News From Space: Curiosity’s Latest Photos

curiosity_sol-177-1April was a busy month for the very photo-talented (and photogenic) Curiosity Rover. In addition to another panoramic shot of the Martian landscape – which included Curiosity looking back at itself, making it a “selfie” – the rover also managed to capture a night-sky image that captured two minor planets and the Martian moon of Deimos in the same picture. At a time when Curiosity and Opportunity are both busy on long-haul missions to find evidence of life, these latest pictures remind us that day-to-day operations on Mars are still relevant.

The first shot took place on April 20th (Sol 606), when rover scientists used the Mast Camera to capture the minor planets of Ceres and Vesta, as well as the moon of Deimos, in the same frame. Ceres is a minor planet with a diameter of about 950 km, and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 563 km, Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt. Deimos, meanwhile, is the smaller of Mars’ two moons, with a mean radius of 6 km.

curiosity_nightskyIn the main portion of the new image (seen above), Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. In other camera pointings the same night, the Curiosity’s camera also imaged Phobos and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are shown as insets on the left.  Dr Mark Lemmon from Texas A&M University, a Curiosity team member, explained:

this imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season… The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.

Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars, Vesta and Ceres in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth’s full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a 0.25 second exposure.

Curiosity_selfieAs for the latest in Curiosity’s long-line of panoramic self-portraits, this one comes to us courtesy of Jason Major. As a graphic designer and amateur space explorer, Major assembled the picture from about the dozen or so images acquired with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). In the background, one can see the 5.5-km-high (3.4 miles) Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.

One thing that Major noted about the picture he assembled is the way the cylindrical RUHF antenna and the bit of the RTG that is visible in the lower center seem to form a “toothy (if slightly dusty) grin”. But, as he stated:

…with almost 21 Earth-months on Mars and lots of discoveries already under her robot belt, Curiosity (and her team) certainly have plenty to smile about!

And the best is likely to still be coming. As we speak, Curiosity is making its way towards Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive there sometime in August. As the primary goal in its mission, Curiosity set off for this destination back in June after spending months studying Glenelg area. She is expected to arrive at the foot of the mountain in August, where she will begin drilling in an effort to study the mountain’s vast caches of minerals – which could potentially support a habitable environment.

mountsharp_galecraterIf Curiosity does find evidence of organic molecules in this cache, it will be one of the greatest scientific finds ever made, comparable only to the discovery of hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge, or the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains. For not only will we have definitive proof that life once existed on Mars, we will know with some certainly that it may again someday…

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet. And in the meantime, keep on trucking Curiosity!

Sources: sci-news.com, universetoday.com

News From Space: “Rosetta Stone” Meteorite Lands in Ontario

meteorite_st.thomasA search is underway in the small community St. Thomas, Ontario for a rare meteorite that may prove to be a major scientific find. That’s what the Canadian and NASA researchers believe, and they are urging local residents to comb their fields and neighborhoods for one or more of the rock’s fragments. It all began on Tuesday, March 18th at 10:45 p.m., when a fireball streaked across the sky some 75 kilometres above Port Dover, Ont.

The fireball then headed in a westerly direction before vanishing at an altitude of 32 kilometres between Aylmer and St. Thomas. It was widely seen in Toronto, Hamilton, London and other parts of southern Ontario, where skies were clear. Peter Brown, the director of Western University’s Center for Planetary Science and Exploration, estimated the space rock was originally the size of a basketball, which then broke up upon entry.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????His colleague, Western University meteorite curator Phil McCausland, said one or more fragments “about the size of a golf ball or baseball” likely landed about five kilometers north or northwest of St. Thomas. The meteorite from this event is particularly rare and valuable because the fireball was captured by seven all-sky cameras of Western University’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network, allowing researchers to calculate its orbit.

Not only were they able to obtain solid data on the space rock’s orbit, but that orbit itself was special. Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the object spent most of time circling closer to the sun than the Earth, having left its original orbit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter long ago. Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s meteoroid environment office, said only one other meteorite known to have come from that kind of orbit has ever been recorded.

asteroids1As Cooke said during a recent press conference:

This is not your run-of-the-mill meteor fall. This is a very unusual orbit. We’re really interested in knowing what type of object was in this … We won’t know that until we find a piece of it.

