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Updated: 32 min 32 sec ago

NASA’s new planet finder is in space. Now what?

Sun, 04/22/2018 - 10:00

Trevor Mahlmann

Most everyone reading this story will probably know that a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on Wednesday carrying a NASA spacecraft into orbit—the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite—that will further the space agency's mission of searching for exoplanets.

Less well known is the TESS spacecraft's clever orbit, which will enable an on-a-budget but robust science mission of searching for planets transiting in front of nearby stars. This "lunar resonant" orbit, which has never been used by a spacecraft, will allow TESS to both observe nearby stars and transmit data back to Earth with a minimal energy expenditure. (The useful lifetime of a spacecraft is often determined by its amount of onboard propellant).

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White House reportedly exploring wartime rule to help coal, nuclear

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 10:00

(credit: Kym Farnik)

According to reports from Bloomberg and E&E News, the Trump Administration has been exploring another way to help coal and nuclear generators: the Defense Production Act of 1950.

The Act was passed under President Truman. Motivated by the Korean War, it allows the president broad authority to boost US industries that are considered a priority for national security. On Thursday, E&E News cited sources that said "an interagency process is underway" at the White House to examine possible application of the act to the energy industry. The goal would be to give some form of preference to coal and nuclear plants that are struggling to compete with cheap natural gas.

Third time's the charm?

This appears to be the third attempt to use policy to keep coal and nuclear operators afloat. The main focus is coal generators, which Trump promised to rescue during his campaign. Although Trump's campaign rhetoric often blamed environmental regulations, the problem has been economic more than regulatory; cheap natural gas has been the biggest threat to coal and nuclear.

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Here are the types of marijuana best for stress and anxiety, according to users

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 13:20

Enlarge / Inventory including "Merry N'Berry" is on display at a medical marijuana dispensary (credit: Getty | Tom Williams)

By passively monitoring user-generated data from medical cannabis patients, researchers have glimpsed the types and amounts of marijuana that seem effective for relieving symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. The findings could direct more detailed research into the best strains for specific conditions. But the data also hints at a danger of using marijuana to manage depression symptoms in the long term.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Affective Disorders by researchers at Washington State University, is based on data from a medical cannabis app called Strainprint, which lets patients track symptom severity after medical cannabis use. Before that, users enter detailed information about the strain of marijuana used, including selecting specific products from a list of those sold by licensed medical cannabis distributors in Canada. Health Canada has uniquely strict production and quality control guidelines for products sold there. But if a patient is using a product not on the list, they can manually input information about the strain, including cannabinoid content.

The researchers looked at data from nearly 1,400 medical cannabis users, analyzing outcomes from almost 12,000 inhalation sessions. The researchers kept their analysis just to sessions involving inhalation (smoking, vaping, concentrates, dab bubbler, dab portable), to try to control—at least a little—for efficacy and timing of the onset of effects.

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Tiny krill appear to mix up the ocean

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 10:04

Enlarge / Differences in the density of water reflect light to show the complex mixing generated by a moving brine shrimp. (credit: Isabel Houghton, image obtained with the assistance and facilities of R. Strickler)

If you've heard of krill at all, it's probably in the context of their role as whale food. Nature programs love to point in amazement to the fact that the largest animals on the planet subsist on some of the smallest, namely the krill. But these tiny animals exist independently of their function as food, and a new study suggests that they and their peers may have a significant role in their ecosystems: mixing up the top layers of the ocean.

Krill are crustaceans, as a careful look at them will indicate (although Wikipedia tells us that the cool-sounding name "krill" is simply Norwegian for "small fry of fish"). They don't tend to grow much larger than a couple centimeters in length, and they feed on even smaller creatures, taking tiny photosynthetic plankton and moving them up the food chain.

But what they lack in size, they make up for with truly astonishing numbers, with some species estimated as having one of the largest total biomasses of anything on Earth. It's these vast numbers that make them a viable food for the world's largest creatures and give them the ability to replace the vast numbers gulped down by whales. It's also at the heart of the new results.

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Netflix film examines why NASA shunned women astronauts in early days

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 08:00

Enlarge / An undated file photo of some of the Mercury 13 candidates. (credit: Mercury 13 / Netflix)

This June, the world will mark the 55th anniversary of the first woman flying into space. Valentina Tereshkova, an amateur Russian skydiver, spent nearly three days in orbit inside a spherical Vostok 6 capsule. The first American woman, physicist Sally Ride, would not follow Tereshkova into space for another two decades.

