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Carl Sagan’s Unmade Second Show

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Two weeks ago, 5.8 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s highly-anticipated Cosmos reboot. The late Carl Sagan hosted the series’ original incarnation, which consisted of 13 mesmerizing episodes that forever changed science journalism. But few people know that Sagan had yet another TV show in the works—one that regrettably never saw the light of day.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was an astronomical hit. After airing on PBS in 1980, the program won a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and (until Ken Burns’ The Civil War came along ten years later) became the most-watched series in the history of Public Television. Sagan had teamed up with writer Ann Druyan (soon to be his wife) and fellow astrophysicist Steve Soter to create the cosmic documentary. Pleased by their success, it wasn’t long before the trio began discussing plans for a sequel.

Eventually, they hatched a plan for a second show, one that would focus on the looming Cold War arms race [PDF]. Its predecessor had delved into topics ranging from the Big Bang theory to neuropsychology. This new collaboration, however, would exclusively cover nuclear physics and the ethics of atomic warfare. Sagan called the project Nucleus.

Hoping to capitalize on Cosmos, ABC eagerly bought the rights to its sequel, meaning that Nucleus would find an even wider audience. But problems began to emerge when ABC released a controversial made-for-TV movie called The Day After in 1983. During the apocalyptic film, an atomic bomb detonates over Kansas City, Missouri. What follows is a graphic montage of civilians being burned to a crisp, as you can see in this clip:

The Day After had a grim, anti-nuclear tone which became a political lightning rod for conservative organizations across the country. In the face of all this controversy, ABC began to have second thoughts about putting yet another program on the subject into its lineup.

Sagan’s ongoing feud with Ronald Reagan certainly didn’t help matters. The science communicator was intensely critical of the president’s "Star Wars" defense program and turned down several invitations to the White House.

But it was the Soviet attack on Korean Air Liner 007 that August that drove the final nail into the Nucleus coffin. Two hundred and sixty-nine passengers were killed in this assault, including U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia. According to Sagan biographer William Poundstone, “The international incident seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. ABC put Nucleus on the far-back burner and never brought it forward again.” 

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Space
Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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The Ozone Layer Is Healing, Thanks to an International Ban on Harmful Man-Made Chemicals
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NASA

The ozone layer is on the mend, thanks to a decrease in human-produced chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in the atmosphere. Using data from NASA's Aura satellite, scientists were able to measure the chemical composition of the thinned gas layer above the Antarctic and found about 20 percent less ozone depletion than there was in 2005. They published their findings on January 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

In 1985, UK scientists published a landmark study in the journal Nature announcing their discovery of an annually recurring hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. (Each September, as the Southern Hemisphere's winter arrives, the Sun's UV rays trigger a reaction between the ozone and chemical elements from CFCs, chlorine and bromine, which destroys the ozone molecules.) The finding led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty that gradually banned the production and use of CFCs in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, solvents, and air conditioners.

In July 2016, Antarctic researchers published a study in the journal Science reporting that the ozone layer appeared to be healing (although it wasn't projected to completely patch up for decades). They tracked this progress by monitoring the Antarctic ozone hole's area, height, and chemical profile. Still, they didn't know whether this progress could be attributed to the Montreal Protocol's mandate.

NASA itself has used Aura to monitor the hole since the mid-2000s. After analyzing data produced by the Microwave Limb Sounder, a satellite instrument aboard Aura that measures trace gases, the space agency has confirmed that the CFC ban has led to the big decrease in ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter.

By winter, ozone-busting chlorine compounds have converted into hydrochloric acid, a process that occurs after it's destroyed ozone particles and reacts with methane. "By around mid-October, all the chlorine compounds are conveniently converted into one gas, so by measuring hydrochloric acid, we have a good measurement of the total chlorine," researcher Susan Strahan said in a NASA statement. Scientists compared these hydrochloric acid levels with nitrous oxide, which is similar in nature to CFCs but isn't diminishing in the atmosphere.

Their study is billed as "the first to use measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole to confirm that not only is ozone depletion decreasing, but that the decrease is caused by the decline in CFCs," according to NASA. But while these initial results are promising, scientists say that the ozone layer's full recovery is still a long way off.

"As far as the ozone hole being gone, we're looking at 2060 or 2080,” study co-author Anne Douglass said. “And even then there might still be a small hole."

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