According to Brown, this makes each of the meteorite’s fragments something of a “Rosetta Stone”, referring to the famous Egyptian artifact that was the key to translating ancient hieroglyphics. The comparison is not an exaggeration, as the meteor is likely to tell scientists quite a bit about the history of the early Solar System. As he described it:

This is like a poor man’s space probe. It comes to us. It’s going to tell us … what made the Earth, what made the other planets.

st.thomas_meteor1Hence why Brown is asking for the public to help look for the meteorite, which has been described as a rock that looks like it was painted black, and contact the researchers if they find it. The researchers are also interested in hearing accounts from anyone who may have heard a whistling sound “like artillery coming in” or a thud after witnessing the fireball, indicating that it may have landed within a few hundred metres. That may help narrow down the area for the search.

Brown noted that it’s the first time in five years that such a meteor fall has taken place in southern Ontario. The last time researchers issued a callout like this, the meteorite was recovered days later by a member of the public near Grimsby, Ont., where it had crashed through the windshield of an SUV. The fact that this meteorite did not cause injuries or property damage, unlike the one that exploded in the sky over Russia, is also a plus!

Source: cbc.ca

News from SETI: We’re Going to Find Aliens This Century

aliens“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.

And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.

ECIC_2014As he went on to explain, given the sheer size of the universe and the statistical probabilities, the odds that humanity is far more unlikely than the reverse:

There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.

As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.

exoplanet_searchDr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.

Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:

We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.

halosphereConsidering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:

Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.

“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.

william_shatnerAs he explained it, it all comes down to numbers, and the sheer amount of discoveries made in such a short space of time:

I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.

He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.

alien-worldAnd while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.

Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.

In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of

Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet.com, cordis.europa.eu

News From Space: Kepler Finds Many New Worlds!

exoplanets2Late last month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 more exoplanets, nearly doubling the number of planets beyond our Solar System. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems outside of our own, with four of them within their stars habitable zones. It’s the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time, and its all thanks to a new verification technique employed by the Kepler space probe’s scientists.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. What’s more, this latest batch of exoplanets puts the total number of those confirmed from about 1000 to just over 1700 – and increase of 70% that occurred overnight! This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets.

alien-worldJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, had this to say in a press release:

The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results. That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in the same planetary systems. From NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, the Kepler research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.

Kepler78b1The Kepler space probe observes some 150,000 stars and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.

This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses – where the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If more than two large felines are gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.

Kepler-telescope-580x448Jack Lissauer, c0-leader of the Kepler science team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains the difference this process ushers in:

Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds. We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.

Of these planets, the vast majority are small, boosting the number of known small Earth-sized planets by a factor of 400%. Other jumps include a 600% increase is known Super-Earths (or Mini-Neptunes), a 200% boost for Neptune-sized planets, and just 2% for Jupiter-sized planets. The 305 solar systems are also quite similar to our own, with the planets orbiting along a flat plane in tightly-packed, nearly circular orbits.

kepler_graphAs noted, the Kepler scientists confirmed the existence of four planets situated within their solar system’s habitable zone. They are Kepler-174d, Kepler-296f, Kepler-298d and Kepler-309c, are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, and all orbit around M and K stars. Kepler-296f is especially interesting, in that it orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun, and is either a gaseous planet composed of hydrogen-helium, or a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

In the meantime, NASA has released this animated graph (shown above) to put all the discoveries into context. And while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy. The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: IO9, (2), nasa.gov

News from Mars: Updates on Panspermia Theory

PanspermiaFor centuries now, scientists have been toying with the idea that the origins of life may owe a great deal to space borne debris. And with ongoing research in the past few years, the link between Earth and Mars have become increasingly convincing. And a new bit of research out of the University of Hawaii has provided yet another piece of the puzzle by suggesting solar wind plays a major role.

Solar wind – the stream of charged particles consisting mostly of naked protons called H+ ions – permeate our Solar System because they are periodically ejected from the sun. The University paper shows that in an airless environment, typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water, thus allowing water and organic molecules to travel through space in tandem.

asteroid_earthInterestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water in the past, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places. The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks, coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth, is yet another indication that Earth and Mars might be linked.

Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars – a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away – but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.

Comet1One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as the carriers of life and the drivers of the chemistry that created it, due to their energetic impacts. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts.

