Back to the Moon? Trump’s Statement Rouses Spaceheads

moon mission
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When President Donald Trump mentioned “other worlds” in his speech to a join Congress this week, the space community started buzzing.

“American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” said Trump at the end of his speech.

According to PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O’brian a manned mission could take place in 2019, as “all of a sudden there is wide agreement in the space community [the moon] might be the next step.” The mission may take the form of “learning how to live there on a sustained basis” — ie, a manned encampment.

A traditional barrier to space missions has been the large cost. NASA’s budget is around 19 billion, and the Army’s budget for space is around $40 billion, and analysts are considering ways these two organizations could borrow from each other in a force multiplier relationship, making it possible to make a moon mission with reduced costs to the country.

The private sector is also increasingly interested in the moon. SpaceX also is continuing to push toward commercial voyages. Elon Musk’s company announced a tourist trip for two people around the moon before.

Image: Foster + Partners/ESA

Young People Like Big Government, Pew Finds

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According to a recent report by Pew Research, young people are more often in favor of big government that provides a lot of social services.

Pew’s research found that Americans from 18-50 are around 55% in favor of bigger government. Those over 50 and under 65 are the least in favor of bigger governments, and those over 65 also are more often in favor of smaller governments, but not as much as the 50-64s.

Who else prefers bigger governments? Relatively speaking, women, those with highschool education or less, and those with less than $30,000 in family income. Also, Republicans and Conservatives fairly strongly favor small government, while Liberals and left-leaning individuals strongly favor bigger government.

Confirmed This Week: Earth Has a “Second Moon”

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About Earth’s New Little Moon

After putting in its time, an asteroid called “Asteroid 2016 HO3” has now been confirmed by NASA to be a permanent resident in the Earth’s gravitational field.

The asteroid was discovered earlier this year by University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, but it has been a “stable quasi-satellite” for almost 100 years.

Asteroid 2016 HO3 is between 120 and 300 feet in diameter (40-100 meters). The asteroid poses no threat of hitting the Earth, and will never come closer than 14 million kilometers (9 million miles) from our planet.

(For point of comparison, the average distance to the moon is less than 400,000 km.

Asteroid 2016 HO3 orbits the Earth somewhat similarly to our regular moon, but in an uneven pattern in which the rock drifts ahead of the Earth for a couple years as both orbit the sun, before the Earth’s gravity pulls the rock back and it falls behind the Earth for a few years. The relationship between the Earth and the asteroid has been likened to a dance.

Image: Paul Chodas, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Inflatable Space Module Set For ISS Mission

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Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable BEAM module — a new lightweight activity module, part of Bigelow’s continued endeavors toward putting into use a wide range of portable expandable habitation spaces, including the living-and-working-space BA-330 (pictured above) — has been scheduled for a March NASA mission to the space station.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be sent to the space station in the SpaceX Dragon capsule, and will be berthed to the space station’s Tranquility node. It will then be pressurized and expand to its full size with air stored in the compressed module.

BEAM will then be monitored through a test period of two years. Astronauts will periodically enter the module to inspect it and gather performance data.

After the test period, BEAM will be jettisoned and will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, burning up.

BEAM and SpaceX Dragon Capsule show scaled to human figure (Image: Bigelow Aerospace)

Bigelow Aerospace is working with NASA to produce expandable systems, including habitational systems, and has already completed two succeful missions with its Genesis pathfinder I and II spacecraft — missions noted for their relatively low-cost.

The low cost comes from the low weight of the Bigelow constructions — one-tenth the weight of some similar modules. Improvements in craft weights have come in large part from advances in lightweight, strong materials such as Kevlar.

The BEAM module walls are made of many layers of Vectran, a material similar to Kevlar but made of spun liquid crystal fibers, and fire-resistant Nomex.

Space modules
Space modules linked in Bigelow development lab (Photo: Bill-Ingalls/NASA)

The Nevada-based company is working towards a standalone space habitat in addition to its current module projects. A large expandable module is already being developed by Bigelow — three times the size of any individual module on the ISS, the BA330 is designed for a maximum crew size of six in its 330-meter square environment. The BA330 is designed to be used in conjunction with other modules to build larger module complexes in space.

