Thursday, August 10, 2017

Cell regeneration like you have never seen!


This topic is not my usual fare as I am a Space Geek of the highest degree, but it was so cool I just had to share!


There is new device developed at Ohio State University that starts healing your organs (even brain injuries) in mere minutes. Consider stroke injuries – well that was completely repaired and the brain function was restored in a mouse. And that is not it! It can restore any type of tissue. 


Current methods are less than desirable, one reason, because they introduce a virus and then complete a bunch of steps in order to possibly help you out. Basically when you have missing or malfunctioning genes you would be given a virus that would carry the genetic cargo into the cells – this was developed because it was ground breaking at the time. Actually the method has been updated to sometimes use what is called Hybrid methods which act via inactive HIV or Influenza virus. There are literally dozens of different viral envelopes for any genetic changes as viruses bind to their host and introduce their genetic material into the host’s replication cycle; thus spreading throughout as quickly as possible. It’s really quite genius and sort of like hacking the body’s mainframe. 

          But this new ‘breakthrough’ technology is incredibly promising. It breaks down to reprograming cells, live, while the body keeps on living.  As a matter of fact, it does not require a hospital, a lab, actually, it can be handled in the field. Good news particularly to those who suffer from strokes as not only would it repair but lessen the amount of damage caused!

               So what does the process involve? Well, while it’s not much, it does sound a little futuristic. Take a square chip about the size of a fingernail and place it on the skin. Add a droplet that contains the genetic code. Now, zap it with a power source. All done! This methodology turns skin cells into any type of cell the body needs. This has limitless potential! Think of it – a wounded limb on a soldier in the field but the enemy has them trapped. No problem let the healing begin. A stroke experienced out in the boondocks and far from a hospital. What about repairing a damaged heart?

               The technology is known as Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT). To date it has only been utilized on mice. So repair times might differ. For instance injured legs of mice were completely repaired during a three week time frame: Same time frame for restoring brain function in a mouse who had suffered a stroke.

     Oh – and it has been used on pigs. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland they expressed interest and so repeated the leg-healing process but on pigs.

               Now you knew this was too good to be true, right? Well, here’s the catch. It must be utilized within 72 hours of the injury. Simple enough, right?


               Currently it is waiting on FDA approval but is expected to be tested on humans within the year.


               *You know something else that is working out well? Stem cell research. They have been able to take victims who are paralyzed from the neck down and by introducing some stem cells give them back some of their dignity – movement from their arms to their neck. There may be more it can do. Research seems to indicate that it is important when the injury happen. Check it out online!*


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

SATURN’s Titan – Life (almost) always finds a way!

When it comes to alien life, maybe you want to start in ALMA and then perhaps proceed to NASA’s Cassini, check in with their scientists to see what theories they have. Of course while I’m speaking specifically Saturn’s of Titan: I’m pretty sure you can apply that to almost anywhere.


Let’s start with ALMA. What’s ALMA? The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Where is it? Chile's Atacama desert, the driest place in the world, important because almost every night is clear of clouds and free of light-distorting moisture and that is important because it is a huge array – consisting of 66 twelve meter & seven meter in diameter radio telescopes. These are then able to observe at the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths.


ALMA is able to provide insight regarding local stars & planets and their makeup. ALMA is an international partnership between Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile and has been operational since 2013. 


Let’s zoom out. Titan is Saturns largest moon. About the size of Mars with a nebulous atmosphere. It’s atmosphere is made up mostly of Nitrogen, a touch of organic carbon based molecules, some CH4 and C3H6. Guess what? Scientists believe those ingredients are similar to the one’s Earth had in its primordial days.


Scientists say that the conditions on Titan are not actually conducive to our way of life. Cold, as it is rather far from the Sun, with liquid Methane raining onto its solid icy surface. This forms all sorts of lakes and rivers and seas of hydrocarbons – which (it is believed) create C2H3CN/vinyl cyanide. Vinyl cyanide when linked together forms membranes which have features that resemble the lipid based cell membranes of living organisms on Earth.


So between the old data at ALMA, Cassini’s infrared scans and laboratory mock-ups of Titan’s atmosphere one arrives at the decision that Titan may be home to life of some sort.