A new documentary on Netflix, Mercury 13, examines the question of why NASA did not fly women in space early on and, in particular, focuses on 13 women who underwent preliminary screening processes in 1960 and 1961 to determine their suitability as astronauts. The film offers a clear verdict for why women were excluded from NASA in the space agency's early days—"good old-fashioned prejudice," as one of the participants said. Mercury 13 will be released Friday.

The film admirably brings some of these women to life, all of whom were accomplished pilots. There is Jerrie Cobb, who scored very highly in the preliminary tests and gave compelling testimony before Congress in an attempt to open NASA's early spaceflight programs to women. Another key figure is pilot Jane B. Hart, married to a US Senator from Michigan, whose experience in the project compelled her to become one of the founders of the National Organization for Women.

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Mammals are smaller than they used to be, and it’s our fault

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:00

Enlarge / They were big, but we showed up, and they're now gone. (credit: Mauricio Anton)

When the first modern humans ventured beyond Africa during the late Pleistocene, roughly 120,000 years ago, they stepped into a world filled with giants: the 6-ton giant ground sloth in South America, the 2- to 3-ton wooly rhino in Europe and northern Asia, the 350- to 620-pound sabertooth cat in North America, and the 6-ton wooly mammoth in Eurasia and North America. It's hard to imagine a world filled with animals that large: the giants of the Pleistocene quickly vanished, and the animals that survived were, in general, two or three times smaller than those that went extinct. A new study indicates that the late Pleistocene decrease in mammal size coincided with the geographical spread of humans around the world—and the authors say that's not just happenstance.

Human involvement in the disappearance of the Pleistocene megafauna is still the subject of intense debate, but this is hardly the first time we've been implicated. To provide a different perspective on these extinctions, a team of biologists led by Felisa Smith of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, decided to look for changes in the pattern of extinctions since the beginning of the Cenozoic period 65 million years ago—the end of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the rise of mammals. Species go extinct all the time at a steady background rate of about one to five species per year. If that rate or the kinds of animals dying off changed after humans started colonizing the world beyond Africa, that could imply that we had something to do with it.

The biologists examined two large datasets. One listed the global distribution and body size of animal species in the late Pleistocene and Holocene, starting 125,000 years ago. The other listed similar information for species spanning the whole Cenozoic. Starting at around 125,000 years ago, the datasets traced a decrease in both the mean and the maximum body size of mammals on every continent, coinciding with the spread of humans into each region. Wherever humans went, mammals got smaller, and big ones tended to die off.

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Doctors tried to lower $148K cancer drug cost; makers triple price of pill

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 12:48

(credit: Wellness GM)

A drug that treats a variety of white blood cell cancers typically costs about $148,000 a year, and doctors can customize and quickly adjust doses by adjusting how many small-dose pills of it patients should take each day—generally up to four pills. At least, that was the case until now.

Last year, doctors presented results from a small pilot trial hinting that smaller doses could work just as well as the larger dose—dropping patients down from three pills a day to just one. Taking just one pill a day could dramatically reduce costs to around $50,000 a year. And it could lessen unpleasant side-effects, such as diarrhea, muscle and bone pain, and tiredness. But just as doctors were gearing up for more trials on the lower dosages, the makers of the drug revealed plans that torpedoed the doctors’ efforts: they were tripling the price of the drug and changing pill dosages.

The drug, ibrutinib (brand name Imbruvica), typically came in 140mg capsules, of which patients took doses from 140mg per day to 560mg per day depending on their cancer and individual medical situation. (There were also 70mg capsules for patients taking certain treatment combinations or having liver complications.) The pills treat a variety of cancers involving a type of white blood cell called B cells. The cancers include mantle cell lymphoma, which was approved for treatment with four 140mg pills per day, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, approved to be treated with three 140mg pills per day. Each 140mg pill costs somewhere around $133—for now.

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Massive bleaching event may be permanently changing the Great Barrier Reef

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 16:48

Enlarge / Although these corals are colored, they've been bleached, in that they have lost their photosynthetic symbiotes. (credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies / Gergely Torda)

The intense El Niño event that started in 2015 drove global air temperatures to new records, helped by the long trend of human-driven warming. But the air wasn't the only thing affected. El Niño is fundamentally about Pacific Ocean temperatures, and those were exceptionally hot as well. One of the unfortunate results of this was a massive bleaching of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

While the damage to corals looked dramatic at the time, appearances aren't the same as data, and they don't give a comprehensive view of the damage, much less the corals' ability to recover from the bleaching. Now, a large Australian-US team of researchers has provided a comprehensive overview of the damage to and recovery of the Great Barrier Reef. The results are grim, showing that mass coral die offs started at lower temperatures than we had expected. The overview also shows that the entire composition of sections of the Great Barrier Reef have changed and are unlikely to recover any time soon.

