The Download: junk in space, and what’s next for mRNA vaccines

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Why the first-ever space junk fine is such a big deal

We’ve just taken a major step toward cleaning up space junk. Earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US issued its first fine for space debris, ordering the TV provider Dish to pay $150,000 for failing to move one of its satellites into a safe orbit.

The fine is more than a symbolic gesture. Not only does it set a precedent for tackling bad actors who leave dangerous junk orbiting Earth, but it could send shock waves through the industry as other satellite operators become wary of having their reputation tarnished. 

The FCC’s action could also help breathe new life into the still-small market for commercial removal of space debris, essentially setting a price—$150,000—for companies to aim for in providing services that use smaller spacecraft to sidle up to dead satellites or rockets and pull them back into the atmosphere. Read the full story.

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

mRNA vaccines just won a Nobel Prize. Now they’re ready for the next act.

This week the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine honored two scientists whose research into messenger RNA (mRNA) technology paved the way for much-lauded covid-19 vaccines.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman figured out how to tweak mRNA to prevent it from setting off an inflammatory reaction. When the pandemic began in 2020, scientists had already been using their method to develop mRNA vaccines for other infectious diseases, so it was relatively simple to pivot to covid-19, and was part of a vaccination strategy that saved millions of lives.

When manufacturers wanted to update their covid vaccines this fall, they simply had to swap in a new code. This process should also allow them to target different pathogens, encompassing everything from flu to tuberculosis. But mRNA could also be a powerful way to treat diseases, not just prevent them. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

2023 Climate Tech Companies to Watch: Fervo Energy and its geothermal power plants

Fervo Energy is commercializing a geothermal technology that could significantly expand the regions that could tap into the steady, carbon-free energy source, by creating or widening cracks under the surface to allow water to more easily circulate underground.

These enhanced geothermal plants could become an increasingly critical source of clean electricity as grids grow greener, helping to balance out rising levels of fluctuating renewables like wind and solar. Read the full story.

Fervo Energy is part of our 2023 list of 15 Climate Tech Companies to Watch. Read the rest of the list here.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 4chan users are exploiting AI tools to generate racist images
It’s part of a campaign to overwhelm the internet with hateful propaganda. (404 Media)
+ AI’s guardrails aren’t living us to their promises. (FT $)+ Trust large language models at your own peril. (MIT Technology Review)

2 We’re hurtling towards a data center crisis
We’re using more data than ever before, and existing centers are struggling to cope. (FT $)
+ It’s boosting the fortunes of companies like Dell. (Bloomberg $)
+ Energy-hungry data centers are quietly moving into cities. (MIT Technology Review)

3 US chip companies are fighting back
They’re fiercely against further crackdowns on sales to China. (NYT $)
+ The US-China chip war is still escalating. (MIT Technology Review)

4 TikTok creators are cashing in from dangerous health trends
Castor oil, parasite cleanses, and detox drinks are being touted as cures for all sorts of ailments, without scientific backing. (Vox)
+ Viral videos from China are doing numbers on TikTok. (Rest of World)

5 We need more floating wind platforms
The strongest, steadiest wind blows across the deep ocean. Harnessing it for power is a major challenge. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles. (MIT Technology Review)

6 The generative AI boom has given us new job roles
Reskillers and AI psychotherapists are on the rise. (WSJ $)
+ Not all workers are upset about AI coming for their roles. (Wired $)
+ Deciding how to train the next AI wave is the big question. (New Yorker $)

7 Plastic pollution is a major water contaminant
Sponges made from starch and gelatin could help to extract microplastics. (Hakai Magazine)
+ Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems? (MIT Technology Review)

8 Temu is quietly taking over the world
The Chinese e-commerce app is becoming a tour de force in new territories. (The Guardian)
+ Shein sued Temu. Temu sued Shein. The war over fast fashion is heating up. (MIT Technology Review)

9 We’re all models on Wikipedia
But some of us are more prevalent than others. (Slate $)

10 Amazon wants you to capture UFO footage using your Ring doorbell 
Anything to make its video doorbells seem whacky, not sinister. (Motherboard)

Quote of the day

“I don’t have personal preferences or feelings.”

—Communications software maker Twilio’s AI chatbot offers a dry response when asked about its favorite question to answer, Wired reports.

The big story

A new tick-borne disease is killing cattle in the US

November 2021

In the spring of 2021, Cynthia and John Grano, who own a cattle operation in Culpeper County, Virginia, started noticing some of their cows slowing down and acting “spacey.” They figured the animals were suffering from a common infectious disease that causes anemia in cattle. But their veterinarian had warned them that another disease carried by a parasite was spreading rapidly in the area.

After a third cow died, the Granos decided to test its blood. Sure enough, the test came back positive for the disease: theileria. And with no treatment available, the cows kept dying.

Livestock producers around the US are confronting this new and unfamiliar disease without much information, and researchers still don’t know how theileria will unfold, even as it quickly spreads west across the country. Read the full story.

—Britta Lokting

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Stop! All these songs are absolute classics.
+ Fall is a great time to settle down and watch a movie. Here’s a list of some of the most exciting new titles you should know about.
+ These outlandish car designs made me laugh.
+ Oakland’s public library keeps a charming log of all the things its librarians have found tucked away inside their books.
+ Cats eh, don’t they just make our lives better? 🐈

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