Space Organizations Join the Hunt for Malaysian Jet

malaysia_missingplaneThe disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, now into its eighth day, remains a mystery to investigators and the families of those who traveling aboard her. Since March 7th when it was first declared missing, the search for wreckage or any trace of what might have happened has produced little in the way of results or explanations, prompting numerous governments and private organizations to commit more in the way of technology and resources.

According to a report from the BBC, these have included the use of 42 sophisticated ships and 39 high-tech aircraft combing the waters according to the BBC. For example, listening devices are being lowered into the water to pick up the “ping” of the black box, and sophisticated MH60 Seahawk helicopters from the United States are employing Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) cameras that arm the searchers with night vision.

malaysia_plane_searchThis past Monday,  a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, along with parent company DigitalGlobe, launched a campaign to enlist the help of citizens to scour satellite images to search for the plane. On the following day, China followed that up by activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The goal of this charter is to enlist space data from 15 member organizations to provide assistance in the case of a “natural or technological disaster.”

The charter describes such a disaster as:

a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances.

malaysia_satimageNow that the charter has been activated, space scientists around the planet will enlist all available satellites to gather images from the suspected area in which flight MH370 disappeared. Upon activation, data normally starts coming in within 24 hours. The hope is that one of those images will pick up something that can direct search and recovery efforts, either by showing a crash sight or showing some trace of wreckage.

The charter has been activated 400 times in its history, but Tuesday represents the first time it was called into service to look for a missing aircraft. The only other transportation-related event for which it’s been used was to assist in gathering data after a train full of dynamite exploded in North Korea on April 23, 2004. It was most recently activated on February 13 to help with monitoring the Mount Kelud volcano explosion on the Indonesian island of Java.

malaysia_plane_seaPrior to all that, the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was used exclusively to monitor flooding, forest fires, snowfalls, cyclones, oil spills and other damaging events around the world. It was also used to assist in recovery efforts from earthquakes, including the one that rocked Japan in March 2011 and caused a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.

The charter, which began after Vienna’s Unispace III conference in 1999 with three agencies, has grown to its current membership of 15 organizations, with the Russian Federal Space Agency being the most recent to join in 2013. Other member organizations include the European Space Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and China’s National Space Administration. The US member organizations include the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With this latest commitment of resources, technology and personnel, perhaps the world may finally know what took place aboard Malaysian flight MH370, and the families of those aboard her can finally get some peace of mind.

Sources: news.cnet.com, bbc.com, theguardian.com

 

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

3D Printed Androids, Embryonic Stem Cells, and Lunar Housing

Alpha Moon Base at http://www.smallartworks.ca
Alpha Moon Base at http://www.smallartworks.ca

It’s no secret that in recent years, the technology behind 3D printing has been growing by leaps and bounds, and igniting a lot of imaginations in the process. And it seems that with every passing day, new possibilities are emerging, both real and speculative. Some are interesting, some are frightening, and some are just downright mind-blowing. Consider this small sampling of what’s emerged most recently and decide for yourself…

First off, it now seems that there is a design for an android that you can download, print and assemble in the comfort of your home – assuming you have access to a 3D printer. Designer Gael Langevin, who calls his project InMoov, has spent the last year perfecting the concept for a voice-controlled android that can be constructed from parts generated by a 3D printer. And not only that, he has made the entire project freely available via open source so that any DIY’er can print it on their own.

Starting with the android’s right hand, Langevin’s idea quickly took off and morphed into a the full-body concept that is now available. Designing the bot with Blender software and printing it on a 3D Touch using ABS plastic as the material, the end product is a fully animated machine that responds to voice control and can “see” and hold objects. And as you can see from the video below, it looks quite anthropomorphic:

Then came the announcement of something even more radical which also sounds like it might be ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel. Just yesterday, a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland announced that they used a new printing technique to deposit live stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. This is a step in the direction of using stem cells as an “ink” to fashion artificial organs from a 3D printer, which is their ultimate goal.