Bleached to death

The corals that build reefs are actually a collaboration between animals (the coral proper) and single-celled algae that form a symbiotic relationship with corals, providing them with nourishment. At high temperatures, this relationship breaks down and causes the corals to lose their photosynthetic guest. The reefs turn white, giving bleaching its name. And, if recovery doesn't happen quickly enough, the corals will starve, causing a mass die off. Complicating matters, different species of coral will bleach at different temperatures and recover at different rates.

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Meteorite’s diamonds tell of Earth’s baby sister, which died young

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 13:15

Enlarge / Microscope image showing diamond (blue), graphite (black/gray), and blobs of iron-sulfur minerals (yellow). (credit: Dr. F. Nabiei/Dr. E. Oveisi/Prof. C. Hébert, EPFL, Switzerland)

On Earth, diamonds are time capsules with fascinating stories to tell. After all, they form at great depths—below the tectonic plates that make up Earth’s crust. It's only because they travel to the surface with the volcanic equivalent of a jet pack that we're able to see them at all.

But there's another way to get your hands on a diamond: wait for one to crash to Earth inside a meteorite. And in the case of a new study published this week, it might even tell a story of a different planet, one that died in the early days of our Solar System.

Diamonds from space

The meteorite in question fell in 2008 in Sudan and contained a type of meteorite rock called “ureilite” that is composed of minerals you’d only find in the deep mantle of the Earth. Among those minerals were microscopic crystals of diamond and graphite—two minerals composed entirely of carbon atoms.

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Russia appears to have surrendered to SpaceX in the global launch market

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 10:01

Enlarge / A Russian 3-stage Proton rocket blasts into the sky in 2000. (credit: NASA)

As recently as 2013, Russia controlled about half of the global commercial launch industry with its fleet of rockets, including the Proton boosters. But technical problems with the Proton, as well as competition from SpaceX and other players, has substantially eroded the Russian share. This year, it may only have about 10 percent of the commercial satellite launch market, compared to as much as 50 percent for SpaceX.

In the past, Russian space officials have talked tough about competing with SpaceX in providing low-cost, reliable service to low-Earth and geostationary orbit. For example, the Russian rocket corporation, Energia, has fast-tracked development of a new medium-class launch vehicle that it is calling Soyuz-5 to challenge SpaceX.

On Tuesday, however, Russia's chief spaceflight official, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, made a remarkable comment about that country's competition with SpaceX.

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Despite alien theories and novel mutations, the real Ata puzzle may be ethical

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 08:15

Enlarge (credit: Bhattacharya et al. 2018)

In 2003, Oscar Munoz found a mummy in the Atacama Desert ghost town of La Noria. The six-inch-long mummy, now called Ata, has an elongated skull, oddly shaped eye sockets, and only ten pairs of ribs... which helped fuel wild speculation that she was an alien hybrid. Ata was sold several times—probably illegally—and ended up in the private collection of Barcelona entrepreneur and UFO enthusiast Ramón Navia-Osorio. A 2013 documentary called Sirius soon helped immortalize Ata, focusing heavily on the alien hybrid claims.

When a team led by University of California, San Francisco bioinformatics researcher Sanchita Bhattacharya recently sequenced the tiny mummy’s genome, however, it revealed only a girl of Chilean descent. There were a complicated set of genetic mutations, including some usually associated with bone and growth disorders and a few more that have never been described before. Those mutations, the researchers claim, may help explain her unusual appearance.

It’s easy to see why the team's March paper attracted so much interest: a high-profile urban legend was fully debunked at last, but now there were hints at compelling medical discoveries. Most press outlets presented the results as conclusive, cut-and-dried science—except for a few UFO fan sites that loudly insisted the study was part of a cover-up. But even beyond the extraterrestrial exchanges, things have gotten very complicated, both in terms of the scientific claims and in terms of whether the research should have been done at all.

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Homeopath “treated” 4-yr-old boy’s behavior problems with saliva from rabid dog

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge / Insanity dog's got nothin' on homeopaths. (credit: Getty | Agency-Animal-Picture)

“Hair of the dog” remedies may do the trick for some hangover sufferers. But health experts say that a Canadian homeopath took the idea too far—way, way too far.

Homeopath and naturopath Anke Zimmermann used diluted saliva from a rabid dog to “treat” a four-year-old boy, according to a blog post she published earlier this year. Zimmermann claims that the potentially infectious and deadly concoction successfully resolved the boy’s aggressive behavior, which she described as a “slightly rabid-dog state.”