By Andy Stern

Some images of future BEAM modules

Octopuses Turn Black, Posture Aggressively To Intimidate Each Other

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A recent study of octopuses off the coast of Australia has discovered that — despite usually being considered a solitary animal — octopuses have a social life, and part of that social life involves physical displays of toughness.

When octopuses meet each other in agonistic interactions, they exhibit certain types of behavior, researchers at the Alaska Pacific University found.

“We found that octopuses are using body patterns and postures to signal to each other during disputes,” said David Scheel of Alaska Pacific University.

“The postures and patterns can be quite flashy, such as standing very tall, raising the body mantle high above the eyes, and turning very dark.”

The impetus for the research came from a member of an online cephalopod community noting something he’d seen octopuses doing that he thought was interesting. The researchers took it from there, watching 186 interactions between Octopus tetricus — a species that lives in Jervis Bay, Australia — which furnished them with 500 interactions.

The agonistic behavior was what they noticed primarily.

When both octopuses turned black, it was more likely they would engage in physical violence to settle the question of dominance, but when one turned black and the other was a pale color, the pale colored octopus more often retreated while the black octopus held the field.

“Dark color appears to be associated with aggression, while paler colors accompany retreat,” said Scheel.

Next for the researchers is further investigation of octopus interactions — specifically, they want to investigate suspicions that social interactions among the species occur when food is abundant and hiding places scarce. They also want to understand the consequences of these types of social interactions in the context of octopus populations.

The report, “Signal Use by Octopuses in Agonistic Interactions,” was completed by Drs. David Scheel, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Matthew Lawrence, and was published in the journal Current Biology.

By Andy Stern

Venus Flytraps: Scientists Discover How They Work

Venus Flytraps
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An accumulation of action potentials is behind Venus Flytraps’ “decision” to keep closed and start producing digestive enzymes once their trap sensors are triggered, scientists at Universität Würzburg have found.

“The carnivorous plant Dionaea muscipula, also known as Venus flytrap, can count how often it has been touched by an insect visiting its capture organ in order to trap and consume the animal prey,” said Rainer Hedrich of Universität Würzburg in Germany.

The researchers wanted to understand how Venus Fly traps decide to close and how they decide they have something to digest. After all, the researchers noted, closing their traps around an object and filling with digestive enzymes is biologically costly, and sometimes their sensors are triggered by stimuli that are not prey at all — “false alarms.”

The researchers sought to test this by implanting artificial sensors in a Venus Flytrap. The sensors are thin spikes that stick out of the inside of the plant’s interior walls. They then flicked the sensors to cause the plant to close. When the scientists continually flicked the sensors, the plant became excited and began to produce the acidic digestive bath that fills their closed lobes.

By means of accumulated action potentials, the plant understands that what it has caught is in fact a struggling insect. It also understands the size of the insect by the number of the sensors it triggers.

Fruit fly

“The number of action potentials informs [the plant] about the size and nutrient content of the struggling prey,” Hedrich said. “This allows the Venus flytrap to balance the cost and benefit of hunting.”

To eat, the scientists concluded, a Venus Flytrap requires at least five contacts with its sensors. The second trigger closes the plant, the third and further triggers activate touch hormones and begin the production of digestive enzymes, and the fifth begins the uptake of nutrients.

The report, “The Venus Flytrap Dionaea muscipula Counts Prey-Induced Action Potentials to Induce Sodium Uptake,” was completed by Böhm and Scherzer et al, and was published in the journal Current Biology.

By Andy Stern

Agricultural Researchers Propose Agri-CERN, Europe-Wide Community Of Shared Research And Equipment

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ECOFE (European Consortium for Open Field Experimentation), a network of agricultural resources at various locations around Europe, has been proposed by a group of scientists in order to do for agricultural science what CERN has done for nuclear research.

