How Bats and COVID Canceled Halloween

Bats, a symbol of Halloween, may be responsible for canceling it this year.The coronavirus that has grounded trick-or-treaters likely came from bats.These creatures of the night have evolved a spooky ability to harbor a number of viruses that can kill humans — without getting sick themselves.How they do it may hold the key to immortality — or a longer life, anyway.Guilt by associationThough there is no smoking gun showing that the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic came from bats, the virus is closely related to several others they harbor.Bats also are known to carry rabies and the Marburg hemorrhagic fever virus, and they are lead suspects as the source of Ebola and the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.It sure seems like they carry a lot of nasty viruses.But “maybe we just have a lot of bat viruses because there’s lots of bats,” said University of Glasgow researcher Daniel Streicker.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 9 MB480p | 13 MB540p | 16 MB720p | 32 MB1080p | 66 MBOriginal | 82 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioThere are roughly 1,400 different species around the world, Streicker noted, second only to rodents, which also carry a lot of diseases.”It isn’t the bats. They figured out how to deal with their viruses,” University of Saskatchewan microbiologist Vikram Misra said.Taking offTheir virus-resisting powers may be an unexpected byproduct of evolving to fly.Flying requires a tremendous amount of energy. Generating that energy also produces toxic byproducts that can damage cells.Normally, cell damage would trigger inflammation, the immune system’s first line of defense. The same inflammatory response kicks in whether the damage comes from toxic molecules, injury or infection. As part of the response, the body mobilizes cells to the damaged area that can blast germs or infected cells.Too much inflammation can kill. Overactive inflammatory responses are what lead to lung damage, blood clots and other fatal complications in COVID-19 patients.”Maybe bats had to down-regulate their responses just not to get inflamed every time they had to fly,” said University of Rochester biology professor Vera Gorbunova.But flight “doesn’t explain everything about bats,” she said. Another reason their immune systems are different from most mammals may be because of the way they live.Bats live in colonies that can number in the millions of individuals, roosting shoulder to shoulder. Diseases could spread quickly in those close quarters.”They probably evolved defenses because they’re exposed to a lot of viruses,” Gorbunova said.Delicate balanceFor whatever reason, their adaptations appear to be so important that they evolved independently in different bat species, a new study shows.Turning down a key immune response would seem to leave bats open to infection. But evolution has turned up another line of defense that targets viruses.Bats and viruses may have reached a “wonderfully balanced relationship where viruses don’t cause diseases and bats don’t get rid of the viruses,” Misra said. He and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan have found that bat cells can remain infected for months.But stress — from humans encroaching on their habitat or capturing them to sell at live-animal markets — may disrupt that relationship.”If you upset this delicate balance in such a way that the viruses now have an upper hand,” Misra said, “then the viruses start to multiply and the bats now start to shed more of these viruses. We think that that may be one of the reasons why spillovers occur” and the viruses jump into another species.”We can’t say for sure that that’s the case,” he added, but he and his colleagues are testing the idea now.Live long and prosperAside from reaching a detente with viruses, bats may have reaped another unintended reward from learning to fly. They may have discovered the fountain of youth.Bats live disproportionately long and healthy lives for their size. Take North American little brown bats, which are “about the size your thumb,” Misra said.”Normally, you would expect them to live maybe two years, three years, if you compare them to animals that are of comparable size,” he said. “These bats live 30 or 40 years.”The key may be their ability to tamp down inflammation without leaving themselves exposed to viruses.”Inflammation may be the driving force of age-related diseases,” biology professor Gorbunova said. It is a factor in Alzheimer’s disease, some forms of heart disease, diabetes and many others.With more research, she added, perhaps the bats that seem to be responsible for so much suffering can someday help us live longer.

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Global COVD-19 Cases Top 45 Million

Globally, COVID-19 cases have exceeded 45 million and nearly 1.2 million people have succumbed to the virus, according to the latest data. VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo reports on countries with the highest number of cases, the US, India and Brazil, respectively.