The tail fits with the scientifically implausible principles of homeopathy. These ruffly state that substances that produce similar symptoms of a particular ailment can cure said ailment (“like cures like”) and that diluting a substance increases its potency (“law of infinitesimals”).

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Acceptance of climate science can reach saturation

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 16:15

Enlarge / The glaciers are in on the conspiracy! (credit: NOAA)

The vast majority of scientists—by most measures, well over 90 percent—accept the evidence that humans are driving our current climate change. Among the public, however, that figure is much lower. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that the public doesn't understand just how strong the scientific consensus is. If people think scientists are divided on this issue, they could be more likely to feel that their own opinion is justified, even if it goes against the conclusions of the people with the most relevant expertise.

Researchers have now looked at how people in the US respond to being told about the scientific community's near unanimity on the topic. They found that the results vary geographically, with a stronger response in states that are more politically conservative. This roughly balances the lower acceptance in the states initially, meaning that all states more or less end up looking about the same.

Consensus messaging

The issue here is typically called "consensus messaging." The idea is that many members of the public don't fully realize just how unified scientific opinion—the consensus—currently is. If they did, members of the public might be more likely to accept scientists' conclusions and perhaps demand policies that address climate change. And there's room for a lot of improvement here, as only about 10 percent of the US public correctly recognizes that the scientific consensus on climate change is over 90 percent.

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First XDR typhoid is on the verge of being untreatable, spreading globally

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 15:59

Enlarge / A photomicrograph of Salmonella typhi bacteria using a Gram-stain technique. (credit: CDC)

A tenacious epidemic of extensively drug-resistant (XDR) typhoid in Pakistan is just one small genetic step away from becoming untreatable—and health experts expect it to spread worldwide.

“It’s a global concern at this point,” Dr. Eric Mintz, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The New York Times. “Everything suggests this strain will survive well and spread easily—and acquiring resistance to azithromycin is only a matter of time.” Azithromycin is currently the only antibiotic remaining that treats the infection.

Typhoid fever, caused by Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi bacteria, is endemic to Pakistan, parts of which suffer from poor infrastructure, crowded urban areas, and insufficient access to healthcare. The epidemic caused by the XDR strain—the first of its kind—has been unfolding there since November 2016. It has now affected at least 850 people in 14 districts, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Health in Islamabad and first reported by the Times. Prior to this epidemic, there were only four known, unrelated cases of such heavily drug-resistant typhoid, occurring in Iraq, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

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After a record-long vacancy, NASA likely to finally get a formal leader

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 22:35

Enlarge / Oklahoma GOP Congressman Jim Bridenstine is Trump's nominee to become NASA administrator. (credit: Space Foundation)

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a space policy speech at a conference in Colorado. At the beginning of his talk, Pence singled out NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot for a 30-year career at the space agency, and applauded his service.

Left unstated was the fact that, at 15 months, Lightfoot has had by far the longest tenure of any acting administrator at NASA. This is because the nomination of Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine has languished for months before the US Senate—NASA has not had a formal administrator since Charles Bolden left the agency on the day President Barack Obama left office.

The better part of a year has passed since the Trump administration nominated Bridenstine to fill the vacancy. In reality, with all Democrats likely to vote against him, the White House has not had enough votes in the narrowly divided Senate to confirm Bridenstine because Florida Republican Marco Rubio has opposed him, and Arizona Republican John McCain has been absent. But now, it appears that the White House has the votes, as multiple sources have told Ars that Rubio now supports Bridenstine's nomination. Reflective of this, on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the nomination, which could set up a vote on Thursday or Friday to confirm NASA's next administrator.

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It’s official: SpaceX will build its monster rocket in California

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 18:55

Enlarge / SpaceX will build the BFR rocket and the BFS spaceship (shown here on the Moon) near its California headquarters. (credit: SpaceX)

During his State of the City address on Monday, the mayor of Los Angeles made it official: SpaceX will build the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) at the Port of Los Angeles. "This vehicle holds the promise of taking humanity deeper into the cosmos than ever before," Eric Garcetti added on Twitter.

The mention of SpaceX during Garcetti's speech confirmed widespread speculation about SpaceX's 30-year lease of an 18-acre site at Berth 240 in the port. At this facility on the water, SpaceX plans to build a "state-of-the-art" industrial manufacturing facility near Long Beach, about 20 miles south of its headquarters.