If you have any doubts – think of our Water-bear, or as it is more formally known, the Tardigrade; an extremophile that can live though just about anything. And that’s on Earth. Who is to say that normal life, for Titan, couldn’t find a way? 


**FYI – though many say Titan is rough and as you can see by my description of it, maybe it is, it also has a lot of things that make me want to go there – the first of which being its gravity. An architect might go wild on Titan and you or I might esadily fly/glide from the 18th floor!


Thursday, July 27, 2017

GRAVITY TRACTOR–not yet Driving to an Asteroid Near You

Back in 2005 an interesting concept was tossed into the ring to protect us against that overdue asteroid. You know the one that’s going to either send us back to the dark ages or end it all mercifully. 

Well, to date it is still no more than a theoretical spacecraft that will theoretically assist us in deflecting an incoming asteroid if theoretically we see it coming.

What made me think of it was that the series SALVATION currently on TV as they tried to make use of it. (We have to wait and see what happens in the next installment, but I have my doubts. The first or second option in a movie/series so rarely works out!)

But what about the real gravity tractor – what’s the problem?

Easy, actually, the gravity tractor is (theoretically) able to tow an object (asteroid or other sort) by simply hanging out close by where its own gravitational pull then acts on it to push the object on a different trajectory. All this while maintaining a constant and stable trajectory of its own, one that neither runs into the asteroid nor forces the tractor to come out of its orbit.

Essentially, the gravity tractor tows an asteroid out of the way by hovering close by using its own slight gravitational pull to push an object into a different trajectory. The vehicle’s thruster would have to maintain a stable direction that they neither push the tractor into the asteroid nor do they cause the tractor to come out of orbit.

The idea for a gravity concept comes from a 2005 paper from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (written by Stanley Love & Edward Lu). Granted in theory the idea is a good one but there are also many limitations. 

First is the need to meet it far from Earth. If you wish to deflect an asteroid that is on an impact course than you need to change its trajectory; unfortunately any spacecraft we send out to greet it is not likely to have enough mass to have a major effect on the object. (Keep in mind that gravity is the curvature of space time due to mass/energy.) Therefore for any change in trajectory to make a real difference (i.e. the difference between hitting the Earth & well, not.) then it has to be sent out to meet the object when the object is truly far from us and since the likelihood of it being discovered is more alarming than one might think. With the large ones, not so difficult but this can’t be used for them (not enough mass) and with the little ones, not so much. Think of all the asteroids you hear about for the first time that perhaps are going to pass closer to the Earth then, well, the one that passed closer than ever to Earth the last time (usually not that much earlier.)

So, how many times could we hurry up in 2017 to keep an asteroid from hitting us in 2019? Umm, we can’t. Say we did see it and have the time; we don’t have anything that can get there that fast, at least not yet.

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second. 

Sadly, it seems that the best technique to prevent the destruction of Earth from an asteroid is scenario-dependent. The velocity, size, make-up of the asteroid (or other object) and distance from us all become factors in the solution. But what about the NEOs (Near Earth Objects)?

Don’t be fooled by the name Near Earth Object. To qualify one only need be an object whose orbit brings one into proximity of Earth. It is considered ‘a solar system body’ and the definition of that is any NEO whose closest approach to the Sun is less than 1.3 astronomical units (120,806,516.91 miles or 194,477,231.858 kilometers).

A portion of the NEOs may be in orbits that are hard to reach unless we find them many years to decades in advance of impact – which NASA has a number of asteroids where they have mapped out their trajectory years in advance to make sure they are not on an eventual impact path.  There are many forms - some asteroids are no more than groupings of rubble, and thus rather difficult to “push on” without breaking them up further, others might be coherent monolithic bodies.  There are those that never make it to the surface of Earth thanks to our awesome atmosphere and so  emergency response planning would be the proper response.

So limits in our speed to travel out to meet the asteroid and limits in our ability to affect its trajectory if its mass is too high for our gravity tractor to influence, plus we have to locate the threat in time…We have a way to go to be fully Asteroid-proof, hopefully we get there in time!


Sunday, July 16, 2017


"I can't put a date on humans on Mars," chief of human spaceflight at NASA said in 2015 speaking at the Humans to Mars summit. He was referring to the budget they receive and how the 2% just budgetary increases (for inflation) haven’t allowed NASA the surface systems available for Mars. But that was 2015. Surely the 2016 election fixed that? Not so far. During a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics in July of 2017, William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate  acknowledged that the agency doesn't really have the funding it needs to reach Mars.