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Rare Meteorite Contains ‘Rich Inventory’ of Organic Compounds

Researchers say a rare type of meteor recovered nearly three years ago from a frozen lake in the U.S. state of Michigan has offered one of the best glimpses yet into the organic compounds such objects carry.A study published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science tells the story of a bright meteor, also known as fireballs for how they light up the night sky, that fell in January 2018.Researchers say the meteors that shine with such brightness are usually larger and have traveled farther into Earth’s atmosphere without breaking up, raising hopes pieces could be recovered. Using weather radar, they were able to track the meteor’s trajectory, discovering large pieces just two days after it hit a frozen lake.University of Chicago researcher Philipp Heck said finding the meteorite (what a meteor is called once it lands on Earth) pieces so quickly and on a frozen lake was significant. He said meteors often fall into dirt or water, and if they are not discovered quickly, they can be contaminated by organic Earth material.The researchers determined they’d found an “H4 chondrite” meteorite. Only 4% of all meteorites falling to Earth are of this type, at least in recent history. Heck said it had “a rich inventory of extraterrestrial organic compounds,” which contain carbon, one of the basic ingredients of life on Earth.The discovery adds evidence to the widely held theory that compounds such as these — the so-called building blocks of life — were delivered to Earth by similar meteors shortly after Earth formed.Heck said the discovery of the Michigan meteor and subsequent analysis also helped scientists develop new analytical techniques to study meteors of its kind and gain knowledge that can be shared with other scientists around the world.

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Rising New Tide of COVID-19 Cases Worldwide Force Leaders to Consider New Lockdowns

A rising tide of new coronavirus cases worldwide is forcing leaders to consider new lockdown measures to contain an increase in infections.
 
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said in an interview with BBC television Friday a national lockdown in his country is not inevitable to prevent the further spread of the disease, adding that a localized approach would be efficient if rules for each area were strictly observed.
 
Raab’s statment followed announcements by leaders of France and Germany earlier in the week to impose new lockdowns.
 
French President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide monthlong lockdown that will take effect Friday. Macron said restaurants, bars, cafes and other nonessential businesses will be closed, while citizens will only be allowed to leave their homes for work, shopping and doctor appointments.
 German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a debate about German government’s policies to combat the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 disease at the parliament Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a set of similar measures in her own month-long lockdown which takes effect Monday. In addition to restaurants and bars, all gyms, theaters and opera houses will be shut down under Merkel’s order, while the majority of businesses, shops and hair salons will be allowed to remain open.  
 
Schools in both nations will remain open during their respective lockdowns.  
The restrictions were announced by Macron and Merkel as both nations struggle with a record number of new COVID-19 cases practically every day.
 
France and Germany joined several other European nations that have been forced to impose a new set of restrictions to deal with a second and growing wave of the virus as the cold weather season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere.
 
Ukraine reported Friday a record 8,312 new COVID-19 cases in the previous 24 hours, up from the October 23 high of 7,517, with total infections at 378,729. The deaths also jumped by a record 173, for a toll of 7,041.
 
In Japan, the health ministry said Friday that the coronavirus cases topped 100,000, nine months after the first case was reported in mid-January. Japan has more than 1,700 deaths.
 
As of early Friday, there are more than 45 million total COVID-19 cases worldwide, including over 1.18 million deaths. India has reached the milestone of over 8 million total novel coronavirus cases, second only to the United States, with 8.94 million total confirmed cases.
 
As the effort to develop a safe and effective vaccine continues, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said it would ensure that everyone in the United States will be able to be inoculated free of charge. 

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‘Era of Pandemics’ to Intensify Without Transformative Change, Report Says