This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts there was a high level of dust flux in the period before life began to flourish. In addition, the theory could help explain how in the predominantly shadowy areas of the Moon – another airless silicate body – unexpectedly high levels of water have been detected.

resolve_roverNASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples and use them to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself.

All of this is of extreme importance to discovering how life began on Earth, mainly because scientists are still unsure of what makes the process complete. For instance, evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell.

panspermia2Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence.

The Moon or Mars, by contrast, are perfect environments for preserving evidence of the past given their dry and airless nature. And with ongoing research into both planets and our scientific knowledge of them expanding apace, whatever role they may have played in kickstarting life on Earth may finally be learned. This could come in handy if ever we need to do a little kickstarting of our own…

Source: extremetech.com

News From Space: Alpha Centauri’s “Superhabitable” World

alpha_centauri_newsScientists and astronomers have learned a great deal about the universe in recent years, thanks to craft like the Kepler space probe and the recently launched Gaian space observatory. As these and other instruments look out into the universe and uncover stars and exoplanets, it not only lets us expand our knowledge of the universe, but gives us a chance to reflect upon the meaning of this thing we call “habitability”.

Basically, our notions of what constitutes a habitable environment are shaped by our own. Since Earth is a life-sustaining environment from which we originated, we tend to think that conditions on another life-giving planet would have to be similar. However, scientists René Heller and John Armstrong contend that there might be a planet even more suitable in this galaxy, and in the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri B.

alpha_centauriBb1For those unfamiliar, Alpha Centauri A/B is a triple star system some 4.3 light years away from Earth, making it the closest star system to Earth. The nice thing about having a hypothetical “superhabitable” planet in this system is that it makes it a lot easier to indulge in a bit of a thought experiment, and will make it that much more easy to observe and examine.

According to the arguments put forward by Heller, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Hamilton; and Armstrong, of the Department of Physics, Weber State University in Ogden, this planet may be even more suitable for supporting life than our own. It all comes down to meeting the particulars, and maybe even exceeding them.

habitable_sunsFor example, a habitable planet needs the right kind sun – one that has existed and remained stable for a long time. If the sun in question is too large, then it will have a very short life; and if it’s too small, it might last a long time. But the planet will have to be very close to stay warm and that can cause all sorts of problems, such as a tidally locked planet with one side constantly facing the sun.

Our own sun is a G2-type star, which means it has been alive and stable for roughly 4.6 billion years. However, K-type dwarfs, which are smaller than the Sun, have lives longer than the age of the universe. Alpha Centauri B is specifically a K1V-type star that fits the bill with an estimated age of between 4.85 and 8.9 billion years, and is already known to have an Earth-like planet called Alpha Centauri B b.

alpha_centauriBb2As to the superhabitable planet, assuming it exists, it will be located somewhere between 0.5 and 1.4 astronomical units (46 – 130 million mi, 75 – 209 million km) from Alpha Centauri B. All things being equal, it will have a circular orbit 1. 85 AU (276 million km / 172 million miles) away, which would place it in the middle of the star’s habitable zone.

Also, for a planet to sustain life it has to be geologically active, meaning it has to have a rotating molten core to generate a magnetic field to ward off cosmic radiation and protect the atmosphere from being stripped away by solar winds. A slightly more massive planet with more gravity means more tectonic activity, so a better magnetic field and a more stable climate.

 

PlutoHowever, the most striking difference between the superhabitable world and Earth would be that the former would lack our continents and deep oceans – both of which can be hostile to life. Instead, Heller and Armstrong see a world with less water than ours, which would help to avoid both a runaway greenhouse effect and a snowball planet that an overabundance of water can trigger.

Our superhabitable planet might not even be in the habitable zone. It could be a moon of some giant planet further away. Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic hellhole due to tidal heating, but a larger moon that Heller and Armstrong call a “Super Europa” in the right orbit around a gas giant could heat enough to support life even if it’s technically outside the star’s habitable zone.

 

alien-worldAccording to Heller and Armstrong, this world would look significantly different from our own. It would be an older world, larger and more rugged, and would provide more places for life to exist. What water there was would be evenly scattered across the surface in the form of lakes and small, shallow seas. And, it would also be slightly more massive, which would mean more gravity.

