The Orion capsule at the head of Nasa's Delta IV rocket as it launched today. Image: Screenshot of Nasa live feed
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Orion, Nasa's next-gen Mars rocket, launches on first successful test flight

Major milestone passed as part of ongoing plan to land humans on Mars by 2030.

After being delayed for 24 hours by high wind speeds (and, at one point, a boat sailing beneath its intended flight path), a Delta IV rocket launched from Nasa's Cape Canaveral base in Florida today with an empty Orion capsule aboard. The mission - Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1) - is the first major test of many more to come, as Nasa continues towards landing a human crew on Mars in 2030.

The Orion capsule represents the next generation of manned space flight from Nasa, which retired its Space Shuttle in 2011. Its design is similar to that of the famous Apollo missions - it sits above a large rocket, which burn through its fuel and falls away in stages until it deposits the capsule itself into orbit. It will spend 4.5 hours in space, loaded with sensors and ballast to mimic the weight of the astronauts and equipment that a future manned mission may carry, but the mission for today is to simply survive two orbits of Earth, one of which will loop up through the Van Allen Belt with a peak altitude of nearly 6,000km, and back again for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Getting through the Van Allen Belt safely is one of the mission's main objectives. It's the band of radiation - from the solar wind and from cosmic rays - trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, like iron filings scattered on a piece of paper lying on top of a bar magnet, and it poses a huge risk to any craft which sails through it, from satellites to rockets and everything in between. The sensors aboard Orion will be hoping to find that the radiation shielding on the capsule works as planned to protect both all of its electronic instruments and any future travellers aboard.

The data from today's mission will go towards the next one, planned for three years from now. By then, Orion will be carried by Nasa's next-generation rocket: the Space Launch System, a rocket even more powerful than the Delta IV (which is itself about ten years old, and insufficient for the kinds of missions Nasa's planning for). The Delta IV manages 700,000 lbs of thrust; the SLS will manage as much as ten times that, while being capable of lifting a payload of more than 130 tonnes to low-Earth orbit compared to the Delta IV's 26 tonnes.

The return to a capsule and rocket system instead of a reusable shuttle is for a good reason - we know it works in getting human crews to other worlds, and the modules can withstand much higher speeds on re-entry into the atmosphere when returning. And the similarities between Orion and the SLS to the Apollo spacecraft and its Saturn V lifter go beyond the practical, since this system is being designed to give Nasa the ability to take humans beyond mere low-Earth orbit and on to other worlds for years to come. An eventual mission to Mars in 2030 - landing a crew and then returning them, unlike some of the more outlandish colonisation schemes currently being hatched - will only happen if the other steps along the way go smoothly.

That means getting some humans safely into orbit and back again on a test flight sometime around 2021, and also achieving other goals throughout the course of the decade. That includes another Moon landing, a mission to intercept an asteroid as it passes Earth and study it, and even a mission to one of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos. These missions will be taking place in conjunction with other unmanned ones, like the rover planned as the successor to Curiosity that will land on Mars in 2020 - it'll be able to test some of the technologies that, it's hoped, will ensure that astronauts who land there will be able to survive and return safely.

All of that is in the future, however, and thus contingent on the United States government still giving a damn about space exploration enough over the course of the next decade and a half. Space exploration is prestigious, but doing it with humans is extraordinarily expensive - and our ability to study the Solar System with robots has come on in leaps and bounds since Apollo. We no longer have to put humans inside spaceships because we can't make computers as smart as human brains, as small as human brains. Who knows if putting humans inside Orion will look a boondoggle or not to the scientists, or public, of 2030?

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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“Like a lorry hitting you in the face”: When flashing gifs trigger seizures

Sufferers are urging social media users to think before they share.

Last week Lizzie Huxley-Jones stood stock still in her kitchen, unable to remember how to make a sandwich.  

“It’s like you’ve lost the instructions,” the 28-year-old tells me. “It's like you go to do a task and the file is missing for how you complete it… and you're like ‘Oh God, I don’t even remember how I do this’,” she says – referring to making a sandwich or a cup of tea. “It’s like a complete and utter sudden loss of independence.”

Lizzie is discussing the after-effects of having a seizure. A book blogger who lives in London, she is autistic and suffers from non-epileptic seizures (NES), also known as dissociative seizures. After her most recent seizure, she experienced eleven days of after-effects, including twitches, a loss of mobility, and aphasia (difficulty recalling words). Though Lizzie felt its repercussions for over a week, the seizure itself was just a few minutes long – and was caused by something that lasted only a second.