Ecological destruction and unsustainable consumption have entered humanity into an “era of pandemics,” according to a new report.”Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before,” says the report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a global expert body advising governments.The authors say roughly $50 billion per year in pandemic prevention would spare the world about $1 trillion per year on average in economic damage, not to mention the toll in human suffering.The report suggests ways to shift the focus to prevention, rather than trying to contain pandemics after they happen.SpilloverAs of July, COVID-19’s economic toll was at least $8 trillion and counting, the authors say.It’s just the latest costly emerging infectious disease, following HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Zika, H1N1 swine flu and others.All of these deadly diseases originated in animals before “spilling over” into humans. Nearly three-quarters of all emerging diseases have animal origins. And there are hundreds of thousands more possibly infectious viruses that have not been discovered yet, the report notes.But don’t blame the animals. The rate of spillover has increased because of human activities.COVID-19 is a prime example of the problem, the authors say. The coronavirus that causes the disease likely emerged from bats in China, where expanding human populations are increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitat. It probably spread through the wildlife trade, at a market where vendors sell wild animals for food and medicine.Deforestation, agricultural expansion, urbanization and other land-use changes are responsible for about a third of all new diseases to emerge since 1960, the report says. The $100 billion-plus global wildlife trade is also responsible for the spread of new and existing diseases and is a threat to biodiversity.Not too lateHowever, “this is not a doom and gloom report saying the world’s going to end and it’s too late,” said report author Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global health, conservation and development organization. “This is an optimistic call for action.”The current strategy to deal with pandemics is to wait for them to emerge and try to identify them before they spread, Daszak said.COVID-19 has demonstrated the flaws in that plan. Chinese authorities tried to contain it after the disease emerged late last year, but it was too late.”And here we are waiting for a vaccine and drugs to work,” Daszak said. “It’s not a good strategy. We need to do more.”The report calls for “transformative change towards preventing pandemics.”Some of that change needs to come from consumers.One change involves eating meat.Demand for meat drives increased pandemic risk in two ways, the report says. Feeding food animals is a major driver of deforestation. Also, intensive animal agriculture, which packs many animals into small spaces, often in close proximity to people, makes it easy for germs to jump species.”We can continue to eat meat,” Daszak said, “but we need to do it in a way that is far more sustainable if we want to get rid of pandemics.”The report suggests taxes on meat or livestock or other ways to incorporate the costs of pandemics into the price of production and consumption.Consumers also can drive change by pressuring companies to reduce deforestation, for example.”Global for-profit companies care about what we, the public, think about them,” Daszak said. “They respond when people call them out.”Government policy should focus on pandemic prevention as well, the authors say.Emerging-disease risk should be factored into any large-scale land use planning. Wildlife trade enforcement should focus on reducing or removing species at high risk of spreading diseases. And increased disease monitoring should focus on the links between human health, animal health and the environment, known as the One Health approach.All these suggestions, he noted, are “easy to say, really difficult to do.”These measures and others would cost about $40 billion to $58 billion per year, the report says.But with the bill for pandemics averaging a trillion dollars per year, Daszak said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a hundred pounds of cure.”

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Mask Effectiveness Against Coronavirus Varies

Virologists at the University of Tokyo say that while masks can offer protection from airborne COVID-19 particles, their effectiveness varies. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo has more on the results of the new research.

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 White House Task Force Warns of ‘Unrelenting’ Spread of COVID-19

The White House Coronavirus Task Force warned Thursday of an “unrelenting” spread of the virus, particularly across the western half of the country, Reuters reported. Members of the task force are reportedly pushing for aggressive measures to quell the spread of the virus.The United States has confirmed more than 8.9 million cases of COVID-19 and recorded more than 228,000 deaths as of Thursday, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.”We continue to see unrelenting, broad community spread in the Midwest, Upper Midwest and West. This will require aggressive mitigation to control both the silent, asymptomatic spread and symptomatic spread,” said the task force’s report to one state, according to CNN. The task force’s most prominent member, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNBC Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is “going in the wrong direction.” “If things do not change, if they continue on the course we’re on, there’s going to be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations, and deaths,” Fauci said, noting that case numbers were rising in 47 states.At least seven states reported record one-day case increases Thursday, according to Reuters.

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La Nina Seen Continuing Into 2021, Affecting Temperature, Weather Patterns

The World Meteorological Organization predicts La Nina will continue through January and is expected to usher in drier and wetter conditions than normal in different parts of the world.The latest seasonal forecasts indicate the La Nina event will cause drier than normal conditions in much of East Africa and lead to increased rainfall in southern Africa. Central Asia is likely to see below normal rainfall earlier than usual.The WMO reports some of the Pacific islands and the northern region of South America will see some of the most significant precipitation anomalies associated with this year’s La Nina event — a cooling of ocean surface water along the Pacific coast of the South American tropics that occurs on average every two to seven years.Some countries and regions are particularly vulnerable to changes in weather patterns.WMO humanitarian expert Gavin Iley told VOA the Greater Horn of Africa was an area of particular concern.“As we know, it is already being beset by problems, with locust infestation,” Iley said. “And generally, the models are suggesting below normal rainfall for quite a large portion of the Greater Horn of Africa. So, obviously that could have a number of impacts … in areas like Somalia. … So, we always need to keep an eye on the latest outlook.”WMO said governments can use weather forecasts to plan ways to reduce adverse impacts in climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, health, water resources and disaster management.WMO Deputy Director of Climate Services Maxx Dilley said governments can use La Nina forecasting to adapt their strategies to the changing weather patterns.“You can imagine in the agricultural sector that some crops will do well under wet conditions and others will do better under dry conditions,” Dilley said. “And there are agricultural management practices that can be adjusted to take account of whether it is expected to be wet or dry.”Dilley said WMO increasingly is trying to tailor these forecasts to specific concerns, such as food security or human health. For example, he said, wet conditions alone do not provoke outbreaks of dengue fever or malaria. He said temperature, humidity and vegetation create the conditions for mosquitoes to breed.So, rather than just giving a rainfall forecast, he said, meteorologists will provide a forecast that is correlated with these diseases and can be used for dengue fever or malaria control.