This way, the shallow waters would hold much larger populations of more diverse life than is found on Earth, while the temperatures would be more moderated. However, it would be a warmer world than Earth, which also makes for more diversity and potentially more oxygen, which the higher gravity would help with by allowing the planet to better retain its atmosphere.

panspermia1Another point made by Heller and Armstrong is that there may be more than one habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri B system. Cosmic bombardments early in the history of the Solar System is how the Earth got its water and minerals. If life had already emerged on one planet in the early history of the Alpha Centauri B system, then the bombardment might have spread it to other worlds.

But of course, this is all theoretical. Such a planet may or may not exist, and may or may not have triggered the emergence of life on other worlds within the system. But what is exciting about it is just how plausible its existence may prove to be, and how easy it will be to verify once we can get some space probes between here and there.

Just imagine the sheer awesomeness of being able to see it, the images of a super-sized Earth-moon beamed back across light years, letting us know that there is indeed life on worlds besides our own. Now imagine being able to study that life and learning that our conceptions of this too have been limited. What a time that will be! I hope we all live to see it…

 

 

Sources: gizmag.com, universetoday.com

Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.


9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.

antarctic_expedition

10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.

cloning

11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.


And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

Birth of an Idea: Seedlings

alien-worldHey all! Hope this holidays season finds you warm, cozy, and surrounded by loved ones. And I thought I might take this opportunity to talk about an idea I’ve been working on. While I’m still searching for a proper title, the one I’ve got right now is Seedlings. This represents an idea which has been germinated in my mind for some time, ever since I saw a comprehensive map of the Solar System and learned just how many potentially habitable worlds there are out there.

Whenever we talk of colonization, planting the seed (you see where the title comes from now, yes?) of humanity on distant worlds, we tend to think of exoplanets. In other words, we generally predict that humanity will live on worlds beyond our Solar System, if and when such things ever become reality. Sure, allowances are made for Mars, and maybe Ganymede, in these scenarios, but we don’t seem to think of all the other moons we have in our Solar System.

solar_systemFor instance, did you know that in addition to our system’s 11 planets and planetoids, there are 166 moons in our Solar System, the majority of which (66) orbit Jupiter? And granted, while many are tiny little balls of rock that few people would ever want to live on, by my count, that still leaves 12 candidates for living. Especially when you consider that most have their own sources of water, even if it is in solid form.

And that’s where I began with the premise for Seedlings. The way I see it, in the distant future, humanity would expand to fill every corner of the Solar System before moving on to other stars. And in true human fashion, we would become divided along various geographic and ideological lines. In my story, its people’s attitudes towards technology that are central to this divide, with people falling into either the Seedling or Chartrist category.

nanomachineryThe Seedlings inhabit the Inner Solar System and are dedicated to embracing the accelerating nature of technology. As experts in nanotech and biotech, they establish new colonies by planting Seeds, tiny cultures of microscopic, programmed bacteria that convert the landscape into whatever they wish. Having converted Venus, Mars, and the Jovian satellites into livable worlds, they now enjoy an extremely advanced and high standard of living.

The Chartrists, on the other hand, are people committed to limiting the invasive and prescriptive nature technology has over our lives. They were formed at some point in the 21st century, when the Technological Singularity loomed, and signed a Charter whereby they swore not to embrace augmentation and nanotechnology beyond a certain point. While still technically advanced, they are limited compared to their Seedling cousins.

terraforming-mars2With life on Earth, Mars and Venus (colonized at this time) becoming increasingly complicated, the Chartrists began colonizing in the outer Solar System. Though they colonized around Jupiter, the Jovians eventualy became Seedling territory, leaving just the Saturnalian and Uranian moons for the Chartrists to colonize, with a small string of neutral planets lying in between.

While no open conflicts have ever taken place between the two sides, a sort of detente has settled in after many generations. The Solar System is now glutted by humans, and new frontiers are needed for expansion. Whereas the Seedlings have been sending missions to all suns within 20 light-years from Sol, many are looking to the Outer Solar System as a possible venue for expansion.

exoplanets1At the same time, the Chartrists see the Seedling expansion as a terrible threat to their ongoing way of life, and some are planning for an eventual conflict. How will this all play out? Well, I can tell you it will involve a lot of action and some serious social commentary! Anyway, here is the breakdown of the Solar Colonies, who owns them, and what they are dedicated to:

Inner Solar Colonies:
The home of the Seedlings, the most advanced and heavily populated worlds in the Solar System. Life here is characterized by rapid progress and augmentation through nanotechnology and biotechnology. Socially, they are ruled by a system of distributed power, or democratic anarchy, where all citizens are merged into the decision making process through neural networking.