For the last five years or so, NASA has sold the public on a Journey to Mars, a grand voyage by which the agency will land humans on the red planet during the 2030s. With just budgetary increases for inflation, the agency said, it had the resources for humanity's next great step, to land crews safely on Mars, and to bring them home. The agency's new rocket, the Space Launch System, and spacecraft, Orion, were sold by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as the vehicles that would get the job done.

The expectation was that although the Trump administration would be shutting down several areas of analysis – you know because Climate Change is a hoax, extra monies would be going into the Mars & Moon programs/space exploration. Apparently not. Great, so we aren’t going to fix the problems of maybe not breathing in the future, BUT we also aren’t going to get off this planet if the funding doesn’t increase. Pardon me, but we’re screwed!

Last Bastion of hope -

Of course, there is another option, SpaceX. Well, and any of the other private space organizations – Blue Horizon, United Alliance, and its looking like we might be able to add MoonExpress to the list, we shall see. The reusability of SpaceX will certainly help the cost, but we are the number one space faring nation in the world; it speaks volumes as to American Pride. We like to shout we’re number one, but apparently don’t want to put our money where our mouth is! It would seem that Vice President Mike Pence has been rather insistent about increasing commercial partnerships at NASA AND that is a plus. If instead of our sending the space-crafts, we could support both monetarily and with our rover and orbiters, especially the robot that builds lading pads! – “The truth is that American business is on the cutting edge of space technology," according to VP Pence.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

DOOMSDAY AVOIDANCE – NASA has a plan of attack

NASA is putting its technology where much of ours fears lie. Taking off sometime in 2024, the idea is to have a satellite slam into an approaching asteroid. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, the plan is to have it deliberately crash into an asteroid (using all sorts of sophisticated equipment to aid in this – onboard navigation software, a special onboard camera…) The DART spacecraft will be utilizing NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (known for short as the NEXT-C). Developed at the Glen Research Center located in Cleveland Ohio, NEXT-C offers electric propulsion which enables DART to have a wider launch window and results in decreasing the cost of the launch vehicle as well. 


The purpose is to demonstrate asteroid deflection – a technique for planetary defense. ALSO taking part in the entire demonstration is AIM – an ESA spacecraft that will arrive at the chosen asteroid many months before DART’s planned impact. FYI- the chosen asteroid for impact is Didymos’ small companion, ‘Didymoon’, or so it has been nick-named. Expected to be observed is a change in the orbit of this moonlet around its parent though before the fateful impact, observation of the binary asteroid (first such observation ever) with high-resolution imagery of the surfaces as well as measurements, densities and shape(s).

The AIM spacecraft will monitor the impact/planned collision (from a safe distance) and measure the momentum transfer, resulting plume and ejected material and more. AIM will also deploy its little buddy, MASKOT-2 (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) which is expected to characterize Didymoon before, during, and after the impact. AIM will also be the first spacecraft to demonstrate interplanetary optical communications. (Meaning : communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices.)

Didymos, the parent-larger asteroid, is a binary asteroid. Binary asteroid just means it is a system of two asteroids. You may recall that many years ago it passed the Earth, rather closely I might add, and was then found to be both the size of a stadium AND to have a small moon approximately 230 feet across orbiting it.

Yes it is smart to check this plan out on a smaller asteroid and yes perhaps then we can use this plan on a larger and threatening asteroid. 

Composition of an asteroid, distance from Earth and other characteristics make up the many areas to look at. DART may not offer a solution for all of them but certainly some. Unfortunately we also need to develop a method for a much larger & closer asteroid coming from, for instance, the Sun’s direction.

Still, this is an awesome project/mission and 2024 is on my calendar!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Man Made Northern Lights will light up the coast!! 

