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

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

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