Mercury: source of energy for the entire inner solar system
Venus: major agricultural center, leader in biomaterial construction
Earth: birthplace of humanity, administrative center
Mars: major population center, transit hub between inner colonies and Middle worlds

Middle Worlds:
A loose organization of worlds beyond Mars, including the Jovian and Saturnalian satellites. Those closest to the Sun are affiliated with the Seedlings, the outer ones the Chartrists, and with some undeclared in the middle. Life on these worlds is mixed, with the Jovian satellites boasting advanced technology, augmentation, and major industries supplying the Inner Colonies. The Saturnalian worlds are divided, with the neutral planets boasting a high level of technical advancement and servicing people on all sides. The two Chartrist moons are characterized by more traditional settlements, with thriving industry and a commitment to simpler living.

Ceres: commercial nexus of the Asteroid Belt, source of materials for solar system (S)
Europa: oceanic planet, major resort and luxury living locale (S)
Ganymede: terraforming operation, agricultural world (S)
Io: major source of energy for the Middle World (N)
Calisto: mining operations, ice, water, minerals (N)
Titan: major population center, transit point to inner colonies (N)
Tethys: oceanic world, shallow seas, major tourist destination (N)
Dione: major mining colony to outer colonies (C)
Rhea: agricultural center for outer colonies (C)

Outer Solar Colonies:
The Neptunian moons of the outer Solar System are exclusively populated by Chartrist populations, people committed to a simpler way of life and dedicated to ensuring that augmentation and rapid progress are limited. Settlements on these worlds boast a fair degree of technical advancement, but are significantly outmatched by the Seedlings. They also boast a fair degree of industry and remain tied to the Inner and Middle Worlds through the export of raw materials and the import of technical devices.

Miranda: small ice planet, source of water (C)
Ariel: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Umbriel: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Titania: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Oberon: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Triton: source of elemental nitrogen, water, chaotic landscape (C)

Cassini, MESSENGER, and MOM: A Space Probe Odyssey

Cassini_Saturn_Orbit_InsertionIt had has been a big month in the field of space probes and satellites. Whether they are in orbit around Mercury, on their way to Mars, or floating in the outer Solar System, there’s been no shortage of news and inspirational footage to be had. And it is a testament to the age we live in, where space news is accessible and can instantly be shared with millions of people around the world.

First up, there’s the recent release of Cassini’s magnificent image of Saturn’s rings shining in all their glory. Back in July, Cassini got a good look back at Earth from about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. Known as
“The Day The Earth Smiled”, NASA has spent the past few months cobbling together this picture from numerous shots taken during Cassini’s circuitous orbit around Saturn.

cassini-jupiter-annotatedCassini has always been able to take impressive pictures in Earth’s general direction, but this picture was special since it used the enormous bulk of Saturn to block the usually confounding brightness of the Sun. Cassini, which was launched to survey the outer planets in 1997, captured an absolutely incredible image of both the Earth as a pale blue dot, and of Saturn as a striking, luminous apparition.

As part of NASA’s latest awareness campaign, which tried to get everyday citizens to smile at the sky for the first posed interplanetary photo most of us have ever experienced, the photo captured the halo effect that makes our sixth planet look truly breathtaking. In the annotated version (pictured above), you can also see Venus, Mars, and some of Saturn’s moons.


Next up, there’s the MESSENGER probe, which managed to capture these impressive new videos of Mercury’s surface. As part of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) ride-along imaging campaign, these videos were captured using the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). Even though the original high-res images were captured four seconds apart, these videos have been sped up to a rate of 15 images per second.


The views in each video are around 144-178 km (90-110 miles) across. The large crater visible in the beginning of the second video is the 191-km (118-mile) wide Schubert basin. In related news, there are new maps of Mercury available on the US Geological Survey website! Thanks to MESSENGER we now have the entirety of the first planet from the Sun imaged and mapped.

MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in August of 2004 and established orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011. It was the first man-made spacecraft ever to do so, and has provided the most comprehensive mapping of Mercury to date, not to mention evidence of ice, organic molecules, and detailed conditions on the surface.

