NASA astronaut Christina Koch returns to Earth after record mission

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American astronaut Christina Koch, who led the first all-female spacewalk in 2019, landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a record stay on the International Space Station, ending a 328-day mission expected to yield new insights into deep-space travel.

Koch, a North Carolina-born engineer who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013, set the record for the longest stay in space by a woman. Her mission will provide researchers valuable data on how weightlessness and space radiation affect the female body on long spaceflights.

“Women acclimate well to space, so I think this is a milestone that will be overtaken by women in the future and it’s what we aspire to,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator.

The Soyuz MS-13 capsule touched down on the snowy Kazakh Steppe at 4:12 am ET (0912 GMT) carrying Koch, 41, European astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov.

They will be flown by search and recovery teams to the Karaganda region to begin their journey home.

“I’m just so overwhelmed and happy right now,” Koch said, sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets as she waited to be carried into a medical tent to restore her balance in gravity.

Koch also achieved a gender milestone in a spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir last October that marked the first time two women stepped out of the space station at the same time. They completed two more all-female spacewalks in January.

NASA’s first attempt at an all-female spacewalk in March 2019 was called off https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-women-space/nasa-cancels-first-all-women-spacewalk-due-to-lack-of-small-spacesuits-idUSKCN1R71CE due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size, which ignited a gender-equity debate.

Koch’s 328 days in space eclipsed Peggy Whitson’s record for an American woman on a single spaceflight at 289 days.

Scott Kelly holds the overall American record at 340 days, and Russia’s Valeri Polyakov holds the global record of 437 days aboard the defunct Mir space station.

Astronauts on the space station, whose 20th anniversary in low-Earth orbit comes later this year, have made 227 maintenance spacewalks, nearly two dozen of which included women astronauts, according to NASA.

Studying the impact of lengthy spaceflights could prove useful for NASA’s aim of building a permanent space station on the moon within the next decade.

Kelly’s 340 days demonstrated that long-term spaceflight causes thickening of the carotid artery and retina, changes in gene expression, and slight cognitive impairment for men.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Sandra Maler, Giles Elgood and Bernadette Baum)

Global wheat supply to crisis levels; big China stocks won’t provide relief

FILE PHOTO: Arnaud Caron, a French farmer drives an old Mc Cormick F8-413 combine as he harvests his last field of wheat, in Vauvillers, northern France, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Nigel Hunt

LONDON (Reuters) – A scorching hot, dry summer has ended five years of plenty in many wheat producing countries and drawn down the reserves of major exporters to their lowest level since 2007/08, when low grain stocks contributed to food riots across Africa and Asia.

Although global stocks are expected to hit an all-time high of 273 million tonnes at the start of the 2018/19 grain marketing season, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, the problem is nearly half of it is in China, which is not likely to release any onto global markets.

Experts predict that by the end of the season, the eight major exporters will be left with 20 percent of world stocks – just 26 days of cover – down from one-third a decade ago.

The USDA estimates that China, which consumes 16 percent of the world’s wheat, will hold 46 percent of its stocks at the beginning of the season, which starts around now, and more than half by the end.

The 126.8 million tonnes China is estimated to hold is up 135 percent from 54 million five years earlier.

“People need to get rid of China stocks (in their calculations) … if you do that, it’s just exceptionally tight,” said Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co in Chicago.

A repeat of the 2007/2008 crisis, which forced many countries to limit or ban exports, is unlikely in the absence of other drivers at the time, including $150-per-barrel crude oil.

The recent three-year high for wheat prices of $5.93 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade pales in comparison to the high of $13.34-1/2 a bushel in February 2008.

Importers in North Africa also appear to be better placed this time, with higher stocks of their own.

“It could have an impact on food inflation but in North African countries they have a good crop this year, fortunately, so their reliance is not as big as in the past years,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“I don’t think we want to be alarmist in terms of consequences,” he added.

China started stockpiling wheat in 2006, setting a guaranteed floor price to ensure food security and stability.

At around $9.75 a bushel as of last week, Chinese prices are now so high that they cannot sell internationally without incurring a major loss.

Rabobank analyst Charles Clack said he expected China to continue to build stocks into next year but in the long-term, it would look to reduce reserves by curbing domestic production, reducing imports or conducting internal auctions.

“It will be a slow process … I wouldn’t expect exports to come flying out anytime soon,” he said.

