “our” vision of the cosmos is really shaped by technological artifice. Alan Hirshfeld’s Starlight Detectives tells the story of how photography entered astronomy and transformed it, utterly changing our understanding of the universe.
    Starlight Detectives

    A long-exposure image of the Palomar Observatory near San Diego shows the 200-inch telescope inside its rotating dome. © Bill Ross/CORBIS

    Mr. Hirshfeld, a physicist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, writes clearly and engagingly, at times excitedly. To be sure, anyone who has ever looked through a telescope will recognize what Mr. Hirshfeld describes: “Looking at a star in the eyepiece, one sees, not a languid speckle against the firmament, but a crazed firefly, darting about in random fits.” He brings forth a large and mostly unfamiliar cast of remarkably interesting characters. Many of them were amateurs in an age when that was not a derogatory term but denoted “lovers” of astronomy in the most literal, positive and passionate sense. For instance, in the early 1800s, William Bond went from his day job in a Boston clockmaker’s shop to nights spent scanning the skies. He prepared for these sessions, Mr. Hirshfeld recounts, by “staring into a well for ten minutes” to adapt his eyes. Bond was the first in America to spot the Great Comet of 1811, and by 1851 he had helped make one of the first daguerreotypes of the moon. What made this difficult was that the insensitive photographic plates of the day required very long exposures, and telescopes didn’t yet have the mechanical capability to track their objects steadily.

    Bond became the astronomer at the fledgling Harvard observatory, but many of his peers were pure amateurs, some of them wealthy, pouring their fortunes as well as their sleepless hours into home observatories. Mr. Hirshfeld has a keen eye for these personalities and their stories. His enthusiasm is justified by such extraordinary characters as John and Anna Draper, whose Manhattan mansion included a state-of-the-art (for 1870) observatory on the far edges of the city (at the time, around 40th Street). After completing his own grand tour of the Continent, their son Henry took up their work—if only Henry James or Edith Wharton had treated these astronomical votaries and their curious quests!


    Interestingly, these amateurs were often more advanced in their views than the professional astronomers of the time, who devoted themselves to arduous measurements of celestial position, following the mathematical direction that had long guided astronomical practice. In contrast, amateurs such as Lewis M. Rutherfurd in America and William Huggins in England pioneered the development of astrophysics, the study of stars and galaxies as laboratories for physical processes mostly impossible on earth. For a long time, the professionals judged that their trained eyes could see far more than imperfect photographs recorded. Mr. Hirshfeld gives a good account of how the tables turned so that by about 1900 photography had become the central tool of astronomy, eclipsing the skills of even the best observers.

    In the process, though, as telescopes became ever more complex and expensive, the inspired participation of amateurs increasingly gave way to the dominance of professionals. Still, non-professionals were at the forefront of introducing the use of the “spectroscope” as an essential adjunct to photography. As early as the 1810s, optical observers had begun to notice that various distinct colored lines appeared when the light of celestial objects was passed through prisms, lines that evidently gave clues to their sources’ chemical composition. Only photography could record these faint traces with sufficient precision and clarity.

    Schematic of a grating spectrometer

    Mr. Hirshfeld is particularly good at describing the collaboration of Robert Bunsen, a pre-eminent chemist, with the younger physicist Gustav Kirchhoff; they began working together in the late 1850s. Kirchhoff was short and self-conscious, Bunsen tall and fearless, often burning his fingers while handling hot glass tubes, losing consciousness from noxious fumes, even losing sight in one eye from an explosion. Together they brought new clarity to the understanding of the spectral lines of elements that could be recognized in light from stars. Those stellar spectra also revealed the motion of the stars in relation to earth: Light from stars moving away from us looks redder; light from stars moving toward us looks bluer.