“SpaceX has called the Port of Los Angeles home to our West Coast recovery operations since 2012, and we truly appreciate the City of Los Angeles’ continued partnership," Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, said in a statement. "As announced today by Mayor Garcetti, the Port will play an increasingly important role in our mission to help make humanity multi-planetary as SpaceX begins production development of BFR—our next generation rocket and spaceship system capable of carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

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Portugal is showing that ambitious renewable energy goals are within reach

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 13:43

Enlarge / Alto Rabagao dam. Tras os Montes, Portugal (credit: Getty Images)

Portugal's energy system operator had some interesting news to share once March had closed out. It seems that even as Portugal's monthly energy consumption increased 9.7 percent compared to March 2017, the country produced enough renewable energy (just over 4,800 Gwh) to exceed its energy demand (just over 4,600 Gwh).

This doesn't mean Portugal avoided fossil fuel use; these figures just compare the total gigawatts of renewable energy produced with the total gigawatts of energy demanded for the whole month. Sometimes, that demand didn't coincide with the time that the renewables were producing, so natural gas and coal plants had to be used. Still, according to the Portuguese Renewable Energy Association (APREN), the day with the least amount of renewable consumption (March 7) still had enough to meet 86 percent of Portugal's demand through renewable energy. On the other extreme, Portugal's renewable energy sector produced 143 percent of its demand on March 11. In fact, Portugal's electricity consumption was met fully by renewable energy for a 70-hour period beginning on March 9 and for a 69-hour period beginning on March 12.

Extra energy can be exported or used to pump water for Portugal's pumped storage, APREN's President of the Board, António Sá da Costa, told Ars via email. The Association confirmed that no water in the pumped storage facilities was turbined in March, so that water can be used to create more renewable energy in June or July, when hydroelectric power might run low.

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SpaceX to launch a small planet hunter for NASA on Monday

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 09:04

Enlarge / Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, holds a model of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. (credit: NASA)

The wildly successful Kepler Space Telescope was designed to observe faint stars, and monitor them for brief dips in brightness that would indicate the passage of an object—most commonly a planet. However, the Kepler telescope was only able to resolve stars only in one specific area of space, about 0.28 percent of the entire sky, so it spied few nearby exoplanets.

It is often the brighter stars that are of more interest to astronomers seeking to find exoplanets, because they are typically closer to the Sun, and therefore more readily observable with other instruments. Therefore the follow-up instrument to Kepler, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has been designed to observe the entire sky, and optimized to find stars 30 to 100 times brighter than those Kepler could study.

After Kepler validated the search for exoplanets by finding thousands of them through careful measurements of periodically dimming stars, astronomers have confidence that TESS and its four cameras will be able to monitor the brightness of more than 200,000 stars during a two-year mission and find thousands of exoplanets. Of these, astronomers estimate that the telescope should find about 500 Earth-sized, and "Super Earth" planets, a fair number of which should be within the habitable zones of their parent stars.

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The billion-dollar question: How does the Clipper mission get to Europa?

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 08:30

Enlarge / The politics of getting to Europa are anything but straightforward. (credit: NASA)

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif.—At one end of the conference room, four large window panes framed a view of the San Gabriel Mountains. Outside, ribbons of greenery snaked across the hills, a vestige of spring before the dry summer season descends upon Los Angeles.

Inside, deep in discussion, a dozen men and women sat around a long, oval-shaped wooden conference table. They were debating how best to send a daring mission, known as Europa Clipper, to Jupiter’s mysterious, icy moon Europa. Although hundreds of scientists and engineers were already planning and designing this spacecraft, the key decisions were being made in this room on the top floor of the administrative building at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It will not be cheap or easy to reach Europa, which lies within the complicated gravitational tangle of Jupiter and its dozens of moons, 600 million kilometers from Earth. But the payoff, scientists feel, is potentially incalculable. Beneath Europa’s ice, perhaps just a few kilometers down in some areas, lies the most vast ocean known to humans. With abundant energy emanating from the moon’s interior into the ocean, scientists speculate life might exist—probably just microbes, but why not something krill-like, too?

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Perry seems in favor of emergency order to bail out coal, nuclear plants

Sun, 04/15/2018 - 10:00

Enlarge / US Energy Secretary Rick Perry in the East Room of the White House in 2018. (credit: Getty Images)

At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry expressed his willingness to help coal and nuclear plants out with an emergency order similar to one requested by energy firm FirstEnergy earlier this month.

Two weeks ago, FirstEnergy asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to invoke Section 202(c), which allows the department to order certain US power plants to keep running during wartime or during a natural disaster. The energy firm then filed for bankruptcy a few days later.

There has been skepticism within the DOE that Section 202(c) should be used for any purpose other than a disaster. But at Thursday's hearing, Perry seemed to play up the dire state of the American grid throughout his comments in front of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy, where he took questions from representatives about the Trump administration's budget request for 2019.

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