A brightly-coloured flashing gif of cats.

“It sounds pretty cutesy,” admits Lizzie, who saw the gif on the social network Twitter, “but it was very fast so what happened is I looked at it and then almost immediately went into a seizure. Luckily I was on my couch already but if I'd been elsewhere I could have just dropped.” No one was around to help her, but her dog – Nerys – comforted Lizzie by falling asleep on her lap.

Lizzie and Nerys

It is commonly acknowledged that certain gifs can cause seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Just three per cent of epileptics suffer with photosensitivity – meaning flashing or flickering lights induce their seizures. Triggers include everything from ceiling fans, interactive whiteboards, and Christmas tree lights as well as, of course, gifs.

“Any flashing image between 5-25 Hertz (flashes per second) has the potential to trigger a seizure in someone who is photosensitive, although this is very rare,” says Professor Ley Sander, a medical director at the Epilepsy Society and professor of neurology at University College London. “People who are photosensitive should be very cautious when online as the internet and social media are full of flashing images.”

The account that tweeted the cat gif meant no harm, and went on to delete it after Lizzie and her friends asked for its removal. Lizzie describes the recent seizure as like a “sparking” in her brain and says that afterwards the pain was “like you've been hit by a lorry specifically to your face.” Though these consequences were accidental, many seizure-inducing gifs are deliberately designed to damage.

In March, a man was charged with aggravated assault after sending a flashing tweet to epileptic journalist Kurt Eichenwald which read: “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” Back in 2008, the charity Epilepsy Foundation was forced to shut down its message boards after internet users flooded them with flashing gifs. Lizzie says that on Twitter, people search for those who mention seizures in their tweets or bios, and deliberately send them strobing gifs.

Yet many online also refuse to believe sufferers like Eichenwald, because photosensitivity is rare and gifs have to flash at a certain rate to be a trigger. For Lizzie, this stigma is exacerbated by the fact that her seizures – which are non-epileptic (dissociative) – were once called “pseudo-seizures” by medical professionals.

“Dissociative seizures happen for psychological reasons rather than physical ones,” says Chantal Spittles of Epilepsy Action. While epileptic seizures occur because of abnormal electrical activity in the brain, NES are triggered by thoughts and feelings.

“It can be really tough to be told you have dissociative seizures. This is especially true if you have spent years thinking you have epilepsy. However, dissociative seizures are a real medical condition. And the dissociative seizures you experience can be just as disruptive or unsettling as epileptic seizures,” explains Spittles.

Professor Sander says it is “very hard to say” whether gifs can trigger non-epileptic seizures but for Lizzie, this is simply her reality. She believes that the stigma and lack of funding around NES mean that not enough is known about photosensitivity rates in NES sufferers. Anecdotally, she claims many with NES are triggered by flashing bike lights, like herself.   

“People don't believe or they don't think it's serious at all, it's almost like they think you've got a headache,” she says. “[It] starts to play on your mind that no one thinks this is real and everyone thinks you must be a liar.”

Regardless of the stigma, Lizzie – who lost a friend to SUDEP (sudden death in epilepsy) earlier this year – wants to raise awareness of the damage gifs can cause for epileptic and non-epileptic seizure sufferers, as well as people with autism (like herself) and photosensitive migraines. “It's sad that people don't think about it but I mean, I grew up with an epileptic sibling and an epileptic uncle, so my whole life has been spent thinking about this,” she says.

So which gifs are best avoided? Lizzie says to think before sharing any that change colour or change contrast (from light to dark) very quickly, as well as gifs with psychedelic colours and patterns. Spittles says most people with photosensitive epilepsy are sensitive to 16-25 Hertz, though some are sensitive to rates as low as 3 Hertz or as high as 60 Hertz.

Many might think the onus is on Lizzie and the journalist Eichenwald to change their computer settings so gifs don’t auto-play (Epilepsy Action has guidance on how to do this). Nonetheless, Lizzie believes it is imperative for people to think before they share a gif, and Epilepsy Action is now working with Twitter to improve reporting procedures should any targeted attacks occur in the future. In the meantime, Lizzie simply asks for a safer, less ableist internet experience. “We have a responsibility in our communication online to make it as accessible as possible,” she says.  

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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