    Mr. Hirshfeld ends with the grand story of the increasingly large reflecting telescopes built in the early 20th century. By then, it was clear that refracting telescopes, which magnified their objects using ever-thicker lenses, absorbed too much of the faint starlight they were to record. Reflectors, by contrast, could be built to scales that seem (to this day) to have no limit. But these mammoth instruments required funding beyond what individual benefactors provided. The astronomer George Ellery Hale became a new kind of leader, raising from Andrew Carnegie’s charitable foundation the large sums needed to build the new generation of telescopes. Hale was involved in the design and construction of the 60-inch reflector built for Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, an instrument he later moved to the clearer skies of California. There he also guided the building of the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson and the 200-inch reflector on Mount Palomar (only finished in 1948, after his death). Though Hale was in many respects indomitable and indefatigable, his wife and children suffered from the incessant strain; he himself underwent four mental

    Caltech Hale Telescope at Palomar
    200in Hale Telescope

    Mount Wilson Telescope
    100in Mt Wilson telescope

    Palomar Observatory
    200in Palomar Observatory

    Eventually, using Hale’s instruments, Edwin Hubble and others made the crucial observations that in 1929 established that our galaxy is only one among a vast number of others, which the spectroscope showed were receding. Mr. Hirshfeld tells this climactic discovery of the expanding universe with great verve and sweep, as befits a story whose scope, characters and import leave most fiction far behind.

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  • richardmitnick 6:31 am on August 17, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , WSJ   

    From The Wall Street Journal: “How a Black Hole Really Works” 

    Wall Street Journal

    This is copyright protected, so just a glimpse.

    August 17-18, 2013

    “The black hole at the center of our galaxy has been on a near-starvation diet for almost a million years—but now it’s time for a snack.

    Scientists in Garching, Germany, are closely watching a rare event some 26,000 light years away: a supermassive black hole in the act of devouring a huge gas cloud. It’s providing the first-ever glimpse of how a black hole uses its massive gravitational power to pull in and consume interstellar materials—a little understood phenomenon.

    Representation of a supermissive black hole

    “The cloud is being torn apart,” said Stefan Gillessen of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, who first brought the event to the world’s attention in 2011.

    Stars closely orbiting the black hole indicate that it has the gravitational pulling power of four million suns. That gravity is now starting to act on the gas cloud, which itself is about 37 billion miles long. Using data from the European-funded [read, ESO] Very Large Telescope, or VLT, perched high up in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Dr. Gillessen’s team recently concluded that the front of the gas cloud is traveling 310 miles per second faster than its tail. About 10% of the cloud has already been dragged to the far side of the black hole.

    ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, Chile

    ‘In astronomy, you rarely have the chance to catch something in the act,’ said Andrea Ghez, an astrophysicist who leads a rival group observing the event at the University of California, Los Angeles. ‘We just don’t know what will happen.’

    In January 2012, the Max Planck team published its findings in the journal Nature. They concluded that the blob was a gas cloud, of unknown origin, in the gravitational clutches of the Milky Way’s black hole.”

    See the full article here.

    The writer fails to mention that the VLT at Cerro Paranal, Chile is the flagship installation of European Southern Observatory, based in Garching, Germany.

    He also fails to note that Dr Ghez was the 2012 winner of the prestigious Crafoord Prize in Astronomy, the equivalent of a Nobel prize. There is no Nobel for Astronomy.

    Also, there is no mention of what instrument(s) are being used by Dr Ghez. I would assume that it is the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

    Dr Ghez is a member of the team which will build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), on Mauna Kea. This instrument will compete with ESO’s Extra Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be built at Cerro Armazones, Chile.