India_Mars_Orbiter1And last, but not least, there was the recent launch of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) new Mars Orbiter Mission (aka. MOM). The launch took place on Tuesday, November 5th from the Indian space port located on a small island in the Bay of Bengal. As the nation’s first attempt to reach the Red Planet, the aim of the $70 million mission goes beyond mere research.

In addition to gathering information that might indicate if life has ever existed or could exist on Mars, the mission is also meant to showcase India’s growing prowess in the field of space and to jump ahead of its regional rival (China) in the big interplanetary march. As Pallava Bagla, one of India’s best known science commentators, put it:

In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China. There is a lot of national pride involved in this.

India Mars probeIn addition, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the missionw as designed to stimulate national pride in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis. In recent years, a plunging currency, ailing economy and the state’s seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the last decade.

MOM is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24th, 2014 where it will assume an elliptical orbit around the planet and begin conducting atmospheric surveys. If all continues to goes well, India will the elite club of only four nations that have launched probes which successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

India_Mars_Orbiter2MOM was also the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes that left Earth and began heading for Mars this November. The second was NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which launched on November 18th atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. MAVEN is slated to arrive just two days before MOM, and research efforts will be coordinated between the two agencies.

Much like MAVEN, MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current state and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water were lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state it is in today. In addition to aiding our scientific understanding of the world, it may help us to transform the planet into a liveable environment once again.

For many people, these developments are an indication of things to come. If humanity ever intends to become an interplanetary species, an expanding knowledge of our Solar System is an absolute prerequisite. And in many respects, making other planets our home may be the only way we can survive as a species, given our current rate of population growth and consumption.

Sources: extremetech.com, nasa.gov, universetoday.com, planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov, theguardian.com, www.isro.org

Space Tourism: The World View Balloon

near-space_balloonWhen the Space Age began, some five decades ago, there were many who predicted that commercial space flight would follow shortly thereafter. This included everything from passenger flights into space, orbital space stations, and even space tourism. Naturally, these hopes seem quite naive in hindsight, but recent events are making them seem feasible once more.

Consider Virgin Galactic, a commercial aerospace carrier that will begin taking passengers into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) beginning next year. And there’s Inspiration Mars, a private company that wants to send a couple on a round trip to visit the Red Planet. And now, there’s World View Enterprises, a company that plans to send to start sending passengers on a near-space balloon ride beginning in 2016.

near-space_balloon1Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is a start-up that is looking to entice people into the budding field of space tourism by offering people a chance to get a taste of space without actually going there. Going into space is defined as traveling 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface, whereas their balloon ride will take passengers to a height of 30 km (18.6 miles), where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth

World View Enterprises recently obtained approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US $75,000 a ride, and are projected to begin in 2016. Each flight will consist of two balloon pilots and up to six passengers, which will be contained within a cylindrical capsule that comes equipped with heating and its own air-supply.

near-space_balloon2According to the company’s plan, the capsule – which measures 6 meters in length and 3 in width (approx. 20 x 10 feet) – will be deployed below a parasail (used for recovery) and tethered to a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cubic ft) helium balloon, which will provide the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to 30 km in altitude or Low-Earth Orbit.

Might sound a little dangerous to some, but the FAA has determined that World View’s design meets the engineering and environmental challenges posed by Low-Earth Orbit. They stressed that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, even though it will not exceed altitudes much above 30 km, and assigned it a safety factor of 1.4 – the same as that required of manned space systems.

near-space_balloon5The flight itself is projected to last about four hours, with the ascent taking 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will then remain at an altitude of 30 km for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

That’s comes after, when the capsule is cut off from the balloon and begins to fall towards Earth. Once it gains enough speed, the parafoil will provide sufficient lift to slow the descent and bring the passengers in for a safe, controlled landing. Before touching down, the capsule will deploy a set of skids and lands much the same way a paraglider does.

near-space_balloon4All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points on the space tourism agenda. These include seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and having a view of the planet that only astronauts are ever treated to. That may very well add up to an experience that is as good as being in space without technically getting there.

The only question is, will enough passengers line up for an amazing day’s flight that costs a startling $75K? Only time will tell. One thing is fore sure though. The dream of space tourism appears to finally be upon us, though it is a few decades late in coming. Today’s dreams do tend to become tomorrow’s reality, though they sometimes take longer than expected.

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from World View Enterprises showing their concept in action:


Sources: gizmag.com, fastcodesign.com,