3dstemcellsThe process involves suspending the cells in a “bio-ink,” which they were then able to squeeze out as tiny droplets in a variety of shapes and sizes. To produce clumps of cells, they printed out the cells first and then overlaid those with cell-free bio-ink, forming spheroids, which the cells began grouping together inside. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which – depending on the size of the spheroids – could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

In short, this technique could one day be used to print out artificial tissues, such as skin, muscles and organs, that behave like the real thing. It could even serve to limit animal testing for new drug compounds, allowing them to be tested on artificially-generated human tissue. According to Jason King, business development manager at Roslin Cellab and one of the research partners: “In the longer term, [it could] provide organs for transplant on demand, without the need for donation and without the problems of immune suppression and potential organ rejection.”

ESA_moonbaseAnd last in the lineup is perhaps the most profound use proposed for 3D printing yet. According to the European Space Agency, this relatively new technology could turn moon dust into moon housing. You read that right! It seems that a London-based design firm named Foster+Partners is planning to collaborate with the European Space Agency to build structures on the Moon using the regolith from the surface.

The process is twofold: in the first step, the inflatable scaffolding would be manufactured on Earth and then transported to the Moon. Once there, a durable shell composed of regolith and constructed by robotically-driven 3D printers would be laid overtop to complete the structures. The scheme would not only take advantage of raw materials already being present on the lunar surface, but offers a highly scalable and efficient model for construction.

3dmoonbaseShould the plan be put into action, a research expedition or colony would first be established in the southern polar regions of the Moon where sunlight is constant. From there, the scaffolding and components of the printing “foundry” would be shuttled to the moon where they would then be assembled and put to work. Each house, once complete, would be capable of accommodating four people, with the possibility of expansion should the need arise. For now, the plan is still in the R&D phase, with the company looking to create a smaller version using artificial regolith in a vacuum chamber.

Impressed yet? I know I am! And it seems like only yesterday I was feeling disillusioned with the technology thanks to the people at an organization – that shall remain nameless – who wanted to print out “Wiki-weapon” versions of the AR-15, despite the fact that it was this very weapon that was used by the gunman who murdered several small children in the town of Newton, Connecticut before turning the weapon on himself.

Yes, knowing that this technology could be creating life-saving organs, helpful androids and Lunar housing goes a long way to restoring my faith in humanity and its commitment to technological progress. I guess that’s how technology works isn’t it, especially in this day and age. You don’t like what it’s being used for, wait five minutes!

Source: IO9.com, ESA.int, Popular Science.com, Foster and Partners.com

Volcanoes on Venus?

venus_terraformIn spite of the challenges posed in studying the planet Venus – see dense clouds of sulfuric acid and surface temperatures in excess of 480 degrees C – scientists have learned quite a bit in recent years from orbiting spacecraft about the planets atmosphere and surface.

For example, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express made an interesting discovery that made the news recently. In short, since its arrivals in 2006, it detected has a sharp decline in atmospheric sulfur dioxide (SO2) concentrations, which followed in the wake of a spike in SO2 concentrations.

The most plausible explanation for this, according to Emmanuel Marcq, is a volcanic eruption, caught in the act. Marcq is the lead author on the report detailing this occurrence, which appeared in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience. A volcano is not the only possibly, he admits. “We know that on Earth there are long-term atmospheric cycles,” he says. “So it could happen on Venus as well. We can’t dismiss this possibility at the moment.”

Venus_Maat_MonsBut of course, volcanoes are much more likely. Not only are they the a known source of SO2 (at least on Earth), the surface of Venus is also peppered with volcanoes and its surface is marked by extensive volcanic activity. Most of these are extinct, but evidence obtained over the past few decades have indicated that there may be some that are still active.

For example, back in the early 1980’s Pioneer Venus documented SO2 levels nearly 50 times higher than anyone expected, followed by a steady dramatic decline. Then in the early 1990’s, the Magellan spacecraft detected what appeared to be fresh lava. “It’s very similar to the one we’re observing now,” said Marcq.

Naturally, this sort of activity is one of the things that makes Venus such a rosy place to live! In addition to the runaway Greenhouse Effect that has turned its atmosphere into the carbon choked, acidic stuff of death, its surface is prone to recurring lava flows and hot magma. Naturally, it will be quite the feat to land a satellite on the surface to conduct research in the same way that we currently do Mars. And as for terraforming, which has also been proposed, that too will be quite the challenge!