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  • richardmitnick 3:04 pm on October 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , WSJ   

    From the Wall Street Journal: “Photo-Op: A Star Is Born” Book Review 

    This is copyright protected material, so just a glimpse-

    September 29, 2012
    Writer Credit: “The Editors”

    “Since its 1990 launch into orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope has circled the Earth every 96 minutes and examined thousands of celestial objects—undistracted by the atmospheric distortion that hinders Earthbound telescopes. The enormous sidereal nursery at the center of the Carina Nebula, the Milky Way’s largest star-forming region, is at once terrifying and inspiring: Located about 7,500 light-years away from the Earth, in the southern constellation Carina, these strangely anthropomorphic clouds of hydrogen gas and dust are lit up by surrounding stars and galaxies. Hubble’s Universe: Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images (Firefly, 300 pages, $49.95) presents 300 of the remarkable Hubble images, many of such impossibly distant objects as NGC 5584, an almost perfectly symmetrical spiral galaxy some 72 million light-years from the Earth.”

    Carina Nebula (NGC 3372)

    ngc 5584
    NGC 5584 Composite of several exposures taken in visible light between January and April 2010 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3

    ESA/NASA Hubble

    The book, Hubble’s Universe:Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images, published by Firefly, is available for $49.95

    See the full review here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:35 pm on January 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply
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    From the Wall Street Journal: “An Otherworldly Discovery: Billions of Other Planets” 

    This is copyright protected, so just a couple of notes.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    “Astronomers said Wednesday that each of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way probably has at least one companion planet, on average, adding credence to the notion that planets are as common in the cosmos as grains of sand on the beach.

    The finding underscores a fundamental shift in scientific understanding of planetary systems in the cosmos. Our own solar system, considered unique not so long ago, turns out to be just one among billions.

    Until April 1994, there was no other known solar system, but the discoveries have slowly mounted since then: The Kepler space telescope, designed for planet-hunting, now finds them routinely.

    ‘Planets are the rule rather than the exception,’ said lead astronomer Arnaud Cassan at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris. He led an international team of 42 scientists who spent six years surveying millions of stars at the heart of the Milky Way, in the most comprehensive effort yet to gauge the prevalence of planets in the galaxy.

    Astronomers using the Kepler telescope found the first known double-star planet just last September—Kepler-16b, a gassy oddball orb the size of Saturn that circles a pair of stars 200 light-years from Earth, like the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars films.

    Kepler 16B

    See the full article here.

  • richardmitnick 9:21 pm on December 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , WSJ   

    From the Wall Street Journal – Solar is Failing. But From Some Guys at Harvard – We’re Just Getting Serious 

    First, Dark Times For Solar Sector
    [This article is copyright protected, so just a few lines.]

    Yuliva Chernova

    “Long viewed as a remedy for the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, the solar industry is dimming as makers of panels used to harness the sun continue to fall by the wayside.
    Bankruptcies, plummeting stock prices and crushing debt loads are calling into question the viability of an industry that since the 1970s has been counted on to advance the U.S.—and the world—into a new energy age.”

    See the full article here.

    But then, along come a bunch of really smart scientists and I/T folks at Harvard, looking for good cheap alternatives to the failing “…polysilicon, wafers, and the modules themselves… cited in Ms Chernova’s article.

    Meet The Clean Energy Project (CEP2), a computational research group at Harvard under the aegis of IBM’s Smarter Planet group called World Community Grid (WCG).

    The mission of The Clean Energy Project is to find new materials for the next generation of solar cells and later, energy storage devices. By harnessing the immense power of World Community Grid, researchers can calculate the electronic properties of hundreds of thousands of organic materials – thousands of times more than could ever be tested in a lab – and determine which candidates are most promising for developing affordable solar energy technology.

    We are living in the Age of Energy. The fossil fuel based economy of the present must give way to the renewable energy based economy of the future, but getting there is one of the greatest challenge humanity faces. Chemistry can help meet this challenge by discovering new materials that efficiently harvest solar radiation, store energy for later use, and reconvert the stored energy when needed.

    The Clean Energy Project uses computational chemistry and the willingness of people to help look for the best molecules possible for: organic photovoltaics to provide inexpensive solar cells, polymers for the membranes used in fuel cells for electricity generation, and how best to assemble the molecules to make those devices. By helping search combinatorially among thousands of potential systems, World Community Grid volunteers are contributing to this effort.”