The organization would be a community of research stations across Europe — from an outpost in Sicily to a field in Scotland. Among the benefits looked forward to by the researchers behind the project are the ability to study a wide range of soil properties, atmospheric conditions, and temperatures, and, prospectively, the ability to finance more expensive equipment, which would be shared.

For example, open-field installations that allow researchers to study the effects of artificially elevated levels of carbon dioxide, would be a shared cost and a shared tool.

“Present field research facilities are aimed at making regional agriculture prosperous,” said co-author Hartmut Stützel of Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. “To us, it is obvious that the ‘challenges’ of the 21st century–productivity increase, climate change, and environmental sustainability–will require more advanced research infrastructures covering a wider range of environments.”

The benefits of community research are also associated with potential downsides: researchers would have to sacrifice some of their scientific autonomy in order to focus on targeted research goals.

“It will be a rather new paradigm for many traditional scientists,” said Stützel but I think the communities are ready to accept this challenge and understand that research in the 21st century requires these types of infrastructures. We must now try to make political decision makers aware that a speedy implementation of a network for open field experimentation is fundamental for future agricultural research.

The report is titled “The Future of Field Trials in Europe: Establishing a Network Beyond Boundaries.” It was completed by Drs. Stutzel, Nicolas Bruggermann, and Dirk Inze, and was published in the journal Cell.

By Andy Stern

Chimpanzees Require “Trust” Of Friends

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Chimpanzees played the trust game to find out the basis of individual preference for other chimps

Trust is the foundation of close relationships in the world of chimpanzees, according to anthropologists at Max Planck Institute.

“Humans largely trust only their friends with crucial resources or important secrets,” said Dr. Jan Engelmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. “In our study, we investigated whether chimpanzees show a comparable pattern and extend trust selectively toward those individuals they are closely bonded with. Our findings suggest that they do indeed, and thus that current characteristics of human friendships have a long evolutionary history and extend to primate social bonds.”

Previous studies of chimpanzee friendships had shown that the animals were attracted to sociable partners for friendships, and that they extended their favors to those they preferred. The Max Plank researchers wanted to know if the basis for this preference was “trust.”

Research situation of chimps
Research situation of chimps

In order to find out, the researchers spent five months at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya. They set up an arena where the Sweetwaters chimps could play “the trust game” — a game in which two separated chimpanzees get to decide if their partner gets a delicious treat or a less savory one. The partner in turn has the opportunity to share some of their treat back with the one who pulled the rope that opened the door to the treat.

The best case scenario is considered to be that the chimp with the rope will provide the other with the tasty treat, and the other will share some with the first chimp.

Before the researchers put the chimps in the experimental setting, the researchers observed the chimpanzee group to decide for each chimp which other animal was their favorite and least favorite. These two would be paired up against the first chimp in the game.

Each chimp played 12 rounds of the game with each their favorite and least favorite group member.

The result was that chimps were ” significantly more likely to voluntarily place resources at the disposal of a partner, and thus to choose a risky but potentially high-payoff option, when they interacted with a friend as compared to a non-friend.”

The researchers interpreted this finding to mean that chimpanzees show much greater trust when it comes to friends than non-friends.

“Human friendships do not represent an anomaly in the animal kingdom,” Engelmann said. “Other animals, such as chimpanzees, form close and long-term emotional bonds with select individuals. These animal friendships show important parallels with close relationships in humans. One shared characteristic is the tendency to selectively trust friends in costly situations.”

The report, “Chimpanzees Trust Their Friends,” was completed by Drs. Jan Maxim Engelmann and Esther Herrmann and was published in the journal Current Biology. View the research paper at this link.

By Andy Stern

New $7 Million XPrize Competition Aims To Explore Oceans

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On Monday, the XPrize Foundation announced its latest competition: the $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize, which aims to map the ocean floor in high resolution, and find sources of pollution autonomously. Teams will test their technologies in two rounds at two separate undisclosed locations, mapping a 500 square kilometer area of ocean floor in high resolution at depths of 2, and 4 kilometers; winners will receive a grand prize of $4 million.

An additional $1 million will be awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to teams that have technology capable of “sniffing out” specified objects through biological and chemical signals. Xprize claims that such technology could also help us learn about our own history, and find medical advancements to currently fatal diseases.

