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A rocket takes off amid clouds of vapour.

A Long March-5 rocket carrying Chang’e-5 lifts off.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

China’s Moon rock mission is under way

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft successfully lifted off today from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China and is on its way to the Moon. Once there, its mission is to collect material from the lunar surface and bring it back to Earth, a highly technical feat that will be a first for China. Scientists worldwide will be eager to study material from the mission — the first to be collected since the US-Soviet space race — because it will help to clarify for how long the Moon was volcanically active.

Nature | 4 min read

Nature journals reveal open-access terms

Spurred by the open-access (OA) initiative Plan S, publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published. From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper OA in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

Nature | 6 min read

(Nature is editorially independent of its publisher, as is this Briefing.)

Hints of quintessence point at dark energy

Cosmologists say that they have uncovered hints of intriguing twisting in the movement of ancient light across the Universe. The twisting was identified in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background as observed by the Planck space telescope — but the evidence is still tentative. Some researchers have proposed that the twist is produced by a cosmic ‘quintessence’, an exotic substance that pervades the cosmos. The phenomenon could offer clues about the nature of dark energy — the mysterious force that seems to be pushing the cosmos to expand ever-faster. If dark energy is a quintessence, its push on the expansion could slowly wither or disappear, or could even reverse to become an attractive force, causing the Universe to collapse into a ‘big crunch’.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Physical Review Letters paper

Glimmer of hope for biodiversity

Estimates that half of global vertebrate populations have declined over the past five decades might be misleading. Researchers reanalysed data from the Living Planet Index, covering more than 14,000 animal populations. They found that overall estimates are skewed by terrible losses among some 3% of species, mostly among large animals and in the Indo-Pacific region. In some other places, especially northern and temperate regions, things are improving. “There are biodiversity problems. But it is not all declining worldwide nor hopeless,” says ecologist Brian Leung. “Our efforts over the last few decades have not been wasted”.

Cosmos magazine | 3 min read

Reference: Nature paper & WWF and ZSL Living Planet Report

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A man in protective gear holds a vial of liquid up to the nose of a dog.

Research groups around the world are testing whether dogs can detect COVID-19 by smell.Credit: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Dogs can sniff out COVID, maybe

Research groups around the world are training dogs to detect COVID-19 in the sweat of infected people. In various trials, dogs have picked out positive cases about 90% of the time — possibly by smelling volatile organic compounds. Critics warn that the numbers are still too small to justify deploying teams of scruffy sentinels at airports, but further data could make that possible. “This is very accurate, feasible, cheap and reproducible,” says surgeon and researcher Riad Sarkis.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: BMC Infectious Diseases paper

Pfizer, Moderna and the US search for a vaccine

Moderna and Pfizer (along with German research partner BioNTech) seem to have accomplished the remarkable feat of developing vaccines that protect against COVID-19. The established pharma giant Pfizer stayed at arm’s length from the US government. The smaller upstart Moderna took the opposite tack and joined the government’s Operation Warp Speed programme. Top scientists from both companies tell how they faced difficult choices, unbelievable deadlines and political pressure along the road to near-simultaneous breakthroughs.

The New York Times | 16 min read

Notable quotable

“Even after living this, reporting on it, practically marinating in this topic for months, I still don’t know.”

Science journalist and parent Jennifer Couzin-Frankel reflects on difficult decisions about sending children to school during the pandemic. (Science | 10 min read)

Features & opinion

University rankings need a rethink

World league tables for higher education are flawed and poorly used, and they entrench inequity, argues research-management expert Elizabeth Gadd. And the rankings with the largest audiences are doing the worst job, according to an exhaustive evaluation by a working group she chaired. “The consequences are all too real,” notes Gadd. “Talent deterred, income affected. And inequities quickly become embedded.”

Nature | 5 min read

Podcast: Make space for international postdocs

A lack of faculty positions forces many researchers to spend years moving from one temporary contract to another, often internationally. But that can rob countries of talented researchers, particularly if they leave for good. The Working Scientist podcast investigates how brain drains and demographic time bombs are forcing some countries to rethink the postdoc.

Nature Careers Working Scientist podcast | 19 min listen

The first withdrawal from the Svalbard seed bank

In 2015, scientists from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) became the first (and so far the only) depositors to make a withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The ICARDA staff had been forced to abandon their seed bank in Tel Hadia, Syria, because of the civil war. Before they did, they shipped most of its holdings — around 116,000 samples — to the facility on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Over the past 5 years, they’ve successfully grown seeds from more than 100,000 of their original samples in new ancillary operations in Morocco and Lebanon, replenishing the vault’s shelves and distributing seeds to researchers and farmers.

Wired | 9 min read

Reference: Nature Plants paper