    Here is a short video on the project.

    Now, these guys think they are talking about helping areas in the world with little or no electricity. But, Thomas Edison’s work went way beyond the light bulb. Did the guys at CERN know they would originate the World Wide Web? Check it out at Wikipedia, “Using concepts from earlier hypertext systems, British engineer and computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, now Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), wrote a proposal in March 1989 for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, Berners-Lee and Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau proposed in 1990 to use hypertext ‘… to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will’, and they publicly introduced the project in December.”

    Now, why should we expect less from this project?

    What should you do? Visit (WCG), download an install the small piece of software, and then attach to the project. You may well be helping yourself, your children, and your grandchildren.

  • richardmitnick 3:38 pm on December 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , WSJ   

    From The Wall Street Journal Review: “On the Margins of Science” 

    Michael Shermer
    DECEMBER 10, 2011

    This book review is copyright protected, so just a couple of words.

    Physics On the Fringe, By Margaret Wertheim
    Walker & Company (October 25, 2011)

    “…As a professional debunker, I feel that I know bunk when I see it. Yet Ms. Wertheim has convinced me that I may be too hasty in pre-emptively dismissing some of these outsiders, especially the central character of her story—a man she calls the Einstein of outsiders, Jim Carter. This trailer-park owner and inventor from Washington state has developed his own theory of matter, energy and gravity, which he demonstrates in his backyard by using do-it-yourself contraptions made from such materials as a garbage can and a disco fog machine, from which he makes smoke rings.

    Mr. Carter believes that atoms are constructed of circlons—’hollow, ring-shaped mechanical particles that are held together within the nucleus by their physical shapes.’ His circlon theory allows him to tie together both quantum mechanics and the special and general theories of relativity—sort of. You might laugh, as I initially did. But Ms. Wertheim points out that string theory—one of the “theories of everything” endorsed by many prominent physicists—has just as little empirical evidence in its favor…..”


    See the full article here.

    Intrigued? Read the review and buy the book.

  • richardmitnick 3:15 pm on October 1, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , WSJ   

    From the Wall Street Journal: Bad Title But Good Article – “Accelerator Finds New Gear” 

    This article is copyright protected, so, just a touch, and compliments to the WSJ for being there.

    Oct 1, 2011

    “Scientists on Friday powered down the nation’s largest particle accelerator that for nearly three decades has been revealing insights into the building blocks of matter.




    But closing the Tevatron accelerator—a four-mile-long circular track that fires particles at dizzying speeds—won’t mean the end of cutting-edge research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. While the Tevatron has been surpassed in size and speed by the 17-mile track at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, Fermilab has a full plate of experiments ahead, both at its existing facility and at those yet to be built.”

    So, good article, but bad title: The accelerator, the Tevatron, has been closed down. But the laboratory, Fermilab, is beginning a new phase of its life.

    See the full article here.

    Fermilab is an enduring source of strength for the US contribution to scientific research world wide.

  • richardmitnick 10:41 am on August 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: US space flights, WSJ   

    From The Wall Street Journal: “Private Space Taxis Race to the Launch Pad” 

    Good to see this in print to quell the fears that we are losing it in Sapce.

    This is copyright protected, so just a wee bit.

    AUGUST 17, 2011

    “Private spacecraft will begin docking with the International Space Station before the end of the year, months sooner than planned, after NASA gave the green light for the first cargo delivery by such a capsule.

    Space Exploration Technology Corp. said the U.S. space agency has given tentative approval for it to conduct the late November flight. The launch will accelerate the shift to private ventures for future manned missions.


    The flight will feature the initial effort to dock the company’s Dragon capsule—the pioneer commercial spacecraft— with the space station, orbiting more than 200 miles above the earth.

    In accelerating by at least several months the timetable for linking up with the station, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will provide the company and other private space outfits a symbolic and potentially important financial boost.

    See the full article here.

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