The competition was designed to create better maps, and expand our present knowledge of the oceans, as they are currently 95% unexplored, and remain as one of Earth’s last mysteries. We have mapped the moon, Venus, and Mars, all in much higher resolution than our own oceans. It is also estimated that two thirds of species in the ocean remain to be discovered.

Each of the 25 teams will try to create new, relatively low cost technology that can map the ocean floor, and identify archaeological, Biological, and geological features. Each team must prove their robotics can function efficiently at a depth of 2 and 4 kilometers, where there is no sunlight, high pressure, and temperatures below freezing. A bonus $1 million will go to any team that can make technology that can track chemical and biological signatures to find objects. Such technology could lead to many other discoveries and inventions, as well as helping to find sources of human-caused pollution and slow global warming.

Unlike land, the sea floor can’t be mapped in high resolution by satellite, since radar waves don’t pass through water. Satellites rely on precisely measuring the height of the ocean, and when enough data is collected, scientists can calculate the differences in the ocean surface caused by the landscape below the surface. This technology has given us a full map of the ocean to a resolution of 5 kilometers, which allows us to see the largest features, such as ocean trenches; leaving us with plenty of room for discovery under the water that covers two-thirds of our planet. We’ve mapped the entire surface of the moon at a resolution of 7 meters, and most of Mars and Venus at 100 meters.

XPrize is hopeful that the competition will usher a new era of ocean exploration, and help to better humanity through future innovation from it. The competition is the third of five multi-million dollar ocean based challenges to be created by 2020. The 10 year XPrize Ocean Initiative was created to address critical challenges in ocean exploration and technology; with the goal to make the oceans “healthy, valued, and understood”.

By Tony Simpson

Sources: The VergeOcean Discovery Overview

Best Meteor Shower — Colorful Geminids — This Weekend

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The Geminids — “the King of Meteor Showers” — will rain down around 100 to 150 multi-colored slow-moving streaks per hour this weekend, visible from anywhere, but the best views will be for those in the Northern Hemisphere.

The show will peak over the night of Sunday, December 13 — between midnight and morning with the highest activity between 2 and 3 a.m. There should be some meteors visible already at sunset, though. While the meteors will radiate from the southwest, there is no particular part of the sky where viewers need to focus their attention because the shower will be so high.

The Gemenids are famous not only for the frequency of meteors, but also their slow movement and the varied colors which are produced by the different chemical compounds burning in the sky.

The Gemenids are a relatively young shower — first observed 150 years ago. They originated from the 3200 Phaeton asteroid — one of only two major showers not originating from a comet.

By Andy Stern

Bacteria Engineered With Synthetic Circadian Clocks

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Many of the body’s processes follow a natural daily rhythm or so-called circadian clock, so there are certain times of the day when a person is most alert, when the heart is most efficient, and when the body prefers sleep. Even bacteria have a circadian clock, and in a December 10 Cell Reports study, researchers designed synthetic microbes to learn what drives this clock and how it might be manipulated.

“The answer seems to be especially simple: the clock proteins sense the metabolic activity in the cell,” says senior author Dr. Michael Rust, of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology.

“This is probably because cyanobacteria are naturally photosynthetic–they’re actually responsible for a large fraction of the photosynthesis in the ocean–and so whether the cell is energized or not is a good indication of whether it’s day or night,” he says. For photosynthetic bacteria, every night is a period of starvation, and it is likely that the circadian clock helps them grow during the day in order to prepare for nightfall.

Dr. Michael Rust
Dr. Michael Rust

To make their discovery, Rust and his colleagues had to separate metabolism from light exposure, and they did this by using a synthetic biology approach to make photosynthetic bacteria capable of living on sugar rather than sunlight.

“I was surprised that this actually worked–by genetically engineering just one sugar transporter, it was possible to give these bacteria a completely different lifestyle than the one they have had for hundreds of millions of years,” Rust says. The findings indicate that the cyanobacteria’s clock can synchronize to metabolism outside of the context of photosynthesis. “This suggests that in the future this system could be installed in microbes of our own design to carry out scheduled tasks,” he says.

