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Snow chains deployed on NAIPTA buses with the flip of a switch

When you think of a gadget that gives a vehicle more traction at the press of a button, it may sound like something out of a James Bond movie, but such devices are now being used by Flagstaff's Mountain Line buses. 

The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA) has equipped most of its buses with the Insta-Chain automatic chains system, devices that, with the flip of a switch, can deploy chains onto the wheels of their buses.

“It’s a game-changer,” said NAIPTA operations director Jim Wagner, adding that this may keep buses from getting stuck at a far lower rate.

NAIPTA CEO Erika Mazza agreed and said they have been in need of such devices for some time, having previously tried simply using studded tires or snow tires with limited results.

Particularly, the agency has been looking for such a solution ever since the Coconino National Forest changed the rules for vehicles that travel Snowbowl Road, requiring the use of either chains or four-wheel drive on all vehicles making the trek during winter weather conditions, Mazza said.

This change presented a problem for NAIPTA that has provided service to Arizona Snowbowl for the past four years.

This is because, due to their low floors, buses generally can’t use traditional tire chains, Wagner said.

But this is not a problem with the Insta-Chains, Wagner said, and they allow drivers to deploy them only when needed before retracting them to reduce wear.

Generally, Wagner said, buses are heavy enough that they actually drive fairly well in most snowy conditions.

Problems only arise when buses are forced to stop at the bottom of, or while ascending, a hill. When a vehicle ahead of the bus, trying navigate the winter conditions itself, forces the bus to come to a stop, this is often the reason buses become stuck, Wagner said.

And while the bus may have had an easy time climbing the hill normally, getting it going in the snow from a standstill can be difficult.

This is where the chains come in. With them installed, all the driver needs to do is flip a switch and the chains are deployed onto the wheels. The bus can then use the extra traction to get moving again before the driver then retracts the chains.

Before these chains, when buses got stuck, it would also mean sending out either a service vehicle, or often another bus, to pull out the stuck vehicle and get it moving again, Wagner said.

Now free from being forced to do this as often, Wagner said the chains are “saving us manpower and service time.”

Mechanics and the service team don’t have to leave the garages as often providing them more time to service the fleet. Since the chains have been installed before the last two snowstorms, they have only had two buses need be unstuck.

As a result, Mazza said the chains allow them to be more efficient with the resources that they have.

The improvements are not free however, with it costing about $1,200 to equip each of the buses with the chains.

Currently, the chains are on all 23 of NAIPTA’s non-articulated buses, although they are looking at ways of equipping the six articulated buses with the chains as well as their smaller transit buses that make door to door trips, Wagner said.

Wagner added, however, that he has not heard of any transit agency that has been able to attach the devices to articulated buses like the ones they use.

Trump says 'not much headway' in talks as shutdown drags on

WASHINGTON — White House officials and congressional aides emerged from talks aimed at ending a partial government shutdown over President Donald Trump's demands for border wall funding without a breakthrough Saturday, though they planned to return to the table today.

Trump tweeted: "Not much headway made today." Democrats agreed there was little movement, saying the White House did not budge on the demand for $5.6 billion and would not consider re-opening the government.

The White House said funding was not discussed in-depth, but the administration was clear they needed funding for a wall and that they wanted to resolve the shutdown all at once.

Accusations flew after the more than two-hour session led by Vice President Mike Pence. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in an interview with CNN's "State of the Union," accused Democrats of being there to "stall." Democrats familiar with the meeting said the White House position was "untenable."

A White House official also said the meeting included a briefing on border security by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Democrats sought written details from the Department of Homeland Security on their budget needs, which the White House said it would provide.

With talks stalled, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that House Democrats plan to start approving individual bills to reopen shuttered departments starting with Treasury to ensure Americans receive their tax refunds.

"While President Trump threatens to keep the government shut down for 'years', Democrats are taking immediate further action to re-open government, so that we can meet the needs of the American people, protect our borders and respect our workers," Pelosi said.

Mulvaney argued the administration was willing to deal in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," set to air today. He said Trump was willing to forgo concrete wall for steel or other materials.

"If he has to give up a concrete wall, replace it with a steel fence in order to do that so that Democrats can say, 'See? He's not building a wall anymore,' that should help us move in the right direction," Mulvaney said.

The president has already suggested his definition of the wall is flexible referring to slats and other "border things." But Democrats have made clear they see a wall as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed upon levels.

Trump campaigned on the promise that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico refused. He's now demanding the money from Congress. Trump, who did not attend the discussions, spent the morning tweeting about border security.

Showing little empathy for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed or working without pay, Trump declared — without citing evidence — that most are Democrats. He also asserted: "I want to stop the Shutdown as soon as we are in agreement on Strong Border Security! I am in the White House ready to go, where are the Dems?"