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Spain, Again a COVID-19 Hotspot, Under a State of Emergency  

Europe is once again an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and Spain – under a state of emergency – has gone into another lockdown as protests continue.  Alfonso Beato has more from Barcelona in this report narrated by Roderick James.Camera: Alfonso Beato   Producer: Roderick James

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EU Commission to Buy Rapid COVID-19 Tests as Virus Surges in Europe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the EU’s administrative arm will spend $117 million on rapid COVID-19 tests as the virus surges across Europe.
 
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Von der Leyen said unlike last spring, when the pandemic first began, every European country is feeling the effects of a second wave of the virus. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control says the virus continues to spread throughout the continent.
 
The agency reports almost 6.5 million people have contracted the virus in the EU member countries, plus Britain, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
 
Von der Leyen says they are purchasing rapid antigen tests as another tool to help bring COVID-19 under control. The finger-prick antigen tests are not considered to be as reliable as the standard nasal-swab “PCR test,” but they work much more quickly, with results available at the testing point within 15 minutes.  
 
European health experts say the virus is now moving too quickly to rely on tests that can take days.
 
Von der Leyen also urged member state leaders to improve information-sharing about the virus, saying that will help identify where extra intensive care unit capacity might be found and better organize cross-border patient care.
 
Von der Leyen also called on member states to begin preparing national vaccination plans, and to review them now at the EU level. She said they all need to be prepared for the arrival of the first vaccine, which in the best-case scenarios could begin arriving sometime in April in monthly 20 million to 50 million dose deliveries. 

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Pope Francis Keeps Distance, But Wears No Mask During Audience

At his weekly public audience Wednesday at the Vatican, Pope Francis kept his distance from the faithful, who had come to hear him, but once again appeared in public without a mask amid a resurgence of COVID-19 in Italy. The pope told his audience — which was much smaller than usual due to the surging infection rate — he would love to come down and greet them, but “this is contrary to the measures and the precautions we must take in order to face ‘Madame COVID.'” Francis went without a protective mask Wednesday even when he greeted a few mask-less bishops at the end of his audience. FILE – Pope Francis wears a face mask as he attends an inter-religious prayer service for peace in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, a church on top of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, in Rome, Italy, Oct. 20, 2020.Francis has only been seen wearing a mask in public twice — on September 9 as he entered and exited his general audience, and last week during a two-hour interfaith prayer service in downtown Rome. Thirteen Swiss Guards and a resident of the guest house where the pope lives have recently tested positive for COVID-19. Vatican regulations require masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing cannot be guaranteed. 
 

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British Study Shows Antibodies Against COVID-19 Declined Rapidly

A new study of the British population shows that antibodies in the human body fighting COVID-19 declined rapidly in the British population during the summer, suggesting any immunity against the virus may not last long.The study, conducted by Imperial College London and published Tuesday, involved tests on more than 365,000 British people between June 20 and Sept. 28.In their findings, the researchers’ analysis of the home finger-prick tests found that the number of people testing positive for antibodies dropped by 26.5% during the study period, from almost 6% to 4.4%.The findings suggest the possibility of decreasing population immunity ahead of a second wave of infections in recent weeks that has forced local lockdowns and restrictions.The researchers say it is unclear what level of protection antibodies give a person against COVID-19 specifically.Imperial College London Department of Infectious Disease head, Wendy Barclay, told reporters in London they are confident in what a decline in antibodies tells them.“On the balance of evidence, I would say with what we know for other coronaviruses, it would look as if immunity declines away at the same rate as antibodies decline away, and that this is an indication of waning immunity at the population level.”The researchers say that more than anything, the study reinforces the need for a vaccine to effectively bring the virus under control.  

