News from Space: “Life” Molecules Detected in Space!

SagitariusB2The secret to the creation to life in our universe appears to be seeding – the proper elements in the right mix in the right places to form the right kind of molecules. Only then can these molecules evolve chemically into more and more complex structures, thus following a general pathway toward biology. The pathway for life as we know it starts with carbon, but one which is specific organized and structured.

Recently, a team of astronomers  at the ALMA Observatory reported the discovery of this very element while probing distant galaxies. What they found was not just interstellar carbon, but a form of carbon with a branched structure. The discovery was made in the gaseous-star forming region known as Sagittarius B2 – a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust that is located about 390 light years from the center of the Milky Way.

radio-wave-dishesSimple carbon chains aren’t particularly unusual in the cosmos, but complex carbon is a different matter. It is what the researchers, based at Cornell University and the Max Planck Institute, describe as finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack. The actual molecule in question is isopropyl cyanide, and it was discerned thanks to the miracle known as radio astronomy.

Within clouds of interstellar dust and gas, elements find themselves shielded from the harsh radiation of open space and are, thus, free to form into more complex arrangements. These molecules don’t just sit there, but instead move around within their cloud-homes and bump into each other. The result of this activity are radio signals which can be detected light-years away – in this case, by radio telescopes here on Earth.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseEvery molecule has a different radio signal, so it’s possible to pick apart the contents of interstellar junk by examining a cloud’s frequency spectra. NASA, via the Ames Research Center, even maintains a radio-emission frequency database to aid in the tracking of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of molecule thought to contain much of the universe’s carbon stockpiles.

The branching carbon structure of isopropyle cyanide is of particular interest because it’s thought that this arrangement is a step on the way to the production of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and hence organic life. The discovery gives weight to the increasingly popular notion that life, or at least many of the key steps leading toward life, actually occurs off-planet.

alien-worldLife on Earth may have been well on its way while the planet was still just space dust waiting to come together into our rock-home. What’s more, the molecules discovered by the ALMA team probably aren’t alone.  As the authors, led by astronomer Arnaud Belloche, wrote:

[Isopropyle cyanide’s] detection therefore bodes well for the presence in the [interstellar medium] (ISM) of amino acids, for which such side-chain structure is a key characteristic… This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the [interstellar medium].

The discovery follows a general progression in recent years adding more and more life-ingredients to our picture of the ISM. A 2011 study revealed that complex organic matter should be created in large volumes from stars, while a 2012 report study found that conditions within the ISM are uniquely suited to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, “step[s] along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively.”

sugar-in-space-molecules_58724_990x742Also in 2012, astronomers working for ALMA found basic sugar molecules hanging out in the gas cloud around IRAS 16293-2422 – a young star located some 400 light-years from Earth. The particular form, glycoaldehyde, is thought to be a key component of the reaction behind the creation of DNA. Indeed, more and more, the universe is looking less and less like a harsh environment in which life must struggle to emerge, to a life factory.

Source: motherboard.vice.com

Ending Cancer: Cell-Phone Sized Cancer Detector!

ISEF2012-Top-Three-WinnersThe name Jack Andraka is already one that researchers and medical practitioners are familiar with. Roughly a year ago, the 16-year old boy developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal forms of the disease and one of the most difficult to treat. And given that his method was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost, it’s title wonder why he’s considered something of a wonder kid.

Well, it seems boy genius is at it again! Shortly after receiving first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Andraka assembled a crack team of young scientists and began working on a handheld, non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. Much like Scanadu, the company that recently release a sensor for testing vitals, Andraka and his team were looking to create a genuine tricorder-like device.

Tricorder X_prizeAnd while their group – known as Generation Z and which was formed from the other 2012 finalists – is working towards such a device, Andraka presented his own concept at this year’s ISEF. Apparently, what he built is modeled on a tradition raman spectrometer –  a device that can be used to detect explosives, environmental contaminants, and cancer in the human body.