One Democrat, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, said in his party's weekly radio address that the shutdown "is part of a larger pattern of a president who puts his personal whims and his effort to score political points before the needs of the American people. ... He is pointing fingers at everyone but himself."

Trump and Democratic leaders met for roughly two hours Friday, but gave differing accounts of the session. Democrats reported little progress; Trump framed the weekend talks as a key step forward.

As the shutdown drags on, some Republicans are growing increasingly nervous. Some GOP senators up for re-election in 2020, including Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, voiced discomfort with the shutdown in recent days. Collins tried to broker deals to end past stalemates.

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina penned an op-ed for The Hill, arguing that Congress should end the shutdown and make a deal on border security and immigration reforms.

In calling on Trump to reopen government while negotiations on border security continue, Democrats emphasized families unable to pay bills due to absent paychecks. But Trump repeatedly said he will not budge without money for the wall.

Trump asserted on Friday that he could declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, but would first try a "negotiated process." Trump previously described the situation at the border as a "national emergency" before he sent active-duty troops. Critics described that as a pre-election stunt.

Trump said the federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay would want him to "keep going" and fight for border security. Asked how people would manage without a financial safety net, he said: "The safety net is going to be having a strong border because we're going to be safe."

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NAU faculty help discover “Farout,” most distant solar system object seen

The final part in a three-part series on NAU research.

Just one week before Christmas, a team of astronomers including Northern Arizona University scientist Chad Trujillo and graduate student Will Oldroyd confirmed the discovery of the most distant solar system object ever observed, 2018 VG18, nicknamed “Farout,” at 120 astronomical units (AU).

Farout, a pinkish, likely spherical object, exists well beyond Pluto, which sits at 34 AU, where 1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the sun, or approximately 93 million miles. The second-most distant observed object in the solar system is Eris, a dwarf planet located at 96 AU that Trujillo also co-discovered.

Trujillo told NAU News, “It goes to show that there is a lot more to be explored — right now, even with all the achievements in telescope technology, we are barely scratching the surface of what might be in the outer fringes of our solar system.”

The NAU scientist worked with Carnegie Science’s Scott S. Sheppard and the University of Hawaii’s David Tholen on the discovery. In October, the same team also discovered dwarf planet 2015 TG387, nicknamed “The Goblin” because its observation occurred near Halloween. The Goblin is located at 80 AU.

Little is currently known about Farout, except basic properties.

“Its brightness suggests that it is about 500 kilometers in diameter, likely making it spherical in shape and a dwarf planet. It has a pinkish hue, a color generally associated with ice-rich objects,” Carnegie Science reported.

To confirm the initial observation, taken with the Japanese Subaru telescope in Hawaii on Nov. 10, a second observation was performed at the Magellan telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile about a month later.

Oldroyd, a doctoral candidate of NAU’s Astronomy and Planetary Science program, traveled to Chile to take part in two nights of observations of various solar system objects using the Magellan telescope. Farout was the most notable, though, he said.

Program development

NAU President Rita Cheng said the university’s undergraduate astronomy program is one of the best ranked among its peers and is aligned with the culture and needs of the region.

Years ago, university administrators noted the success of the astronomy department -- complemented by Flagstaff’s rich history of astronomical progress and partnerships with Lowell Observatory -- and hoped to expand its potential with faculty help.

“We asked them, ‘If you had a few more faculty and you had a Ph. D. program, what could you accomplish?’” Cheng said.

Faculty members were asked to identify colleagues throughout the county who might be able to join them at NAU. This strategic hiring process -- completed with successful research groups across the university, not just those in astronomy -- led to a larger, more competitive group of faculty and the creation of the graduate program in which Oldroyd is now involved.

“When I was hired, I knew that, strategically, we could hire some really quality people, support them and allow them to do the work that we are now seeing them accomplish,” Cheng said.

Oldroyd said, even in the short time he has been at NAU, research opportunities have been abundant.

“Recently, several new professors have been hired to help increase the depth and to broaden the research topics of the department,” he said. “I’ve already had lots of opportunities in the last several months to join several different projects to learn more about the solar system.”

Coding the stars

In a field largely dependent on what can be observed visually, Oldroyd says skills like coding are essential. In his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University, he modeled different systems to calculate objects’ interactions with each other and predict their future positions, a useful tool for astronomical observations. He started his graduate studies at NAU in August because of his interest in Trujillo’s outer solar system research.

Oldroyd encourages others to get involved with coding because of its widespread applications.

“Coding experience is extremely important nowadays. In basically every science field you can excel if you know how to code,” he said.

More to discover

Farout is just one example of the seemingly-endless scientific advancements being made around the world and at research universities like NAU. These advancements will lead to additional progress in disciplines of all types, for use in better understanding and adapting to the universe and its many mysteries.

“There’s plenty more in our solar system to discover,” Oldroyd said. “We’ve found something farther away than we ever have before, so there must be more out there.”