In a related analogy, engineers who developed electrical circuits found that synchronizing each step of a computation to an internal clock made increasingly complicated tasks possible, ultimately leading to the computers we have today. “Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to use synthetic clocks in engineered microbes in a similar way,” Rust says.

[youtube id=”LgaH2KYLfeo” align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”550″]

Other researchers have shown that molecules involved in the mammalian circadian clock are also sensitive to metabolism, but our metabolism is not so closely tied to daylight as the cyanobacteria’s. Therefore, our bodies’ clocks evolved to also sense light and dark.

“This is presumably why, in mammals, there are specialized networks of neurons that receive light input from the retina and send timing signals to the rest of the body,” Rust explains. “So, for us it’s clearly a mixture of metabolic cues and light exposure that are important.”

The bacteria that live inside of our guts, however, most likely face similar daily challenges as those experienced by cyanobacteria because we give them food during the day when we eat but not during the night. “It’s still an open question whether the bacteria that live inside us have ways of keeping track of time,” Rust says.

The report, “Controlling the Cyanobacterial Clock by Synthetically Rewiring Metabolism,” was published in Cell Reports.

By Kevin Jiang

First Look At How Astrocyctes Function In Humans

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Pretty much everything happening in the brain would fail without astrocytes. These star-shaped glial cells are known to have a critical role in synapse creation, nervous tissue repair, and the formation of the blood-brain barrier. But while we have decades of data in mice about these nervous system support cells, how relevant those experiments are to human biology (and the success of potential therapies) has been an open question.

In Neuron on December 10, Stanford researchers present the first functional and molecular comparison of human and mouse astrocytes, and while 85%-90% of the genes are similar, human astrocytes have unique genes and respond differently to neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate. This presumably means that, at the adult stage, human astrocytes, in contrast to mouse astrocytes, are better at detecting neuroactivity and adjusting their functions in response.

“We are only beginning to understand the unique properties of human astrocytes,” says first author Ye Zhang, a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Neurobiology. “We found hundreds of genes expressed exclusively by human astrocytes, and future studies will likely reveal additional biological differences. Potentially, this work will help us recognize the role of these cells in biological disorders.”

Astrocyctes (1)
Author Ye Zhang

The study of human astrocytes has faced issues related to access (samples of living tissue must be obtained from brain cancer or epilepsy surgeries or fetal tissue) and purification (breaking apart astrocytes away from other cells often killed them and many experiments ended in failure). Zhang, co-first author and graduate student Steven Sloan, and their faculty mentor, senior author and professor Ben Barres, overcame the technical challenges by developing an antibody-driven protocol that isolates astrocytes and keeps them alive in culture.

This method also allowed the researchers to compare astrocytes in healthy tissue versus those coming from people with glioblastoma or epilepsy. It’s known from mouse studies that astrocytes become highly reactive in these diseases, but what this means remains unclear. Genes that produce both positive and negative effects are expressed during these active periods, and through this study, some of the good and bad genes in humans are beginning to be parsed out. The next step is to screen for drugs that can promote or quell the expression of specific genes.

Another surprising discovery was that astrocytes come in two distinct stages (progenitor and mature) and that early-stage astrocytes and brain cancer closely resemble one another. This brings up the possibility that brain cancer cells that originate from glial cells can be forced into a mature state and thus unable to divide. The authors note that this finding could not have been made without the use of fetal tissue.


“Such knowledge could not have been obtained without access to fetal tissue,” Zhang says. “We can’t guess the biology of human brains and neurodevelopmental disorders just by studying mouse brains.”

With their new method, Zhang and her colleagues hope to soon begin looking at the unique properties of human astrocyte cells in a range of disease types, including Alzheimer’s, ALS, stroke, injury, autism, and schizophrenia.

The report, “Purification and characterization of progenitor and mature human astrocytes reveals transcriptional and functional differences with mouse” was published in the journal Cell.

By Bruce Goldman