Government wheat reserves now total nearly 74 million tonnes, according to Shanghai JC Intelligence Co Ltd, most of it from 2014-2017 but a small amount as old as 2013.

Sylvia Shi, analyst at JC Intelligence, said China would continue to import wheat it cannot produce in sufficient volumes to help meet a growing appetite for high-protein varieties for products like bread and other baked products as diets become Westernised.

DROUGHT

The wheat crop in several of the world’s biggest exporters – Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States – has suffered this year.

A spring drought in the Black Sea bread baskets Russia and Ukraine was swiftly followed by a summer heatwave in the European Union. Dry weather now also threatens crops in another important exporter, Australia.

Evidence of the serious harm done has grown as harvesting progresses.

Forecasts for the 28-member European Union have repeatedly been cut, with Germany set for its lowest grain harvest in 24 years after crops wilted under the highest summer temperatures since records began in 1881.

Russia’s agriculture ministry held a meeting with grain traders on Friday to discuss export volumes.

The ministry denied export limits were discussed but traders, some of whom were at the meeting, said curbs might be imposed later in the season following complaints from domestic meat producers about the rising cost of animal feed.

The United States is best placed to capitalize on a shortfall in global supply, with much higher stocks than rival exporters and rising production.

The outlook provides a much-needed boost for U.S. farmers caught in the crossfire of a trade war with China, a huge importer of U.S. soybeans and corn, as well as Mexico and Japan, two of the top buyers of U.S. wheat.

“The winner in the long term is the U.S. as they should get some demand flow back to them. It has been several years since we have seen the U.S. be in a position to get demand,” said Matt Ammermann, a commodity risk manager with INTL FCStone.

The Black Sea and Europe look set to lose market share, Ammermann said.

Canada, one of the world’s biggest high-quality wheat exporters, is expected to enjoy bigger yields than last year, according to a recent crop tour. But patchy rains have left crops highly variable across the western provinces.

“We don’t have a bin-buster coming. I just don’t see how we can push exports too much higher,” said Paterson Grain trader Rhyl Doyle.

SOUTHERN RESPONSE

The two major wheat exporters in the southern hemisphere, Argentina and Australia, are still months away from harvest.

A record crop is forecast in Argentina but production in Australia is expected to fall to the lowest level in more than a decade due to drought across the east coast.

Francisco Abello, who manages 7,000 hectares of land in western and north-central Buenos Aires province, said he and other growers are out to take advantage of high prices by investing in fertilizers to increase yields.

“We are having a great start to the season,” Abello said. “The ground was moist at planting time. Then it was cold and dry, which are the best conditions for the early wheat growing season.”

The Buenos Aires Grains Exchange has a preliminary wheat harvest estimate of 19 million tonnes, above what it says is the current record of 17.75 million tonnes.

In Australia, the outlook is less rosy. Analysts said production could fall below 20 million tonnes for the first time since 2008, although it is still likely to be well in excess of that year’s crop of just 13 million tonnes.

“The west of the country is looking good so the largest producing region could produce a crop in excess of 9 million tonnes alone. That may keep the headline number up,” said Phin Ziebell, an agribusiness economist at the National Australia Bank. “But with dry weather reducing output on the east, it could reduce exports nationally.”

(Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Chicago, Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu in Beijing, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Sybille de La Hamaide and Valerie Parent in Paris, Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires and Colin Packham in Sydney; Graphics by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Veronica Brown and Sonya Hepinstall)

Over 60,000 Antelope Die in Four Days

Biologists are stymied by the deaths of 60,000 antelope in four days and over 257,000 total in the Kazakhstan area.

The total number of dead saigas, a steppe-dwelling antelope, was one third of the critically endangered animal’s total population.

“But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed,” geoecologist Steffen Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told Live Science.

“The extent of this die-off, and the speed it had, by spreading throughout the whole calving herd and killing all the animals, this has not been observed for any other species,” Zuther said. “It’s really unheard of.”

Necropsies on the animals have just deepened the mystery.  Tissue samples revealed toxins and bacteria that caused extensive internal bleeding.  However, the bacteria in the bodies were normally in the animals, and it usually doesn’t cause harm unless the animal already had a weakened immune system.

The study also showed all the bacteria present were the basic “garden variety” bacteria.

“There is nothing so special about it. The question is why it developed so rapidly and spread to all the animals,” Zuther said.

A similar die-off happened in Russia in 1988 but the Russian scientists listed the common bacteria as the cause without further research.