A conventional raman spectrometer is extremely delicate, can be as large as a small car, and cost up to $100,000. By contrast, the one designed by Andraka costs only $15 and is the size of a cell phone. According to Andraka, a raman spectrometer works by “[shooting] a powerful laser at a sample and tells the exact chemical composition.” Such a device also relies on a liquid nitrogen cooled photodector to examine the chemical composition of whatever material is currently being examined.

Those powerful lasers alone can cost up to $40,000, so Andraka swapped out the big lasers for an off-the-shelf laser pointer and replaced the photodetector with an iPhone camera. According to Andraka, the results are comparable, at a fraction of the size and, more importantly, the cost. So once more, the boy genius has presented medical science with a cheap, effective means of early detection, something which could save lives and millions in health care costs.

Tricorder XAndraka admits that this device was pretty much all his, but he plans to incorporate it into the tricorder design that he and his colleagues in Generation Z are developing. Once realized, the resulting device will be competing for the Tricorder X Prize – a ten million dollar grant that is given to any entrant that can create a handheld mobile platform that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in just three days.

But of course, they will have some stiff competition, not the least of which will come from Scanadu, which just happens to have the backing of NASA’s Ames Center.  But then again, the world loves an underdog. And when it comes to medical devices, cancer, and other diseases of the body, its clear that Andraka and his peers are just getting started!

And be sure to check out this video with highlights from the 2013 ISEF:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com(2)

News From Space: Meteors Hits Saturns’ Rings

Saturn_with_aurorasFor some time, scientists have been aware of the fact that Earth, the Moon, and every body in our Solar System is subject to impacts by meteors, asteroids and comets. And sometimes, on rare occasions, we get to watch it happen, and its a pretty spectacular sight.  Now, for the first time ever, the Cassini spacecraft has provided direct evidence of small meteoroids crashing into Saturn’s rings.

In addition to being a pretty spellbinding site, studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system presents scientists with the opportunity to study how planets in our Solar System are formed. This is due to Saturn’s rings, which act a very effective detector of surrounding phenomena, including the interior structure of the planet and the orbits of its moons.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, spoke on record about the observed impacts:

These new results imply the current-day impact rates for small particles at Saturn are about the same as those at Earth — two very different neighborhoods in our solar system — and this is exciting to see. It took Saturn’s rings acting like a giant meteoroid detector — 100 times the surface area of the Earth — and Cassini’s long-term tour of the Saturn system to address this question.

asteroid_belt1In the past, changes in the disposition of Saturn’s rings indicated that impacts were taking place. One such example came in 1983, when an extensive corrogation of 19,000 km (12,000 miles) across the innermost rings told of a very large meteoroid impact. And after the Saturnian equinox back in summer of 2009, astronomers were able to detect a great deal of debris left behind by several meteoroids striking the rings.

However, as Matt Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist at Cornell University explains, this was the first time the impacts were observed directly:

We knew these little impacts were constantly occurring, but we didn’t know how big or how frequent they might be, and we didn’t necessarily expect them to take the form of spectacular shearing clouds. The sunlight shining edge-on to the rings at the Saturnian equinox acted like an anti-cloaking device, so these usually invisible features became plain to see.

Comet1What’s more, Tiscareno and his colleagues were also to come up with some rather new and interesting theories about Saturn itself and how it came to be. Jeff Cuzzi, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist specializing in planetary rings and dust at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains:

Saturn’s rings are unusually bright and clean, leading some to suggest that the rings are actually much younger than Saturn. To assess this dramatic claim, we must know more about the rate at which outside material is bombarding the rings. This latest analysis helps fill in that story with detection of impactors of a size that we weren’t previously able to detect directly.

Meteoric impacts and asteroids have been taking place since the formation of our Solar System. In addition to having a serious impact (no pun) on the formation of the planets, they have also played a prominent role in the evolution of life here on planet Earth. And with the expansion in space exploration afforded to us by space probes, satellites, and planetary rovers, we can expect to witness more of these events firsthand.

Source: universetoday.com