Three months to build & plan a launch – sound incredible? Sound hard to believe? Sound Rockets…

Sounding rockets are the vessel for some pretty cool things. A Sounding Rocket handles things for educational purposes or tests or just scientific instruments into space along a parabolic trajectory. The time spent in space is usually quite brief – from 5 to 20 minutes and usually at lower speeds to allow for accuracy. Actually Sounding rockets are especially helpful as some altitudes are just too low for satellites but provide a platform that is just right for the Sounding rocket.  For at least 45 years the Sounding Rocket Program has given us critical scientific, technical, and educational contributions and as a result is one of the most varied and cost-effective flight programs at NASA.
However it is sometimes these lower altitudes that make finding a proper launch window tricky. Take the launch NASA Wallops has been scheduled now for a total of ~8-9 times and that amount is quickly growing. The launch requires, especially in this particular case, a clear sky but also can’t have too great of a wind.
What is this launch? Well first let me tell you why if you live on the Eastern Seaboard (USA) up to New York, you need to watch the skies the night of the launch. It really is going to be quite awesome. The science studies of this particular mission relate to the ionosphere and auroras. Interested yet? 
The flight is a two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket. While it flies it will release into the ionosphere about ten small canisters maybe the size of a soda can. The cans will be released about 5 minutes from the launch time – actually between 4 and 5.5 minutes, and will form vapor tracers to allow researchers on the ground to visually track particle motions in space. 
Now this won’t be a long lasting event. The total flight time expected is only ~10 minutes. The rest would rely on the winds and other outside variables. However NASA ground cameras will be picking up the event from both Wallops and Duck, NC.

Barium, Strontium, and Cupric-Oxide are the contents of the cans and are not harmful so suggest no hazard to the residents – so just enjoy the show.
To be honest, when I first learned of this launch I read how it was to study an aurora and thought ‘don’t we know all there is to know about Auroras?’ – Well, okay, my first thought was cool I want to see this but my second thought was: aren’t auroras created up in the magnetosphere from charged particles in the solar wind (basically just electrons & protons)? I seemed to recall that the resulting ionization/excitation of the atmospheric contents results in bands of varying colors (depending on the elements involved). It usually occurs at the poles but occasionally a geomagnetic storm might enlarge the ‘auroral oval’. I’ll admit most of this portion is from memory and one of my high school science class’ but point being I didn’t think there was anything to learn.
Seems scientists are hoping to track gas particle movements within the clouds they create and test some imaging technologies. So, the answer is yes, and no. Yes we understand most that there is to know of auroras but also this experiment is also to look into some aurora imaging technologies. And besides…it’s bound to look really cool!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Head to Space; heads come back!

 (Photo Credit: Junji Morokuma, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University)

If I were to take this story and run with it there are so many directions I might go. Funny thing is, everyone would say I’d stopped writing hard science fiction and gone for fantasy.

Still – this topic caught me off guard and so I had to share it with you!


So here goes with just the facts…

In January of 2015 some planarian (planarian refers to the genus) flatworms were placed in tubes which contained half water and the other half, air. (generally planarians are marine though some are terrestrial) The flatworms were launched to the ISS, thanks to SpaceX, but with some slight changes to them. Half of the flatworms had parts of their body sliced off. That is not a big a problem as one might think as flatworms do usually have the capacity to regenerate their bodies. 

An equal group of planarian flatworms with the same disabilities enacted were left here on Earth.

Fast forward to six weeks later (the worms were returned in 5 weeks but…) and while there were other results, the coolest or oddest result – depends how you look at things, was that one of the worms that had been decapitated had yes, regenerated his head but on each end. In other words yes his head had been removed and in 5 short weeks he had grown two more to replace it. AND when those two heads were then sliced off, both grew again indicating that the enhanced regeneration was permanent. 


Other changes? The space-worms now underwent some odd sort of fission where the split their bodies in two which would make each one create another identical worm. Another change of interest? As previously mentioned, flatworms or planarians are mostly marine – either salt or fresh water. The space-traveling flatworms when put in spring water post space became partially paralyzed/immobile and it took about two hours before they returned to normal.

The worms that stayed home did not undergo any similar changes.

Granted finding the double-headed mutation was kinda cool, but the point of the study was to see if the worm’s regeneration patterns were changed in space.

There are many tests I would plan next and I am sure that they have. Such as now send up something that doesn’t regenerate under the same circumstances (amputated heads etc.) and see what happens? Do they now regenerate (that might be a neat side effect!) or does whatever special trait they have - get changed/more intense perhaps?

You see where I’m going right? This takes on an almost comic book origin story…or the beginning of a fantastic journey!