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Army of Robots Use Light to Fight Coronavirus at Airports, Offices and Hospitals

Disinfecting public spaces is a major undertaking but it is essential for a safe return to normal activity. Now an army of robots that uses ultra-violet light to disinfect surfaces and the air, as Matt Dibble reports.
Camera, Producer: Matt Dibble

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Experimental COVID-19 Therapeutic Drug No Help to Patients with Advanced Stage of Virus

U.S. government researchers say an experimental COVID-19 therapeutic drug is not effective at treating patients hospitalized with an advanced stage of the novel coronavirus.   The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases issued a statement Monday saying it would no longer recruit new patients to take part in a clinical trial of the experimental drug, called bamlanivimab.   The drug, developed by U.S.-based drugmaker Eli Lilly and Canadian-based biotech firm AbCellera, is part of a class of treatments known as monoclonal antibodies, which are made to act as immune cells that scientists hope can fight off the virus. The antibody therapy was similar to one given to U.S. President Donald Trump after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.    The clinical trial was paused earlier this month by independent monitors because of safety concerns. The study, which launched in August, aimed to enroll 10,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients in the United States.    Eli Lilly has already applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization for the drug to be used for mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 infections based on preliminary results from a different clinical trial.    The United States is in the midst of a dramatic surge of new COVID-19 cases, with more than 66,000 confirmed on Monday, according to data released by the FILE PHOTO: Healthcare worker carries specimen collection tubes at COVID-19 drive-in testing location in Houston, Texas.In the western state of Utah, a group representing the state’s hospitals have warned Gov. Gary Herbert that the facilities are reaching the point where they may have to start rationing care, where doctors would have to determine who could remain in the hospital based on factors such as age and overall health.   The situation is steadily improving in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, which posted a second consecutive day Tuesday with no new coronavirus infections.  The initial milestone on Monday was the first COVID-19-free day since June 9.   Melbourne and the state of Victoria had been plagued by a massive spike of new coronavirus cases, peaking in August when daily new cases rose above 700. The resurgence of new cases has been blamed on security lapses at hotels where travelers were being quarantined after arriving from overseas.   Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews announced Monday that Melbourne’s five million citizens will be able to leave their homes effective Tuesday at midnight, and that all cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and hotels will be allowed to reopen.    

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Hurricane Zeta Makes Landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 

Hurricane Zeta pounded Mexico’s northern Yucatan Peninsula with strong winds and heavy rains late Monday into Tuesday. The U.S.-based National Hurricane Center said Zeta made landfall north of Tulum with maximum sustained winds of 130 kilometers per hour. A hurricane warning is posted for the resort island of Cozumel, and from Punta Allen to Progreso, Mexico. People in the Mexican resort city of Cancun are also bracing for Hurricane Zeta. Forecasters say Zeta is expected to regain strength Tuesday as it moves into the Southern Gulf of Mexico on a northerly pattern toward the United States, where a hurricane watch is in effect for the metropolitan New Orleans area and Morgan City, Louisiana, east  to the Mississippi-Alabama border.   People in the U.S. central Gulf Coast will begin seeing the effects of Zeta by Tuesday night before the storm moves inland toward Georgia Wednesday then into the southern Appalachians Wednesday night and the Mid-Atlantic region on Thursday. Zeta is the second storm to strike Mexico this month. Hurricane Delta hit the Yucatan Peninsula in early October, downing trees and knocking out power to thousands but no reported deaths. Hurricane Delta also made landfall in the U.S. Gulf coast state of Louisiana, where Hurricane Laura hit in late August, killing at least six people. 

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NASA Scientists Discover Water in Sunlit Areas of Moon

The U.S. space agency, NASA, reported Monday it has confirmed water can be found in sunlit areas of the moon, indicating water may be far more widespread than previously thought. NASA said it confirmed the discovery using its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a flying laboratory onboard a specially modified 747 aircraft. It was previously believed that water molecules could only be found in cold, shadowy areas of the lunar surface.  The results of the study are also published in the latest issue of Nature Astronomy. Drier than the SaharaNASA says SOFIA detected water molecules in Clavius – one of the largest craters visible from Earth – in the moon’s southern hemisphere. The data indicates the presence of water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million – roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water – trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface.  NASA says by comparison, the Sahara Desert has 100 times the amount of water that SOFIA detected in the lunar soil. But regardless how tiny the amount, the discovery raises new questions about how water is created and how it persists on the harsh, airless lunar surface. NASA scientists say the recent finding is encouraging for the agency’s plans to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by the end of the decade. It remains to be determined if the water SOFIA found is easily accessible for use as a resource.  When people first landed on the moon in 1969, it was believed to be completely dry. But observations from Earth and spacecraft since then have revealed evidence of ice and hydration in a variety of regions. But before now, scientists were not able to distinguish in what form the water was present. Future SOFIA flights will look for water in additional sunlit locations and during different lunar phases to learn more about how the water is produced, stored and moved across the moon. The data will add to the work of future moon missions to create the first water resource maps of the moon for future human space exploration.  

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